"The Children
of the Zodiac"

Notes on the text


These notes, by Peter Havholm, are partly new, and partly based on the ORG. The page and line numbers below refer to the Macmillan (London) Standard Edition of Many Inventions, as published and frequently reprinted between 1899 and 1950.






[October 27th 2007]

[Heading] 'Though thou love her as thyself... This is the last verse of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Give All to Love” (1846).

[Original heading] When the story appeared in Harper’s Weekly, it was prefaced by Kipling’s poem of eleven lines, "The Gods in London", below, which, for Kipling, is unusually close to impressionism. It is an evocation of the feeling of gods come to earth on Ludgate Hill, but there is neither story nor sermon: they arrive, react, 'veil their glories to walk with the children of men, and depart with a sound like 'the boom of the bell of St. Paul’s. While he would not have used Kipling’s meter, Ezra Pound could have written a poem like this:
In the hush of an April dawning when the streets are velvety still
The High Gods quitted Olympus and alighted on Ludgate Hill;
The Asphodel sprang from the asphalt, the amaranth opened her eyes
And the smoke of the City of London went up to the stainless skies.
“Now whom shall I kiss?” said Venus and “What can I kill?” said Jove,
And “Look at the forge”, said Vulcan, and “Smut’s on my wings”, said Love.
The High Gods veiled their glories to walk with the children of men.
In the hush of an April twilight, to the roar of the Holborn train,
The High Gods sprang from the pavement and went to their place again;
And I heard, tho’ none had tolled it, as a great portcullis falls,
The roar of their wheeling legions, the boom of the bell of St. Paul’s.
[Page 363, line 2] Children of the Zodiac The Zodiac consists of the twelve great star groupings that lie along the path of the sun and planets across the sky (the ecliptic), and which the ancients, and indeed people in mediaeval times, thought resembled objects which influenced the lives of men on earth. 'Astrology' is the study of this process. (See "A Doctor of Medicine" in Rewards and Fairies). When naming stars modern astronomers still use the ancient names for the constellations.

The Hindu version, closely similar to the Graeco-Roman, recognizes the twelve signs as the Ram, the Bull, the Pair (Kipling’s Twins), the Crab, the Lion, the Girl, the Balance, the Scorpion, the Bow (Kipling’s Archer), the Sea-monster (Greco-Roman Goat), the Pitcher (Kipling’s Waterman), and the Fish. Kipling counts the twins as two children and leaves out the Sea-monster (Capricorn). The Waterman (Aquarius) and the Balance (Libra) are mentioned in the first paragraph but do not figure in the story.

Naming six of the signs 'Houses' in charge of death seems to be Kipling’s invention. There are traditionally twelve houses or fixed locations in astrology, and while each is associated with its comparably numbered sign, any of the signs can visit any of the houses (as the stars move across the sky) and add the sign’s characteristics to the house. Nor is the correspondence between house and sign exact. While the fourth house, for example, is associated with both the Crab and with old age and endings, the eighth house is commonly referred to as the House of Sex. Perhaps not in the ancient versions of the system—but no matter. Kipling’s story is not about Astrology. He needed some characters who could be shocked by mortality, and so he took them out of the Astrologer’s sky. He makes little use of Astrology’s ideas and none of its supposed predictive powers.

[Page 364, line 5] What is that to me? Still immortal, the Children do not understand human emotions.

[Page 364, line 25] and all Earth felt that kiss this is probably the moment when Leo and the Girl (and the rest of the Children) lose their immortality. Here Kipling is not unaware of the Genesis story of the fall of Man, when Adam and Eve are expelled by God from the Garden of Eden because they have taken the knowledge of Good and Evil.

[Page 366, lines 21–23] we must learn more about this for their sakes The Girl instantly understands that they must live for others. Leo grasps 'their' as a talisman against mortality.

[Page 367, line 10] as I—as we do A very dense phrase: Leo realizes that he has become part of a couple, but in stating that realization he speaks a truth he has not yet grasped: that his ability to feel love is a sign of his now being mortal, and that his 'we' therefore now includes men and women together.

[Page 367, line 15] Aldebaran a great red star which forms the Bull’s eye in the constellation of Taurus.

[Page 368, line 3] I am The Bull (and the Ram and the Twins) understand immediately that their now-bounded lives must be filled to the brim with working for others. The way Kipling will put this later, in "The Gods of the Copy-Book Headings", is: 'If you don’t work, you die'.

[Page 370, line 1] a look that he had sometimes seen in the Girl’s [face] in effect, love both makes Leo mortal and teaches him that he must care for others. What the others know at once, he must learn from the Girl and his love for her.

[Page 371, line 8] apple of his throat the projection in the neck formed by the thyroid cartilage, the 'Adam's apple', once said to have been formed by a piece of the apple that stuck in Adam’s throat. Entirely appropriate here, for the Children’s knowledge brings mortality and condemns them to work all the days of their lives.

[Page 371 13] My brother, the Bull, had a better fate Leo has still not fully learned the meaning of love.

[Page 372, line 19] first time in their lives that they had ever laughed through accepting the power of love, they are now fully human, but they must learn how to fulfil their new roles. Hence the practice with laughter that follows.

[Page 374, line 31] Sing one of the songs By chance, Leo finds his vocation. Though given Kipling’s belief in 'life orders' (see “Uncovenanted Mercies” in Limits and Renewals, 1932), it is probably not by chance.

