The Bells
and Queen Victoria

Notes on the text

(by Peter Keating)


[Title and sub-title] The Bells and Queen Victoria, 1911. The rather clumsy leap from title to sub-title is characteristic of the uneasy mood and tone of the whole poem. 1911 has nothing directly to do with Queen Victoria. The bells are ringing to celebrate the accession to the throne of her grandson George V on 22 June 1911 following the death of his father Edward VII in the previous year. Kipling had marked Edward’s death with a special poem “The Dead King” which was published in several national newspapers and as a separate book.

Although these events were now some years removed from Victoria, she needed to be present in the poem in order to receive the praise due to her for restoring the monarchy to respectability and for having given the lead to a period of enormous British expansion. Kipling is drawing on, and extending, the rite of continuity traditionally expressed at coronations. ‘The King,’ (Edward VII) ‘is dead. Long live the King’ (George V) and the dynastic glories established by Victoria.

[Lines 1-2] ‘Gay go up and gay go down …London Town’. These two lines were the introduction to an early version of the nursery rhyme now usually known as ‘Oranges and Lemons.’ It seems to have been the form commonly used in the nineteenth century, and Kipling clearly expected his readers to know where the quotation came from. He had recently alluded to the same lines in his poem “A St. Helena Lullaby,” Rewards and Fairies (1910). It must have been only shortly after this that these introductory lines fell out of favour and were replaced by the first couplet of the poem: ‘Oranges and lemons/Say the bells of St. Clement’s.’

The dropping of the lines took place well before the emergence of the now universally accepted homosexual meaning of ‘gay’, although this linguistic change has, of course, seriously distorted many earlier, quite innocent uses of the word in poetry, this poem of Kipling’s among them. Nowadays it is pretty well impossible to imagine “’ The Bells and Queen Victoria’ ” being read aloud to an audience without it provoking laughter or sniggers. Perhaps that makes it especially worth stressing that the original nursery rhyme meant something like ‘Go joyfully about your business, but pay attention to the different messages being communicated by the bells of London.’ Kipling restricts that variety to just one meaning: ‘Go about your business with joy and thankfulness, at one with the celebratory message of the bells.’

[Line 5] In excelsis gloria! Glory in the highest (i.e. heaven).

[Line 6-7] Victoria … ten years dead. Queen Victoria died 22 January 1901.

[Line 9] Gloriana. An adulatory name commonly given to Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603). See Kipling’s short story “Gloriana” and its accompanying poems in Rewards and Fairies.

[Lines 10-11] Than Gloriana guessed …golden Indies bring. Queen Victoria has achieved even more than Elizabeth, her most illustrious predecessor, could have imagined and created more wealth than even the Indies could produce. ‘The Indies’ as used here is probably not specific but rather a general allusion to a source of great riches.

[Line 11-12] . A Queen confessed … her people King. The meaning of this, the first of many obscure, high-sounding and fairly empty sentences, would seem to be something like – ‘Victoria acknowledged or recognised that true sovereignty rested not with her personally but with her people’. In the following line the proces is then reversed and the people crown Victoria their Queen.

[Line 19] handmaid. A female servant (i.e. of her people and her people’s great destiny).

[Line 20] marrow. Core or essence.

[Line 21] Yoke-mate … wisest Age. Yoke-mate, fellow worker. Wisest Age, either the enormously successful period over which she reigned, or the belief, commonly expressed at the time, that Victoria herself became a much greater and wiser queen as she grew older.

[Lines 30-31] The Secret of the Empire … The Glory of the People. The Bells are celebrating two achievements above all others. First, Britain’s mysterious almost mystical attainment of a vast Empire, and secondly, the establishment of a peaceful and now inviolable democracy.

[Lines 32-43] The Bells …As we were hers! In the nursery rhyme, old and new versions, the London churches all ring out different messages in order to celebrate the diversity of the local ways of life they represent. Kipling reduces that message to a simple adulation of Queen Victoria’s heritage which is represented by one united and harmonious nation celebrating the coronation of her grandson. Of the churches listed by Kipling, St Paul’s and Westminster were not included in the original rhyme.

[P. K.]
©Peter Keating 2006 All rights reserved