The Anvil

(Notes by Peter Keating)

Publication history

First published in A School History of England (1911) by C.R.L.Fletcher and Rudyard Kipling, and in all subsequent editions of the book. It was placed at the close of chapter II, ‘Saxon England,’ where Fletcher and/or Kipling provided it with a direct lead-in that makes the meaning of the poem unavoidably clear:

The Norman Conquest of 1066 was the beginning of the history of the English race as one people and of England as a great power in Europe. You might say, indeed…

The first line of the poem then follows. There is no title, but an entry in the left-hand margin of the poem reads ‘William’s Work.’ Harbord gives this as one of the poem’s alternative titles, together with “William the Conqueror’s Work”, “William the Conqueror’s Song”, and “The Making of England” (ORG, Verse I (1969), No. 975(e)).

In A School History “The Anvil” is accompanied by one of the most dramatic of Henry Ford’s coloured plates. It is called ‘William I at Hastings’. William is shown on the battlefield, seated on a weary-looking horse and surrounded by dead bodies. He is being addressed by a holy man who is holding a cross in one hand while pointing with his other hand to the slaughtered soldiers. Presumably he is appealing to William for understanding and compassion at this moment of victory.

The sub-title was added for I.V., 1919. The poem was also included in D.V., 1940; the Sussex Edition, vol. 34; and the Burwash Edition, vol., 27. In D.V. a closed bracket mark is omitted at the end of line 6. This would seem to be a local error because the correct version is given in earlier editions and in the Sussex.

The presentation of the refrain was changed, slightly though significantly, for the Sussex. Details are given in the Notes below.


‘The Anvil’ is the clearest possible statement of Fletcher and Kipling’s belief in strong government. It continues the historical and ideological arguments advanced in the earlier School History poems, especially “The Pirates in England.” In that poem, the Romans are praised for imposing order and stability on a fragmented England. Unfortunately their work was left uncompleted. When the ‘the last Roman legions were withdrawn in 407’ (A School History, p. 24 ), England fell prey to invading ‘pirates’ from various neighbouring countries. Now, some five hundred years later, with Saxon England still divided, the Normans arrive to take up the civilising task.

The battle of Hastings decided, though not even William knew it, that the great, slow dogged, English race was to be governed and disciplined (and at first severely bullied in the process) by a small number of the cleverest, strongest, most adventurous race then alive …They brought England back by the scruff of the neck into the family of European nations, back
into close touch with the Roman Church, to which a series of
vigorous and clever popes was then giving a new life. Such
remains of Roman ideas of government and order as
were left in Europe were saved for us by the Normans.
[Fletcher, A School History, pp. 43-4.]

“The Anvil” is one of several poems in A School History in which Kipling chooses to communicate complex ideas by means of very simple rhymes and rhythms. This is not always his concern by any means – “The Dawn Wind”, in contrast, is extraordinarily complex in both its form and content – but here, to inculcate a fundamental lesson, simplicity is clearly regarded as crucial.

The poem should probably be read (or, rather, chanted) aloud, accompanied by the sound of a hammer landing on an anvil. The rhythm is established by there being six strong regular beats in the first line of each stanza, with a pause in the the middle, allowing for three ‘hammer blows’ on each side. This basic rhythm is repeated, with some slight variations, except in the last line of each stanza which is extended by the addition of one extra beat. This, in turn, was further varied for the Sussex. See the note to line 4.

[P. K.]

©Peter Keating 2004 All rights reserved