A Ballad of Bitterness

(notes by Philip Holberton, drawing on the work of Andrew Rutherford and Thomas Pinney)


There is a version in Kipling’s handwriting dated December 1883, written on an unused dance card, with the subheading ‘Dedicated (without permission) to my Mater’ in the Rudyard Kipling Collection, George Arants Research Library, Syracuse University, USA.

Kipling’s mother was in England at the time, but the poem accompanied a letter to Mrs. Tavenor Perry, a kind of substitute mother whom he had been in the habit of addressing as “Mater” when he was at school. The letter is now in the Huntington Library, in San Marino, California, (Pinney p. 2248).

The poem was not collected by Kipling but is to be found in Rutherford (p. 205) and Pinney (p. 1706) as well as on this site.

The Poem

This is a poem of homesickness, contrasting his present life in India with memories of London. It is very similar in theme to “At the End of a Year”, written to his aunt Edith Macdonald at much the same time, though the verse form is very different.

Kipling had used the title before, as the subtitle to “De Profundis”.

Notes on the Text

[Verse 2]

the Presses: the printing presses (left) of the newspaper where he works.

the C.M.G.: the Civil and Military Gazette, his newspaper in Lahore.

[Verse 3]

proofs:  items that he has to correct before they are finally printed. A ‘proof’ is the first version of a printed piece. The compositors who set the type could not speak English, so errors at the proof stage were common.

[Verse 4]

waler: an Australian horse, imported from New South Wales.

[Verse 5]

scissors: part of his job is to cut items from other papers to be reprinted in the C.M.G.

piling on the steam: working very hard – a metaphor from the days of steam locomotives, when the fireman on the footplate had to shovel coal into the firebox, piling it up.

vapours: depression, nervousness. Here, also a pun on the ‘steam’ in the previous line.

[Verse 7]

Twenty five, The Grove: Mrs. Tavenor Perry’s address at this time was 25 The Grove, The Boltons, Kensington, in London.

[Verse 10]

P. and O.: a vessel of the Peninsular and Oriental Steamship Company, which plied between Britain and India, via the Suez Canal.

[Verse 12]

punkah: a swinging cloth, pulled by hand, acting as a fan.

[Verse 14]

billet doux: a love letter (French: literally ‘a sweet note’).


©Philip Holberton 2019 All rights reserved