[June 20th 2017]
First published in Echoes by Two Writers in Lahore in August 1884, when Kipling, then aged 18, had been in India for nearly two years. It is listed in ORG as No 128.
A grim account of life as one of the ICS (Indian Civil Service) officers who ruled British India, overshadowed by the ever present danger of death from disease or drink or overwork. The only consolation is that the death of one man will mean promotion for his successor.
The poem has a sub-heading "Tennyson", and Andrew Rutherford (p.223) notes that this is a parody of Tennyson's "Vision of Sin" (1842).
Kipling left United Services College in July 1882, and at the end of September sailed for India to start a new life as Assistant Editor of the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore, the main English language newspaper of the Punjab. Still only sixteen, he was plunged into the demanding routine of producing a daily newspaper, learning his trade from an exacting Editor, who was unimpressed by the literary pretensions of his young assistant
... for three years or so I loathed him. He had to break me in, and I knew nothing. What he suffered on my account I cannot tell; but the little that I ever acquired of accuracy, the habit of trying at least to verify references, and some knack of sticking to desk-work, I owed wholly to Stephen Wheeler...I never worked less than ten hours and seldom more than fifteen per diem; and as our paper came out in the evening did not see the midday sun except on Sundays.He was though, sustained by his home life, since he lived with his parents and - later - his younger sister 'Trix'. His father, Lockwood, had been in Lahore for seven years, and was Principal of the Mayo School of Art and Curator of the Lahore Museum. His mother Alice was a highly literate woman who wrote poetry herself. Rudyard had written many poems while at school and had sent them out to his mother, who had published a selection of them the previous year under the title Schoolboy Lyrics.
During 1883 there were periods when his parents were away and he was alone in the house, and stressful times when he was in sole charge of the paper. The summer heat in Lahore was formidable. But in December Mrs Kipling brought out his 15-year-old sister 'Trix' from England, and they embarked on a series of literary games and compositions, which by the Spring of 1884 had generated a great many poems, mainly parodies of established poets. Rudyard was emboldened to publish some of them in an edition of 150 in August 1884 under the title Echoes by Two Writers. (Rudyard's model for the title was Bayard Taylor's The Echo Club and Other Literary Diversions (Boston, 1876), which he knew well.) Thirty-two of them were later collected by Kipling within the Early Verse sections of the Outward Bound, de Luxe, Sussex, and Burwash editions of his works.
Harry Ricketts writes (p. 63)
It is easy to see why Rud found literary parody so appealing. An outsider longing to be an insider, he could show that he at least knew his way around 'the realms of gold', however difficult he might find the realms of India and Anglo-India. Besides, away from the daily drudgery of the CMG, here was an area where he could show off his wit and ingenuity...
Kipling and Tennyson
At this time Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) was the grand old man of English poetry. In 1850 he had become Poet Laureate, and remained so until his death, He had written many enduring works, including "In Memoriam", "The Lady of Shalott", "The Idylls of the King", and "The Charge of the Light Brigade". "A Vision of Sin" had been published in 1842; it traces the effect of indulgence in the grosser forms of sensual enjoyment. At first all is ecstasy and intoxication, then comes satiety, cynicism, pessimism, the drying up of the very springs of life.
In Something of Myself p. 7 Kipling recalls being pleased while at Southsea, by extracts in a magazine from 'poems by A.Tennyson.' He must also have found many of Tennyson's works in the Head's library at USC. See also "The Last of the Light Brigade", and "Fastness", one of the splendid array of later parodies in the first series of "The Muse among the Motors" (1904). .
Ann Weygandt (p. 113) notes that "A Vision of India"
... follows its model fairly closely, paralleling its clauses, and occasionally employing the same rhyme words. but it suggests only "The Vision of Sin", not Tennyson. If we knew Tennyson well, but had never met with "The Vision" the verses themselves would scarcely tell us on whom they were patterned.
Notes on the text
Civilian generally a man not in the armed forces but here specifically a member of the Indian Civil Service, the elite administrators who governed India, some of whom the young Kipling would have encountered in the Lahore Club.
Kill him swiftly Kipling wrote in Something of Myself p. 42, of young men dying 'at the regulation age of twenty-two''. See also "Only a Subaltern", "At the End of the Passage", and "The City of Dreadful Night".
deadly breath cholera, malaria and other diseases were then thought to be carried by 'bad air.' See "Kipling and Medicine" for an account of the many health hazards faced in India.
Civil List the Indian Civil List was a government publication listing all their employees, their appointments and salaries. It was closely scanned by those ambitious for promotion.
upward way the death of a senior man would lead to promotion for the survivors.
a leg 'a leg up' - helping a rider to mount a horse, and also helping another to achieve a goal, in this case, promotion.
Pagoda tree Styphnolobium japonicum a pretty flowering tree native to China but grows well elsewhere. Shaking it implies "getting rich quickly".
It also refers to an old saying "Money doesn't grow on trees" The pagoda is also a gold or silver coin circulating in India from the days of the East India Company. Parranness, in "The Dream of Duncan Parrenness" was paid five Pagodas a month and so was obliged to boost his income by trading on his own account. (Life's Handicap p. 403, line 12).
grub in this context schoolboy slang for 'food.
degiches brass cooking-pots, usually lined with a layer of tin to avoid the unpleasant taste and the acids in food contaminating the metal.
dim-lit balconies discreet corners of the ballroom where couples could enjoy some privacy. See "Pink Dominoes" .
peers equals in rank or social class.
steps a play on words - the tombstones are regarded as steps in rank obtained by deaths of others.
ŠJohn McGivering and John Radcliffe 2017 All rights reserved