“The Last Suttee”


(notes by
John McGivering)



the poem
[May 10th 2010]


Publication history

ORG Volume 8, page 5274 (listed as Verse No. 393) records first publication in the New York Times of 5 January, 1890, the Pioneer on 11 January and Macmillan’s Magazine for January the same year, under the title "The Ballad of the Last Suttee", by “Yussuf.” (This is a nom-de-plume used by Kipling in his young days on the Civil and Military Gazette and the Pioneer.

The poem is collected in:
See the new (Feb 2010) Bibliography by David Alan Richards for further details.

The theme

A Rajput king dies, his wives mourn and prepare to leap onto his funeral-pyre in the traditional manner but are prevented by the palace guards who close the gates on them. One queen, however, determined to sacrifice herself, disguises herself as a dancing-girl and is permitted to leave the palace on the grounds that she can now seek employment elsewhere. Losing her resolution when she reaches the fire, she asks her cousin, an old 'baron'—see Kipling’s Headnote—to kill her. Not recognising her in her disguise, he does so, praising her for her courage.

Some critical comments

A contemporary view is expressed by F. York Powell in The English Illustrated Magazine for December 1903, reprinted in Kipling, the Critical Heritage Ed. R L Green ( p. 282):

Neither Tennyson nor (as I think) Browning) could write a good ballad, but Mr. Kipling can. ‘Fisher’s Boardinghouse’, ‘The Bolivar’, ‘The Last Suttee’ and ‘Danny Deever’, for instance are real ‘little epics’. For the full, rich, rolling verse in which he excels, perhaps the best are ’The Last Chantey’, ‘The Dirge of Dead Sisters"...
Powell continues with a list that would probably cause controversy which this Editor would prefer to avoid. Interested readers can seek out the article in Green's collection. Bonamy Dobree, published in 1967, observes (p. 215.):

... It is impossible to do more than indicate the immense variety of Kipling’s verse or illustrate how often it verged upon poetry, not only in metre, diction and imagery, but also in subject-matter, in “hieroglyphic suggestion”. “The Last Suttee” might well have become a poem, and so might have some of the later satirical pieces …. One can only be astonished at the wealth of ideas, the invention in form, the apparent ease, the mastery.
(In this context 'hieroglyphic' means 'having a hidden meaning'; 'symbolic', 'emblematic'.)

T.S. Eliot, in A Choice of Kipling’s Verse writes in his Preface (page 35):

What fundamentally differenciates his ‘verse’ from his ‘poetry’ is the subordination of musical interest. Many of the poems give, indeed, judged by the ear, an impression of the mood, some are distinctly onomatopoeic: but there is a harmonics of poetry which is not merely beyond their range – it would interfere with the intention. It is possible to argue exceptions, but I am speaking of his work as a whole, and I maintain that without understanding the purpose which animates his verses a whole, one is not prepared to understand the exceptions ...

...The difference which would turn Kipling’s verse into poetry does not represent a failure or deficiency: he knew perfectly well what he was doing; and from his point of view more ‘poetry’ would interfere with his purpose.
George Orwell enters the fray in his famous essay reprinted in Kipling’s Mind and Art, edited by Andrew Rutherford (Ed.) (p. 70), concluding that Kipling is a 'good bad poet', despite also being vulgar.

Some further Reading




Notes on the text


[Title]

Suttee The rite of widow-burning; i.e. the burning of the living widow along with the corpse of her husband, was practised by people of certain castes among Hindus, and particularly among the Rajput rulers of Rajasthan. The word is from Sanskrit, meaning ‘a good woman’, ‘a true wife’, and thence specially applied ... to the wife who was considered to accomplish the supreme act of fidelity by sacrificing herself on the funeral pyre of her husband. [See Hobson-Jobson p. 878]

Suttee was banned by the British, and Hobson Jobson cites a Resolution of the Governor-General in Council, XVII of 4 December 1829:

A REGULATION for declaring the practice of Suttee or of burning or burying alive the widows of Hindoos illegal, and punishable by the Criminal Courts
Suicide is contrary to various sections of the Indian Penal Code, but Mala Sen in Death by Fire p. x. reports cases of suttee in India as recently as 1987.

Verse 1

hold in this context a castle or other fortified place.

