The Bonfires

(notes edited by John McGivering)



ORG records this poem (Verse No. 1217) as “Bonfires on the Ice” which was first published in the London Morning Post on 13 November 1933, a couple of days after “The Pleasure Cruise” as a further remonstration against neglect of the armed forces by the government. It is collected as “The Bonfires” in the Sussex Edition vol. xxv page 296, the Burwash Edition volume xxviii, Definitive Verse, and The Works of Rudyard Kipling (The Wordsworth Poetry Library).

Critical responses

Sir George McMunn, writing in KJ 082/04 in July 1947 after over five years of war against Germany, recalls the poem:

Among the most striking of Kipling’s verses have been those
that almost from the start of his career, he had launched to
remind us of our national duty—that the most prosperous and humane Empire that the world has ever seen cannot be held by “killing Kruger with your mouth.” This is a moment in our history when his efforts might well be recalled … We have to occupy Germany for a long period of years, lest she prepare for another
orgy of conquest. The inducements offered for voluntary service—good though they are—have not induced the young men of the country and the “good-time” boy to come forward in sufficient numbers …

Sir George goes on to criticise the proposals of the Labour Government for National Military Service for all young men. He then turns again to “Bonfires on the Ice”:

This always reminds me of the stories of the River Thames
frost-fairs held on the Tideway of the River Thames at London between the 15th and 19th centuries when the river froze over. During that time the British winter was more severe than now, and the river was wider and slower. One year an ox was roasted.


See also KJ 293/69 for a request from the Dowager Lady Egremont for information that does not seem to have been answered:

This powerful and tightly constructed poem is full of rather enigmatic allusions, beginning with a cynical prefatory note in prose:

Gesture . . . outlook . . . vision. . . avenue . . . example . . . achievement. . . appeasement. . . limit of risk. Common Political Form.

The poem (she writes) … was a prescient warning of the threat that Hitler’s rearmament of Germany would pose to a militarily unprepared Britain. Angus
Wilson’s biography of Kipling (1977) describes it as his ‘warning of what he believed to be all the delusive panaceas based on the easy ways
Andrew Lycett’s biography (1999) says the poem reflected
Kipling’s ‘alarm at contemporary political myopia’, and quotes an explanatory comment by Gwynne (Editor of the Morning Post), that ‘ “Bonfires on the Ice” meant ‘policies built upon falsehood, which cheer and deceive for a time, but in the end fall through the foundations on which they are built.’ As for the Fenris (or Fenrys) Wolf, Lycett says that this is the sinister werewolf of Nordic legend.

But there may well be more that could usefully be said about the style
or content (or timing) of this poem, with all its taut allusions to proverbial

The title

“Bonfires on the Ice” sounds like an echo of a proverb or metaphor indicating dangerous and foolish actions. See KJ 097/07 for a note by Lt.-Col. W. N. Pettigrew on the origin of the title:

The context of the poem makes abundantly clear the significance of
the title. I was, however, curious to discover whether the phrase was an established one, and searched all the dictionaries of phrases to which I had access : this with no success. Then,
by sheer chance I stumbled across what I now firmly believe to be the origin of this obscure title.

In the Review of Reviews for July, 1900, the Editor (W. T. Stead) (said a number of) uncomplimentary things about Kipling, who would surely have had his attention drawn to them. The commentary ended with a long quotation from Mr.Dooley in Peace and War, by F. P.Dunne, which … related to the
contrast between the exuberance of American enthusiasm for the cause of the South African Republic, and the studied cold shoulder with which the Boer delegates were treated by
Mr. McKinley and official Americans. The quotation reads :

“Don’t you think th’United States is enthusyastic f’r th’ Boers?” asked the
innocent Hennessy.

“It was” said Mr. Dooley, “but in the last few weeks it’s a-had so manny
things to think iv. Th’ enthusyasm iv this country, Hinnissy, always makes
me think of a bonfire on an ice-floe. It burns bright so long
as ye feed it an’ it looks good, but it don’t take hold, somehow on th’ ice.”

Notes on the Text

Verse 1

the Pie – likewise the Crust: Promises are like pie crust, made to be broken (old proverb).

Verse 2

the mountain and the mouse…:  a fable, usually attributed to Æsop – though there are other versions – tells that:

The people of seven cities assembled to watch a mountain in labour and hear its groans. While they waited. out came a Mouse.
“Oh, what a baby!” they cried..
“I may be a baby,” said the Mouse, gravely, as he went through the forest of legs, “but I know tolerably well how to diagnose a volcano.”

Great cry and little wool…:  …as the devil said when he sheared the hog. Much ado about nothing – one who promises much but delivers little [See The Wordsworth Dictionary of Phrase and Fable,. (Cassell & Co., Ltd. Brewer revised by Ivor H. Evans 1970) p. 284.]

ears of sows:  You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. [Brewer p. 1002.]

the Frog that aped the Bull:  The Baby’s Own Aesop (verse fables by W.J. Linton, 1887), includes:

Said the frog quite puffed up to the eyes
Was this Bull about me as to size?”
“Rather bigger, frog-brother.”
“Puff, puff,” said the other,
“A Frog is a Bull if he tries.”

A Bob-tailed Flush is not a Full: In Poker, a ‘Flush’ – also called a ‘Four Flush’ – consists of four cards of the same suit. A ‘Full’ or ‘Full House’, also known as a ‘Full Boat’, is a hand that contains three matching cards of one rank and two of another rank. This beats a Flush, so this is another example of a small effort masquerading as a larger one, and not being adequate.

Verse 3

Demos:  the voters, hence ‘democracy’, of which Kipling took rather a gloomy view. See “As Easy as ABC” (A Diversity of Creatures) and “The Enlightenments of Pagett, M.P.” Kingsley Amis writes:

Kipling was an authoritarian in the sense that he was not
a democrat. To him, a parliament was a place where people with no knowledge of things as they were could dictate to the men who did real work, and could change their dictates at whim. His ideal was a feudalism that had never existed, a loyal governed class freely obeying incorrupt conscientous governors.

Fenris Wolf:  in Scandinavian mythology, the wolf of Loki, the god of strife and evil. [see Brewer p. 405]

the Father to the Thought: wishful thinking. This echoes Shakespeare’s “Henry IV Part 2”, Act 4, scene 4, where the prince, waiting for his father to die, says: ‘I never thought to hear you speak again’. The king replies:

Thy wish, , was father, Harry to that thought.

Babe and Cockatrice: an echo of Isaiah 11.8. ‘The weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’s den. ‘ A cockatrice is a fabulous winged monster with the head of a fowl and the tail of a dragon.

Verse 4

the Key must keep the Door: not traced, information will be appreciated [Ed.]

bootstraps … loops at the top for pulling them on: The saying “to pull yourself up by your bootstraps is a metaphor, meaning to better oneself by one’s own unaided efforts. This espression can also imply an impossible task.

[J. H. McG.]

©John McGivering 2010 All rights reserved