The Betrothed

(notes by John McGivering and John Radcliffe)

Publication history

This poem was first published in the Pioneer and Pioneer Mail on 21 November 1888, and in the Civil and Military Gazette on 23 November, under the title of “The Meditation of William Kirkland”.

See David Alan Richards (p. 39), and for musical settings, p. 694; also Brian Mattinson’s research summarised on this site. See also ORG, Volume 8, page 5231 (Verse No. 339B.).

It is collected as “The Betrothed” in:

  • Departmental Ditties and Other Verses (1890)
  • Early Verse (1900)
  • Scribner’s (Outward Bound) Edition (vol. 17)
  • Bombay Edition (vol. 21, 1914)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition Volume 32, p. 100
  • Burwash Edition, Volume 25
  • The Works of Rudyard Kipling (Wordsworth Poetry Library)
  • Poems of Rudyard Kipling (Cambridge 2013) ed. Pinney, p. 106

The theme

The poem offers a light-hearted comparison between the respective merits of smoking and women, in twenty-six rhyming couplets. The girl comes a poor second when the poet decides not to marry her. This, like “Loot”, has been reviled by those, lacking a sense of humour, who — in the view of this Editor —have taken both too seriously.

“The Betrothed” has been parodied by later less indignant readers, most recently by Patri Friedman.

See also our Notes on “Certain Maxims of Hafiz”, which, like “The Betrothed”, might well have been written by an elderly man-about-town rather than a young fellow of twenty-three.


Andrew Russell, of Durham University, has drawn our attention to a Breach of Promise of Marriage case heard in Glasgow on August 1st 1888, reported in a New Zealand newspaper, the Oamaru Mail, Volume X, Issue 4234, 9 October 1888, Page 4, and presumably also in British papers. In the case, a young woman, Maggie Watson, was suing her fiance William Kirkland, who had refused marriage because he enjoyed cigars, and she had insisted that he give up smoking. (see Kipling must have seen a report of the case in the course of his work on the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore.

When the poem was collected in Inclusive Verse (1919) it carried the heading:

“You must choose between me and your cigar.”
— Breach of Promise Case, circa 1885.

The date does not appear in the various editions of Departmental Ditties and Other Verses, or Early Verse (1900); nor in the Bombay Edition (1914), where the heading simply refers to a Glasgow breach of promise case. The date must have been added by Kipling when preparing poems for the Inclusive Edition (1919). The discrepancy between ‘circa 1885’ and the recorded date of the case, is odd. The most likely explanation is that – some thirty years later – Kipling misremembered the date of his source. (See Poems of Rudyard Kipling, Cambridge 2013, ed. Pinney, p. 106).

One wonders if this piece is to a degree autobiographical like so much of Kipling’s other work. He had been a dedicated smoker since his schooldays, though in later years he was obliged to give it up on medical grounds. See his description of a tobacconist’s shop in “In the Interests of the Brethren” in Debits and Credits:

It had been established by his grandfather in 1827, but the fittings and appointments must have been at least half a century older. The brown and red tobacco- and snuff-jars, with Crowns, Garters, and names of forgotten mixtures in gold leaf; the polished ‘Oronoque’ tobacco-barrels on which favoured customers sat ; the cherry-black mahogany counter, the delicately moulded shelves, the reeded cigar-cabinets, the German-silver-mounted scales, and the Dutch brass roll- and cake-cutter, were things to covet.

At that time smoking, of pipes and cigars, was very much a male activity, often in “smoking rooms” where women were not expected to trespass. For a woman to smoke either would have been eccentric and rather improper.

Another possible source

Susan Treggiari writes: ‘The other day I stumbled across an interesting passage when I was reading Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone (1868). In the narrative of the steward Gabriel Betteredge, chapter 23, he has a conversation with the young hero, Franklin Blake, who is in love and puzzled by the behaviour of the heroine, Miss Verinder. I imagine Kipling would have read this piece of popular literature, and it seems possible that it was also at the back of his mind when he wrote “The Betrothed”‘:

Drifting again, out of the morning-room into the hall, he found his way to the offices next, smelt my pipe, and was instantly reminded that he had been simple enough to give up smoking for Miss Rachel’s sake. In the twinkling of an eye, he burst in on me with his cigar-case, and came out strong on the one everlasting subject, in his neat, witty, unbelieving, French way. “Give me a light, Betteredge. Is it conceivable that a man can have smoked as long as I have without discovering that there is a complete system for the treatment of women at the bottom of his cigar-case? Follow me carefully, and I will prove it in two words. You choose a cigar, you try it, and it disappoints you. What do you do upon that? You throw it away and try another. Now observe the application! You choose a woman, you try her, and she breaks your heart. Fool! take a lesson from your cigar-case. Throw her away, and try another!”


