The First Empress of the East

First publication: Civil and Military Gazette, 28 February 1887


Sussex Scrapbooks 28/3, p. 84

Brigade Surgeon Macdowall’s volume of verse drama, The First Empress of the East, London, 1886, had been preceded by his Lady Margaret’s Sorrows: or, Via Dolorosa, and Other Poems, London, 1883.

Kipling must have seen much of the vain and amateurish literature generated by the lonely poets in the service of the empire. Only a few days before his review of Dr Macdowall’s poem he published this brief notice of another, comparable, work:

A soldier of the 1st Worcestershire Regiment at Karachi has committed poetry — a first canto of an epic called ’Henry Gould’. In all honesty, it can be said that there never was a poem like Henry Gould: who was a subaltern who smote his Adjutant on the nose at Mess because the subalterns ‘chaffed’ him in their usual gentle manner. This, with some few digressions, makes up the first canto. In spite of its wild extravagance, wilder rhyming and excruciating bathos, there is a queer crooked sort of power in some of the touches; notably in the account of the descent into Hell of Tom Pepper, one of the digressions aforesaid. In the fervent hope that this much commendation may not [sz’c] induce the writer to finish the epic, we would recommend people to get Henry Gould — printing office not stated — and read it. It is curious
(CMG, 22 February 1887).

Thomas Holley Chivers, mentioned at the end of the review of Macdowall, was a favorite extravagant poet of Kipling’s and is quoted in two lines of “The Files”:

‘When the Conchimarian horns
Of the reboantic Norns. . . . ’


The Article

We have received a ‘story in dramatic form’, from the hand of Brigade Surgeon Cameron Macdowall, entitled ‘The first Empress of the East’. Dr Macdowall has appeared in print before. Last time, if we recollect aright, he was — in print, bien entendu (evidently) — engaged in kissing the hands or feet of a female relative; his cousin was it, or aunt? This time he is murdering a young girl, in a few hundred lines of blank verse. He explains in his preface that he cannot help writing verses, and he prints his imaginings, because ‘manuscript poetry gives a most restricted pleasure’. Further, he hints incidentally that he has a good conscience. How he can reconcile this with the verse he makes, is a question which concerns himself alone. Here is some of his verse. A person, called Longinus, is showing his stable to one Glaucus — also horsey. Longinus says: — ‘A noble race these horses of Arabia, Glaucus; they’re the sublime of all equinity’. This makes Glaucus jealous. He shows that he also can ‘sublime equinity’ in more or less rhyming, more or less ten-syllable verse. Glaucus prefers the Arab, or ‘the freeborn desert child’: —

His quarters almost horizontal lie
This gives vast power — it boots not how or why.
His muscular haunches sheer beneath him point.
A plummet line would almost touch each joint
His legs are flat and broad from front to back
Even at the knee, and clear marked by the track
Of three divisions.

This must be Macdowallese for being fired; but there is no footnote. After ‘stables’, Longinus and Glaucus begin to explain things. Longinus is a cavalry officer in Zenobia’s service, and his ‘sublime equinity’ is a good deal cut up in a charge against the Romans. As Longinus explains: — ‘It was a wondrous charge but t’was not war’. Longinus was a little bruised; but what really hurt him was — ‘to see such gross, such palpable mis-manage- ment’. This fragment seems to have been borrowed from a sanitation-report; but there is no footnote, and the author, as a rule, is lavish in this respect. Longinus has been recommending alterations in arrows and spears to an Equipment Committe who had disregarded his suggestions. In the scuffle aforesaid: —

There actually were no reserves of archers
Nor even of arrows; or if such there were
They were so far removed in rear — alas!
As to be practically useless. Then the men
Their quivers empty quite could not resist
With a short dagger the Roman legion’s spear
Yet I’ve often urged
Better equipment for them; and reserves.

Longinus is very nice, and the stage directions are very funny. People stab themselves and fight very freely. When Dr Macdowall runs dry, bits of Gibbon are brought in. This adds immensely to the effect. Footnotes career about the pages to clear up historical allusions, or to point out where the author has got an original notion and wants to work it. He compares the Dawn to a spirit rising from the grave, and believes the comparison to be original. It is original — aboriginal in fact — being at least as new as the Solar Myth. There are many startlingly original things in the poem — notably the verse. At the end of the book are notes; and the notes alone are, in their petrifying audacity, worth the price of the volume. The author is afraid people will reproach him for his ‘freedom of metre and accentuation’.
On the contrary, they like it. Lines like these are not met every day: —

‘Lo! to save the temple from destruction.’
‘Monotony of too much sameness.’
‘Methinks ’tis no such wondrous place. Hast seen Palmyra?’
‘Have yielded at Antioch.’

and so on. There is no monotony about such verses, nor any ‘cloying surfeit of reiterated cadence’. The First Empress of the East is a fine, rugged, veterinary, military, amatory, bloodthirsty, Gibboned, Saga. There was an American doctor called Holley Chivers, once, who wrote poems — ‘Facets of Diamonds’, ‘Eonchs of Ruby’, and the ‘Lost Pleiad’. The only perfect copies of his works are in the British Museum. There is a likeness between his style and Dr Macdowall’s. But we prefer the Indian Doctor.