Hymn before Action

(notes edited by John McGivering and John Radcliffe, with biblical references from Daniel Hadas)


First published in the The Echo, March 1896, with the tilte “A Little Sermon”, the first, fourth and sixth verses only. ORG No. 663.

Collected in full as “Hymn before Action” in:

  • The Seven Seas (1896)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition Vol. 33 p. 80
  • Burwash Edition Vol. 26
  • Wordsworth Edition (2001)
  • Cambridge Edition (2013 Ed. Pinney) p. 383

The poem

The angry dirge-like “Hymn Before Action” anticipated the better-known “Recessional” written the following year, in appealing to an old-fashioned God, the special deity of the British Empire. This poem was based on the Church of England hymn The Church’s One Foundation” which was composed in reply to a bishop who had doubts as to the authenticity of the Holy Bible. Like the later poem it is replete with biblical references.

ORG notes (p. 5360) that Kipling was moved to write the poem by the sending of a cable of support from the Kaiser of Germany to the government of the Transvaal, the principal Boer Republic of southern Africa, after the repulse of the Jameson Raid of January 1896. (See our notes on “A Burgher of the Free State”.

See also our notes on “Recessional, and “Kipling and Music” by Brian Mattinson.

The words are also used in The Armed Man, a Mass for Peace by Sir Karl Jenkins, which was commissioned by the Royal Armouries for the Millenium celebrations, to celebrate their move to Leeds in the year 2000, dedicated to survivors of the Kosovo crisis (1998/99). This is an anti-war poem, like Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.

Notes on the Text

[Verse 1]

harness: in this context, armour and other war-like equipment.

Jehovah: God

[Verse 2]

froward: obstinate, difficult to deal with

[verse 3]

those who kneel beside us, At altars not Thine own:   written in the anticipation that colonial troops of different faiths will serve alongside the British in any future wars. [D.H..]

[Verse 4]

Cloke: an alternative spelling of ‘cloak’ a garment, or meaning ‘to cover’. The word is used to great effect in “Proofs of Holy Writ”, Kipling’s last tale. ‘For, behold, darkness clokes the earth…’

Thy lesser death:  Daniel Hads writes: ‘This is probably best explained with reference to: Matthew 10.18:

And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell”  (see Luke 12.4)

Also  Revelation 21.8:

“But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death   [D.H.]

[Verse 5]

Mary:  the Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus, the Madonna.

pierced with sorrow:  see Luke 2.35 (Simeon speaking to Mary):

“Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also”.

born of woman:   a phrase from the book of Job: 14.1, 15.14,  and 25.4,

“Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble”;

” What is man, that he should be clean? and he which is born of a woman, that he should be righteous?”;

“How then can man be justified with God? or how can he be clean that is born of a woman?”.

The quotes all emphasise human frailty, which is of course Kipling’s theme here.

true comrade and true foeman:   This hymn includes a prayer for the enemy, something that can hardly be common in war prayers. It does not include a prayer for victory; even the final stanza avoids this. [D.H.]

[Verse 6]

vanguard: the leading party of troops that moves ahead of the main body.

fulfilled of signs and wonders: This is difficult. “Fulfilled” qualifies “Jehovah”, and the expression seems to mean “God, whose promises have been fulfilled by signs and wonders”. I can’t back this from OED, but it does, relevantly, attest to “fulfill” in the sense “fill” used with “of” where we would expect “with”. [D/H.]


[J McG/J.R./D.H.]

©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2017 All rights reserved