As the Bell Clinks

(notes by John McGivering)

Publication history

This poem was first published in the third edition of Departmental Ditties in 1888. For details of the various editions see David Alan Richards; also ORG Volume 8, page 5169 (Verse No. 256).

It is collected in

  • later editions of Departmental Ditties
  • Early Verse (1900)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition Volume 32, p. 110
  • Burwash Edition, Volume 25
  • The Works of Rudyard Kipling (Wordsworth Poetry Library)

The theme

A young man going up to Simla on leave recalls a girl who took his fancy the previous season. She might have responded to his advances had he been bolder. Travelling in a tonga (like an old-fashioned curricle in England), he muses, in an imagined conversation with the clinking harness, on his lost opportunities. The piece is written in the metre of “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849) the American author of Tales of Mystery and Imagination.:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door…

Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.’

Ann Weygandt points out (p. 148):

The rhyme scheme lacks any phrase exactly corresponding to “Nevermore”, and carries out the triple rhyme – leonine (internal rhyme) and end-rhyme both – in the first two lines: it occurs only in the second stanza of the original.


See our notes on “Garm – a Hostage” (Actions and Reactions) for some background on the trip up to Simla by road.

A critical comment

Bonamy Dobrée is not particularly enthusiastic about this piece, although it is undoubtedly a clever and entertaining achievement, technically and artistically. Dobrée writes of Departmental Ditties:

… he sought for metres that would suit him, often recklessly giving way to his predeliction for rhyme, including internal rhyme,, which even in his later years sometimes tended to be a little intrusive …Sometimes the metre is too lilting…

Dobrée (p. 211) then quotes the opening of this poem as an example.

Kipling had read widely in English poetry, and ever since he started to write in his ‘teens he had experimented with the forms and styles of earlier writers, not simply as a parodist but as part of the process of finding his own poetic voice. See “The Muse among the Motors”.

See also Ann Weygandt, Kipling’s Reading and its Influence on his Poetry. Notes on the text


‘As the bell clinketh, so the fool thinketh’. An old proverb.

[Verse 1]

the Halls at Lumley:  The Shimla Old Postcards website records:

The journey to Simla was an arduous one once you left Kalka in the plains and started the hill ascent by the Cart Road to your destination at 2,397 metres (7,866 feet) above sea level. This was originally called the ‘Great Hindostan-Thibet Road’ and work began on it in 1850 under the supervision of Major Kennedy. Horse drawn tongas owned by a Mrs Lumley (who also owned hotels in both Kalka and Simla) soon replaced bullock carts as a means of getting up to Simla.

tonga-bar: The young man’s carriage must have been a tonga. In the glossary to later editions of Departmental Ditties Kipling defines a tonga as:

a two-wheeled car drawn by two ponies curricle fashion, used for travelling in the hills.

Roger Ayers writes:

The bar, commonly called the ‘swingle-tree’ in England, may have only been used in fancier passenger versions. In such a harness, the traces from either side of the horse’s collar or breast strap ran back to the ends of the swingle-tree/tonga bar which was fixed by a pivot at the centre to a beam at the front of the vehicle.

The connection of traces to bar (and sometimes the pivot) consisted of a number of linked rings, generally three or five, which allowed plenty of free movement. These links jingle – still heard today in the characteristic sound of the Royal Horse Artillery gun teams when on parade.

As Yan Shapiro points out, the crime writer Mark Channing, in India Mosaic (1936), found the sound more sinister:

The insistent clang-clang-clang-clang of that jolting tonga-bar
seemed like an infinitely far-away recollection of a nightmare…

Kipling himself wrote a vivid account (published in the CMG on July 13th 1886) of a journey by tonga from Umballa up to Simla, in the rains, which reduced the mountain road to a dangerous torrent. He was not complimentary about travel by tonga:

In addition to the vices of the dak gharri (another type of hired carriage), it has the violent sifting motion of the winnower of a threshing machine. Imagine a sick lady being violently shaken for eight hours with two minute breaks at half hour intervals. This is the treatment she must go through ere reaching Simla. We all know it, and we all put up with it, because we are a slack, limp, go-as-you—please, for-heaven’s-sake-don’t-make-a-fuss-about-it people; and it is good for us to be told this again and again. [collected in Kipling Abroad by Andrew Lycett, I.B.Tauris 2010]

[Verse 2]

changing-station: roadside stables at intervals of about eight miles (some 13 km) ·where a change of horses or ponies would be available

Wagner: Richard Wagner (1813-1883), the celebrated German composer of operas, notably the Ring Cycle, whose musical style is powerful and insistent.

obbligato: a musical accompaniment

scherzo: a light and playful piece of music.

double-hand staccato: music played on the piano in a sharp abrupt manner, with both hands.

[Verse 4]

Kakahutti: Probably Kumarhatti, a village on the Kalka-Simla road before Solan.

Fugue: a musical composition in which a melodic theme is introduced by one of the parts and successively taken up by others. (Oxford English Dictionary) The parts are like interweaving voices. calling to, and answering one another. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) wrote many fugues.

cymbals: pairs of brass or bronze plates struck together to make a ringing sound.

post-horn gallop: a lively tune in 3/4 time played on trumpets or other brass instruments.

[Verse 5]

Solon: or Solan, or even Salan, was named after the goddess Shoolini.
(See this website.)
Solon is situated a bit lower (1500 m.) than the preceding village Barog (1800 m.) on the Kalka-Simla road.

best foot foremost:  The rather curious expression “to put your best foot forward” means to embark on an enterprise with gusto. It echoes a quotation from Thomas Overbury (c. 1613). It also echoes Shakespeare in King John: “Nay, make haste, the better foot before”.

ganz und gar: a German expression meaning ‘absolutely’ or ‘ completely’, roughly equivalent to the English ‘Lock, stock and barrel.’

[Verse 6]

income-tax’s paring: His income is reduced by income-tax, a recent and unpopular innovation in the 1880s.

Less than many incomes are: He could not afford to marry. See also “The Post that Fitted”.

Simple Rule of Two: In writing, the Rule of Three is the idea that things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other numbers of things. There are other applications of the idea in mathematics, aviation etc. The expression “Rule of Two” is less common. Here it must surely refer to relations between a man and a woman, perhaps to the idea that “two can live as cheaply as one”.

[Verse 7]

Khyraghaut: probably Kandaghat, where later there was a small railway station on the way to Simla. Maharaja Bhupinder Singh, the ruler of Patiala State, (b. 1891) later built his first palace (“Chail View Palace”) there.

avatar: the descent to earth and manifestation of a Hindu deity; thus a wealthy benefactor coming down from heaven, providing a convenient rhyme to ‘bar’.

Faint heart never won fair lady: an echo of “To Dr Blacklock” by Robert Burns and used in Gilbert and Sullivan’s light opera Iolanthe.

[Verse 8]

the Tara Devi turning:  In Hinduism, the goddess Tara meaning “star” is the second of the Dasa (ten) Mahavidyas or “ones of Great Wisdom”, to whom there is a temple above Shimla. This must mean the turning, off the Kalka-Simla road, up to the temple.

Simla:  then the summer capital of the Government of India and scene of many of the Indian stories, high in the hills. Now spelt ‘Shimla’.

the Mall: Simla’s main street and centre of social life

[J McG.]

©John McGivering 2010 All rights reserved