The Birthright

(The Propagation of Knowledge)

(notes edited by Lisa Lewis)


First published in Debits and Credits (1926), as an introduction to the story “The Propagation of Knowledge”.


Since Kipling was born in India, his was not a typical introduction to the English language. As a child in Bombay, though he spoke English with his parents, he “thought and dreamed” in what he called “the vernacular” as spoken by their Indian servants (Something of Myself, p. 3). As a young journalist, English was the language he wrote in; but he also studied Urdu and read Persian poets in translation, from whom the metaphor of language as jewellery may have come. (In “The Enemies to Each Other”, the first story in Debits and Credits, he imitates one of them in calling poets “the stringers of the pearls of words.”)

When he began to write fiction, he “made my own experiments in the weights, colours, perfumes and attributes of words in relation to other words, either as read aloud so that they may hold the ear, or, scattered over the page, draw the eye” (Something of Myself, page 72). In 1904, when his fame was at its height but his critical reputation was starting to slip, George Moore wrote (in an otherwise fairly hostile essay): “Who else, except Whitman, has written with the whole language since the Elizabethans?” (Lancelyn Green, ed., 1971, p. 289).

If this poem celebrates the English language, the story to which it is attached concerns English literature – how it is taught; its multifarious forms, and different ways of looking at them.

Notes on the Text

[Stanza II, lines 1-6]

We have such wealth as Rome at her most pride
Had not or (having) scattered not so wide;
Nor with such arrant prodigality,
Beneath her any pagan's foot let lie...
Lo! Diamond that cost some half their days
To find and t'other half to bring to blaze:

Difficult, but I think Kipling means:

Rome did not with roving (or notorious) generosity let the foot of any and every pagan lie beneath the covering of her language (Latin), the way that England has done with her language (English).

But it’s not easy to picture these lying feet. “Pagan” doesn’t refer to a religious persuasion, but to the non-Roman and non-Englishman. [D.H.]

[Stanza II, line 13] Turkis: old spelling of “turquoise,” which was believed to give protection against harm. See “The Bisara of Pooree” (Plain Tales from the Hills): “the blue bead necklace that keeps off the Evil Eye.”

The amulet that Kim is given in Chapter X of the novel contains a piece of turquoise; reference to it is part of the recognition-phrase he is taught to use for identification between secret agents.