"With the Night Mail"

(notes edited by John McGivering)

the story
notes on the text

[August 5th 2020]


This story was first published in the United States of America in McClure’s Magazine for November 1905, and in the United Kingdom in The Windsor Magazine for December 1905; it was collected in Actions and Reactions (1909), Scribners Edition Volume XXIV, the Burwash Edition volume VIII, the Sussex Edition volume VIII, and various Pocket and Uniform Editions over the years. Thre are minor variations in the texts of the magazine publications.

The story

It is the year 2000, and - powered by 'Fleury's Ray' - a host of transatlantic aircraft, most of them lighter-than-air (airships), are flying across the air waves. The narrator is on board a mail plane, en route from London to Quebec. The technicalities of the journey, the expertise of the crew, the radio communications they use, and the international beacons which guide the traffic, are described in impressive detail, until the Night Mail docks safely at its Receiving Tower twenty minutes ahead of schedule.

There then follows a riot of invention; mock “Notices to Airmen” (similar to the Admiralty ‘Notices to Mariners’, which Kipling knew well) with information on world-wide flying conditions, and several pages of advertisements for accessories, spares, job vacancies etc. for the aircraft industry. Reading it in an age in which intercontinental air travel is commonplace, one needs to bear in mind that the first successful powered flight had only taken place two years before, in 1903, and that the first flight across the English Channel was not accomplished until four years after the story was written.


This is another flight of fancy which ORG ( Vol. 6, p. 2826) has treated very seriously, with much important information on lighter-than-air flight and the mechanics of the craft concerned. This Editor, writing in 2006, takes the view, however, that Kipling made this up as he went along, adapting procedures and expressions from existing modes of transport. The result was a very successful essay in Science Fiction, despite Arnold Bennett’s unfavourable comments: 'A glittering essay in the sham-technical. [It may well be that for Kipling's fellow-writer, the grapes were a little sour ?] While the ORG material is very well worth study, it is not necessary for the understanding or enjoyment of the story.

Some critical comments

Charles Carrington (p. 374) draws attention to Kipling’s:

... astonishing forecast of the contrivances, the utilities, and the safety precautions that airborne commerce would being into being. Radio communication was new in 1904. Although a few ships were fitted with wireless telegraph, there was no radio-telephony, no hint or suggestion of public broadcasting; but Kipling’s air-liner moves through a world-wide network of radio services, supplying weather forecasts, and allotting safety-levels and landing priorities, thirty years before anyone elso had dreamed of ‘flying control'.
See also Fred Lerner’s article in this Guide on Rudyard Kipling considered as a Science Fiction writer, and The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English by Ian Ousby (1988), p. 834. See also KJ 336/25.

"The Four Angels"

This poem follows “With the Night Mail” in Actions and Reactions.

It is collected in:
  • Songs from Books
  • Inclusive Verse
  • Definitive Verse
  • Sussex Edition vol 8 p. 165 and vol 34 p.205
  • Burwash Edition vols 8 and 27
  • Cambridge Edition, Ed. Pinney p. 856.
Pinney notes that the poem did not appear in the original periodical publication of "With the Night Mail" in McClure's Magazine and Windsor Magazine.

The poem echoes the first three chapters of the "Book of Genesis", the first book in the Old Testament. Ann Weygandt notes (pp.120-121) that it reflects the early influence on Kipling of the pre-Raphaelite poets, notably Rossetti. She points out (p. 177) that the phrase 'Adam lay ybounden' is to be found in Ancient English Carols edited by Edith Rickert (Chatto and Windus, 1925).

Joyce Tompkins in her chapter on 'Man and the Abyss', comments (p. 193):
'The Four Angels', attached to 'With the Night Mail', presents Adam's sin in Eden as laziness, the refusal, even when the tutelary angels of the elements suggest it, to exploit his circumstances. Therefore the Angel of the Fire sets the flame of desire in his heart. The desire is for ever unattainable, but outside Eden-Wall it drives him to the mastery of the elements. It is thus through 'black disaster' that he fulfils his nature.
John Lee in KJ 335 writes of the relationship between this poem and "With the Night Mail":
"The Four Angels" seems both to summarize and amplify. It places "With the Night Mail" as part of the Fall narrative, and at the same time adds resonance to the function of fire within the story. The final stanza makes it clear that Adam, for all his mastery of the four elements, has 'never reached his heart's desire' and never will, for 'The Apple Tree's cut down!' This Adam is caught in an endless and restless pursuit of certain, god-like knowledge, and is driven to that pursuit of mastery by a mysterious fire in his breast. This has led him to master the Earth, with ploughs, the Sea, with ships, and finally, as we have seen in this story, the Air, with dirigibles.

To that extent, Adam's conquest of the air is on a par with his conquests of the sea and land; a consequence of the Fall and, while admirable, also to an extent a display of the weakness of nature that led him to Fall and be subject to desire in the first place – though, in Kipling's recasting of the Fall narrative, it is not at all clear whether Kipling sees the Fall in terms of moral failure. Kipling's rewriting of the Fall narrative naturalizes the eternal restlessness of men. The nature of that restlessness, and its effects, is amplified by the way in which the dirigibles, the particular tool in Adam's quest for mastery in this story, seem to stand in an analogous relationship to Adam himself; like Adam, they are driven by a mysterious fire —'the restless little imp shuddering', 'the very heart of the machine—a mystery to this day.'

[J H McG/J.R.]

©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2020 All rights reserved