Gungra hill not traced – information will be appreciated.

Rajpoot
(the spelling varies) the rulers of Rajputana, (the country of the Rajputs) also known as Rajwar, the pre-1949 name of the present-day Indian state of Rajasthan. . See Hobson-Jobson, p. 754. Also Charles Allen p. 247, and Letter II in “Letters of Marque” in From Sea to Sea.

women’s wing
the zenana, the part of a house where the women of the family are kept in seclusion. See Hobson-Jobson, p. 981. This is Purdah, from the Persian parda, a curtain; see Hobson-Jobson p. 744. See also the Indian chapters of The Naulahka.

Verse 2

cressets Fire-baskets, mounted on poles.

Ulwar ( now Alwar) city and administrative headquarters of Alwar District in the state of Rajasthan, India, some 100 miles (160 km) south of Delhi and once the capital of the princely state of Alwar or Ulwar in British India.

Tonk a town in Rajasthan state, India, 60 miles (some 100 km.) from Jaipur, near the right bank of the Banas River.

jezail (from Pashto) an Afghan matchlock or flintlock musket fired from a forked rest. See also “Arithmetic on the Frontier”.

Mewar also known as Udaipur Kingdom, a region of south-central Rajasthan state in western India, a Rajput kingdom that became a princely state under the British.

headstall part of the harness of a horse

Marwar also called Jodhpur region; part of southwestern Rajasthan state in western India.

mail in this context armour

Verse 3

Golden Room there is a Golden Room in the City Palace, Udaipur. but Kipling does not seem to have seen it. See Letter VI “Letters of Marque” in From Sea to Sea; and Letter VIII for the death of a king, and a dancing-girl who commits suttee.

screen dividing the women's quarters from the rest of the palace.

Boondi (Bundi) city in the Hadoti region of Rajasthan state in northwest India, with ornate forts, palaces, and lakes.

the death she might not share suttee - see above.

Verse 4

death-fire probably a chain of signal beacons to bring news of the king’s death.

Malwanow the State of Madhya Pradesh in Central India.

Abu Mount Abu, the highest peak in the Aravalli Range of Rajasthan state in Western India. See From Sea to Sea, vol. 1, p. 9.

scars in this context precipitous craggy parts of mountain-sides.

zenana (the spelling varies) the women's part of a house or palace.

pyre a fire for burning a corpse

Verse 6

the turn in this context probably a ‘dog-leg’, a sharp angle to prevent attackers firing up the tunnel leading from the fort to the gate..

dovecot a structure for housing doves – here an analogy for the zenana, the women's quarters.

Verse 7

Azizun a legendary courtesan, a dancing- girl from Cawnpore (Later Kanpur), who fought in the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857; her fate is not known.

Lucknow the capital city of Uttar Pradesh in India, scene of a famous seige during the Sepoy Rebellion in 1857.

nautch a form of Indian dancing. (See Hobson-Jobson p. 620) Ralph Durand writes (p. 41) in 1914: Nautch girls belong to a low claas, and instead of being secluded inzenans ... go to one house or another as their professional services are required. Should, however, a man adopt one as his concubine, he would seclude her in his house.

wild boar a member of the pig family - Sus scrofa.

Verse 11

Luni A river in Western Rajasthan state, India; rising in the Pushkar valley of the Aravalli Range, near Ajmer, it ends in the marshy lands of Rann of Kutch in Gujarat,

Jeysulmeer now Jaisalmer, known as "The Golden City", a town in the Indian state of Rajasthan.

Bikaneer (The spelling varies) a town in the desert of the same name in Rajasthan. The Kiplings’ bungalow in Lahore was known as “Bikanir House” as it stood in a dusty compound from which the vegetation had been removed to keep the area clear of disease-bearing insects. (Charles Carrington p. 55.)

Verse 13

a bow-shot a variable distance but perhaps 100 yards or so (some 90 metres)

Verse 17

Thakur Hobson-Jobson (p. 915) has: 'Thakoor (Hindi Thakur) … an idol, a deity. Used as a term of respect, 'Lord', 'Master' &c. but with a variety of specific applications, of which the most familiar is as the style of Rajput nobles. '


[J McG.]

©John McGivering 2010 All rights reserved