The complete poem first appeared in The Years Between in 1919, and was then collected in Inclusive Verse (1919), Definitive Verse (1940), the Sussex Edition (vol. 33 p 414) and the Burwash Edition (vol 26).
The first two verses appear as the heading to the story “The Edge of the Evening” (December 1913) in A Diversity of Creatures. It was not explicitly linked by Kipling with the earlier story “The Benefactors” (July 1912) despite the double use of the title.
The poem reflects on the weakness of the arts and literature in the face of brute force, and on the tendency of weapons to beget more powerful weapons. It concludes that in the end tyranny destroys itself.
Kipling himself writes that the poem: ‘covers the whole theory of strikes, and in the last two verses gives the end of them’ [Note to the letter to Frank N Doubleday 18 March 1919, collected in The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, Pinney (Ed.) vol 4. p. 544.]
The years between 1910 and 1914 were a period of great industrial unrest in Britain, with a number of strikes and stoppages. This was strongly disapproved of by Kipling and his political friends. It was also a time of unease, felt very strongly by Kipling, at the prospect of a possible European war.
In 1912 there was a National Coal Strike, which began in Alfreton, Derbyshire on 26 February, for better and fairer wages. This was not met with universal approval. As tensions grew, a national civilian volunteer force was formed to keep order, police in the colliery districts were reinforced, and towards the end of March the Army moved in. A news billboard for the Pall Mall Gazette of 23 March carried the stark headline “Blackmailing the Nation”.
In a letter on 16 March 1912 to his friend H.A.Gwynne, the Editor of the Morning Post, (collected in The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, Pinney (Ed.) vol 4. p. 99) Kipling wrote:
If and when the strike ends have you reflected on the automatic nemesis that awaits It is the end of Labour either way. Caesar has come to his triumph and will
die in it. But it is also the end of coal as a prime necessity. They have made all
the minds of a nation active by causing bodily discomfort and have thereby
supplied the very strongest possible stimulus to invention that even a Tyrant
could have conceived. Consequently, over and above the bending of thou-
sands of men’s energies towards the discovery of more oil, the development
of existing supplies, the refurnacing of ships, thousands more will pick up
(with the dogwhips of Pain, Fear and Hate behind ’em) the old unresolved
but not insoluble problem of harnessing the tides.
As Angus Wilson suggests (p. 233), this prophesy of the decline of coal is echoed in the penultimate verse of the poem:
All Power, each Tyrant, every Mob
Whose head has grown too large,
Ends by destroying its own job
And works its own discharge;
Peter Keating writes (p.245) that:
The poem is concerned mainly with the inability of Art to deal satisfactorily with the terrible suffering created by political tyrants.
Bonamy Dobrée (p. 146), who sees the poem as a prophetic fable, writes:
Fables are necessarily stories – or they would not please at
all; they would merely be tedious sermons. All stories worthy of
the name are partly fables, in that they contain an idea –
otherwise they are no more than anecdotes. The `point’ of a
story is its revelation of, or singling out of, some characteristic
of human nature or behaviour; its moral is applicable to our
daily doings. The `idea’ of a fable goes beyond the local or
immediate; its theme is universal. But it is impossible to draw a
clear line between the two…
Kipling puts the case against fiction most plainly at the head of “The Benefactors”, which attempts to go deeper than the nakedness of Nature.
See also John McGivering’s notes on the uncollected story “The Benefactors” (July 1912), also a political fable concerned with the labour unrest of the time.
Notes on the Text
Ah! What avails … This echoes Walter Savage Landor’s poem “Rose Aylmer” which begins:
Ah! What avails the sceptred race!
Ah,what the form divine!
What every virtue,every grace!
Rose Aylmer, all were thine.
classic bent Classical studies of ancient Greece and Rome.
Nor easy meat and drink Food and pleasure.
So tooth and nail.. Nature’s weapons, as in Tennyson’s ‘Nature red in tooth and claw’ in “In Memoriam” (Canto 56 1849)
©Geoffrey Annis 2011 All rights reserved