The Beginnings

 

(notes by John Radcliffe and John McGivering)

Publication

The poem was first published in April 1917 in A Diversity of Creatures, linked to the story “Mary Postgate”. It is numbered 1037 in ORG.

It is collected in:

  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • The Sussex Edition vols ix and xxxiv (1939)
  • The Burwash Edition vols ix and xxvii (1941)
  • Cambridge Edition (2013) Ed. Thomas Pinney, p. 975.

The poem

The poem expresses Kipling’s own hatred of Germany, for precipitating the war in 1914, and waging it so brutally from the outset, committing fearful atrocities in Belgium towards the civil population, dropping bombs from the air on undefended towns in England, and engaging in unrestricted submarine warfare.

Background

As we have written in our notes on “Mary Postgate” – the linked story – the War, involving all the major countries of Europe, which Kipling had long anticipated, broke out in the early days of August 1914. Kipling’s son, just seventeen, reported for duty with the Irish Guards in September. The early battles on the Western Front in France soon showed that the war would not be quickly over, and that casualties among the young soldiers would be high. As Charles Carrington, who himself fought through the war as an infantry officer, notes:

… the ferocity of the German war machine grew more apparent. In January 1915 the first air-raids were made on undefended English towns; and in February the German Admiralty announced its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. Rudyard’s reaction took the form of three short stories written that winter, “Swept and Garnished” written in October, “Sea Constables” in February, and “Mary Postgate” in March.

Harry Ricketts (KJ369 p. 67) notes that Roger Smith, at the Victoria University of Wellington, has suggested a possible link between a German “Chant of Hate” towards England, published in August 1914, and Kipling’s war poems. Kipling’s “For all we have and are” was published a few weeks later, on September 2nd. We do not know whether Kipling was aware of the German poem. If so, one can perhaps see “The Beginnings” as a riposte.

In a speech at Southport in June 1915, he said: ‘However the world pretends to divide itself, there are only two divisions in the World today – human beings and Germans.’ ‘That is not’, commented Bonamy Dobrée (p.131), ‘a sadistic utterance, nor one prompted by `irrational’ hatred; it expresses the outraged feelings of a man deeply believing in the value of civilization, “the ages’ slow-bought gain” , and in the Law “by means of which life is made comely.”‘ [See KJ 076/09 for December 1945] See also “The Great War and Rudyard Kipling” by Hugh Brogan.

“Mary Postgate” was published on September 1st, 1915. A month later the Kiplings heard that their son John was ‘missing’ in action.

Notes on the Text

[Verse 1]

blood: The implication is that hatred is not part of the makeup of the English.

arrears: money that is owed and should have been paid earlier.

when the English began to hate:.  a chilling echo of the cheery line in  ‘Et Dona Ferentes’‘: (1896:

It never really mattered till the English grew polite

  This is no longer a “merry row”, and the “Island-Devil” really is diabolical now.   [D.H.]

 

[JMcG/JR]
©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2018 All rights reserved