[Title and sub-title] The American Rebellion (1776)
It would always be difficult for Fletcher and Kipling to describe this event as a war of independence; to them, the Americans were always guilty of rebellion. The starting point of the war is usually dated earlier than 1776, but this particular year was probably selected for the poem because it marked the moment when the ‘independence’ of America from Britain became a driving motive of the rebels and had to be acknowledged, at least by Fletcher the committed historian:
The colonists called a Congress at Philadelphia; declared themselves to be independent; and in 1776 took the name of “The United States of America.” Blood had already been shed when this happened.
(A School History, pp. 200-201.)
[Lines 1-8] ’Twas not … might.: The Treaty of Paris in 1763 brought an end to the Seven Years’ War, the most recent of the long-running conflicts, between Britain, France, and Spain. The imperial maps of all three countries were redrawn, with Britain making very substantial territorial gains, especially in Canada. It was almost immediately after this that the American colonists began objecting to British taxes. For Fletcher the two events were clearly linked:
Soon after the peace of 1763, we began to perceive one result of the conquest of Canada which few people had expected. Our American colonies, having no French to fear any longer, wanted to be free from
our control altogether.
(A School History, p. 199.)
This is the same line that Kipling takes in “Before” which contains no consideration – no mention even – of any issue other than the ingratitude and deviousness of the American colonists. The poem centres entirely on this one point. Britain, her sword unsheathed, has put half the world to flight and left the Americans secure in their new-built cities, protected by Britain’s might.
[Line 5] Pole to Line: from the North Pole to the Equator.
[Line 7] These worshippers at Freedom’s shrine: The American rebels, the argument runs, were soon to develop their very special high-flown ideological rhetoric, but they weren’t so dedicated to the idea of freedom as long as Britain was fighting their battles for them.
[Line 8] quit: This curt colloquial word expresses Kipling’s argument with particular sharpness. We’re quite safe now, thank you very much, we quit!
[Line 9-10] Not till their foes … main: not until France and Spain, Britain’s competing colonial powers, were driven back across the seas.
[Line 11] Frenchman from the North: the French in Canada, now effectively driven away by Britain, and adding greatly to America’s security. The ingratitude in this instance was felt to be particularly severe because in 1778, two years into the American war, as Fletcher explains:
… the Americans sought French help, and France was delighted at such a chance of avenging her losses in the former war. (A School History, p. 201).
[Lines 15-16] To Freedom – and were bold!: As with the last line of the first stanza, Kipling chooses a particularly scathing way to end the poem. The image is of the American colonists, hiding behind Britain’s strength, suddenly remembering the importance of Freedom and rushing out to show how bold they really are.
[Line 1] The snow lies thick on Valley Forge: In his entry for this poem in ORG, Harbord notes:
It has been pointed out several times that it was not Washington’s soldiers who suffered at Valley Forge, but the line has not been altered even in the Sussex Edition.
Harbord recommends the reader to see Ralph Durand A Handbook to the Poetry of Rudyard Kipling, 1914, p. 287. This is the annotation offered by Durand:
Valley Forge is a small village in Chester County, Pennsylvania.
On the 19th of December 1777, after the battles of Brandywine and Germantown and the evacuation of Philadelphia by the British, Washington’s army, numbering about ten thousand men, went
into camp there. Commissariat arrangements were so badly managed that by 1st of February nearly four thousand men were unfit for duty owing to illnesses caused by lack of proper food and clothing.
[Line 2] The ice on the Delaware: The harsh winter conditions on the North-East Atlantic coast, where the estuary to the Delaware River is situated, caused great suffering and logistical problems for both armies. It is notable that this is the aspect of the war that Kipling most emphasises. In poetic terms, he does so in order to contrast a wartime of winter with a spring and summer peace, but he has a historical point to make as well. On Christmas night 1776, the Americans led by General George Washington made a spectacular crossing of the Delaware River, just before it froze completely over. Washington’s daring led to an early morale-boosting victory over Britain’s key mercenary troops, the Hessians, at Trenton in New Jersey.
[Line 5] the earliest primrose: the primrose, a small pale yellow flower, providing a splash of colour to mark the start of spring in England.
[Line 7] scuffling rookeries: nests, or a group of trees containing nests, of rooks, birds with a reputation for being particularly noisy and restless or ‘scuffling’.
[Line 13] the mayflower blows In this context, any of various May blossoms. The main point is that the icy winter has changed to spring, the season of rebirth. From this point on, the flower references are used to mark the changing seasons which are indifferent to man’s fate. The earth is too busy to think of war (line 21). Her task is to restore nature to how it was in our fathers’ day! (line 24).
For blows OED has ‘to burst into flower; to blossom, bloom‘ There may aalso be an echo here of the Pilgrim Fathers. [D.H.]
[Line 16] Mullein: an herbaceous plant with tall spikes of yellow, white or purple flowers, and often furry leaves, which flowers from June onwards.
columbine: a plant of the genus aquilegia with purple-blue flowers and five spurred petals which also flowers in early summer.
[Line 25] Golden-rod by the pasture-wall: a plant with a tall rod-like stem and small bright yellow flowers which, in this case, is shown growing beside a peaceful pasture-wall. It flowers in late summer and epitomises both the warmth and brightness of that season and the post-war cold or calmness of peace and death.
[Line 27] Sumach leaves … in fall: A sumac is a shrub or small tree with red cone-shaped fruits used as a spice in cooking. The ground leaves are used in tanning and dyeing. Here the leaves in fall, are ‘falling’ in the ‘fall’ (autumn), and are offered as a natural tribute
©Peter Keating 2003 All rights reserved