'Two Guardian Spirits had been reported to the Archangel for allowing their respective charges to meet against Orders. The affair involved Gabriel, as official head of all Guardian Spirits, and also Satan, since Guardian Spirits are exhuman souls, reconditioned for re-issue by the Lower Hierarchy...'
when we thought we were all Gods perhaps stretching it a bit, this thought connects with the Wordsworthian idea (which comes from Plato) we meet above in 'The Finest Story in the World' If we come into this world 'trailing clouds of glory'—that is, still shedding the experience of heaven where the soul lived before being born into human life—then it is possible that the gift of song or poetry or art comes from heaven too, as Leo’s first song does. One might, from this general idea, develop the notion of an otherworldly 'daemon' who is the true source of the art one channels.

[Page 376, lines 2&3] and this was a thing he could never have done the beginning of the story’s consideration of the nature and powers of art. As immortals feel no emotion, so they do no work. This idea of art emphasizes its relationship to work and close observation of life.

[Page 376, lines 5&6] that he had not particularly noticed before the prospect of death concentrates the attention on life and, in this song, Leo sings his observations about human work.

[Page 376, lines 12&13] with a very good opinion of himself in his aching bones songs that express wonder at the newfound intricacies of work would certainly cause the worker to feel pride in what he does.

[Page 376, lines 18–20] sitting ... singing just what comes into your head one can hear in this ignorant remark some of Dick Heldar’s contempt for his audience in The Light that Failed.

[Page 377, line 4] gipsy-work If poetry is a kind of work, it can seem to pale beside the hard, physical labour, with immediate consequences, of the Bull. In one sense, the rest of the story develops the artist’s answer to this implicit criticism.

This was always an issue for Kipling. See "A Conference of the Powers" earlier in this volume, in which an eminent writer encounters three young subalterns who - in contrast with his own literary life - have seen ‘dead men, and war, and power, and responsibility’, and is immensely impressed by them:

He replied with another quotation, to the effect that though singing was a remarkably fine performance, I was to be quite sure that few lips would be moved to song if they could find a sufficiency of kissing.

Whereby I understood that Eustace Cleever, decorator and colourman in words, was blaspheming his own Art, and would be sorry for this in the morning.
[Page 377, lines 14&15] the indignity of horrible praise See note to lines 18–20, above. It is rare that an artist finds understanding appreciation.

[Page 377, line 22] so long as the songs make them a little happier Leo understands that what matters is what his songs accomplish, explored in this paragraph, not what his audience says about his work.

[Page 377, line 25] must not be afraid if one’s life is filled with love and laughter and work, one will not have time or interest for fear of death.

[Page 377, line 32] maintained that Leo made them do this art’s power shows itself in the deep emotion it can cause.

[Page 378, line 7] this was cowardly to run from death is shameful.

[Page 378, line 10] even more cowardly than running away to mock death is to mock the human condition, more shameful than running.

[Page 378, lines 16–17] working for the sake of men work for pence brings no reward—and harms the work. See the account of the painting "His Last Shot" in The Light that Failed (Chapter IV, page 48, line 31). Briefly, Leo and the Girl turn away from their vocations.

[Page 378, line 30] look in her eyes said all she could not say once again directly confronted by death, the Girl and Leo are brought back to understanding. Cf. “What else could I have done?” in Rewards and Fairies.

[Page 380, line 27–29] Because Leo had known all the sorrow that a man could know See the ending of "Baa Baa, Black Sheep" :

when young lips have drunk deep of the bitter waters of Hate, Suspicion, and Despair, all the Love in the world will not wholly take away that knowledge; though it may turn darkened eyes for a while to the light, and teach Faith where no Faith was.
[Page 381, lines 29–30] four times more work In this story’s value system, now pretty clear, one’s worth is measured in the amount of good work one does for others. Hence, the value of songs may be measured by the amount of good work they cause people to do.

[Page 382, Lines 20–21] Only she could know so much about ourselves the material of good poetry is a deep understanding of particular lives.

[Page 383, line 8] It is well for me perhaps stretching it again, if a full life allows one to face death bravely, then a value of poetry is that it helps people to live full lives.

[Page 383, line 15] I am very well paid by a felt, acted appreciation of what his work has done.

[Page 383, line 29] more than half his power to sing breast cancer is intensely female, and throat cancer is the most terrible death for a singer.

Perhaps the choice of the Crab for this story is not associated with a fear of cancer. In ORG, P W Inwood remarks: ‘there is no ostensible reason ... for Kipling at the age of 26 to have been obsessed with the idea of death from cancer, or indeed from any other cause. I suggest that he found in the Signs of the Zodiac and that obvious killer Cancer, the crab, an idea for a story, and that his thoughts did not go beyond this.’

Yet some forty years later, in "Unprofessional" (Limits and Renewals, 1932) he wrote a story which speculated on the relationship between disturbances in human cells and the 'tides' of the Universe. An astronomer, Harries, is talking to Vaughan, a surgeon:

'We can’t tell on what system this dam’ dynamo of our universe is wound, but we know we’re in the middle of every sort of wave, as we call ’em. They used to be “influences.”’

‘Like Venus, Cancer, and that lot?’ Vaughan inquired.

‘Yes—if you choose'.



[P. H.]

©Peter Havholm 2006 All rights reserved