Some Critical Opinions

This poem is discussed by Andrew Lycett (p. 158) in an interesting comment on the young Kipling’s attitude towards women:

Rudyard could not make up his mind whether women were a positive
or negative influence in India. In the Plain Tale “His Chance in life”, Rudyard admits that a woman’s presence can be useful: `When a man does good work out of all proportion to his pay, in seven cases out of nine there is a woman at the back of his virtue.’ But by the time of The Story of the Gadsbys, his views had altered abruptly: women are now an encumbrance to men trying to fulfil their duty. `A young man married is a young man marred,’ as Gadsby’s friend, Captain Mafflin, put it, or, `He travels the fastest who travels alone’ – from the much quoted explanatory `L’Envoi’ at the end of the book. This was odd because
Rudyard had just been in Allahabad, where the Hills’ marriage, which he
had witnessed at close quarters, was enduring and mutually supportive.

Notes on the Text


breach of promise case: This refers to a lawsuit following the failure to keep a promise to marry. Such cases were usually brought by the disappointed woman who had incurred expenses in anticipation of the proposed union, and whose life expectations were lost. At that time in Britain, on marriage, a woman’s property passed to her husband. For the wealthier classes, matrimony was a serious contract in which money and property were at stake.

A ‘Breach of Promise’ case was the basis of the first novel of Charles Dickens, his humorous masterpiece The Pickwick Papers (1836), and of the celebrated light opera “Trial by Jury” (1875) by Gilbert and Sullivan.

[Verse 1]

Cuba: an island in the West Indies where the finest cigars are made.

Maggie: a diminutive of the beautiful name of “Margaret”, which seems uncouth to this Editor, whose mother’s name it was.

[Verse 2]

Havana: a cigar made in the capital of Cuba.

cheroot: a thin untapered cigar open at both ends.

[Verse 5]

Larrañaga: registered in 1834 by Ignacio Larrañag, this became a well-known brand of cigar.

Henry Clay: a brand of cigars named after the notable American statesman and orator Henry Clay (1777-1852).

[Verse 8]

The light of Days that have Been: an echo of “A Lament” by George, Baron Lytton (1803-1873):

Ah, never can fall from the days that have been
A gleam on the years that shall be !

[Verse 10]

Manila: in this context a mild cigar from the capital of the Philippines. See “A Smoke of Manila” in Abaft the Funnel. They also grow very fine hemp there for making excellent ropes.

[Verse 11]

harem: the part of an Eastern household where the women were accommodated.

[Verse 14]

Suttee: suicide by a Hindu widow on the funeral-pyre of her deceased husband. See our notes on Kipling’s verse “The Last Suttee”.

[Verse 16]

Java: in this context, a cigar flavoured with coffee, among other things, from the island of Java, in Indonesia, then the Dutch East Indies.

Borneo: the great island north of Australia, now divided between Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei.

Spanish Main: the mainland of South America, at one time part of the Spanish Empire, and the ocean surrounding it.

[Verse 17]

I will take no heed to their raiment: an echo of various Biblical references, including Matthew 5,34: ‘Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.’

[Verse 18]

Moor: strictly a Muslim from Morocco, but here probably simply meaning someone who practises polygamy—marriage with several wives.

Mormon:  a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints in the American State of Utah, which sanctioned polygamy until 1890. It is still practised by some Mormons today. (2010)

[Verse 19]

Nick o’ Teen: nicotine, the powerful alkaloid which is the active constituent of tobacco.

[Verse 20]

Cabanas: medium-strength cigars from Cuba.

[Verse 22]

Will-of-the-Wisp: ignis fatuus (Latin for “foolish fire”) also known as corpse candle, jack-o’-lantern, friar’s lantern etc., is a ghostly light sometimes seen at night over marshland, resembling a flickering lamp. It is the subject of much folklore of ghosts and the supernatural, but is in fact caused by methane gas ignited by lightning. Here it means something illusory, now seen, now disappearing.

[Verse 25]

Yoke: in this context the large timber collar used to harness a pair of oxen – thus a badge of servitude. It may also have an echo of the ancient Roman custom of humiliating the soldiers of a defeated enemy by making them pass under a low arch of spears, bowing their heads. (Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable)

[Verse 26]

Spouse: a partner in a marriage, in this case, the wife.

[J McG./JR]

©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2010 All rights reserved