A British-Roman Song

(notes by Philip Holberton)


Published with “A Centurion of the Thirtieth” in Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906). For the sentiment, one might compare “The Roman Centurion’s Song” in A School History of England (1911) on which Kipling collaborated with C. R. L. Fletcher. [D. M.]

The poem

Daniel Hadas points out: historical evidence suggests that only a small minority of Roman imperial troops stationed abroad were from the city of Rome itself. I’m sure that Kipling was well aware of that, but wished to reflect on the imperial capital as the heart of empire, which he saw as a civilising force in the world. [D.H.]

Notes on the text

The date in the heading – A.D. 406 – is significant. It is the year the Roman legions were withdrawn and Britain was left on her own to face the threat of Anglo-Saxon invasion. Though spoken by a Roman serving in Britain, there are obvious references to the situation in England 1500 years later.

[Verse 2] oldest height: probably a reference to the Capitoline Hill.    According to Roman mythology, the Palatine Hill was the location of the cave, known as the Lupercal, where Romulus and Remus were found by the she-wolf Lupa that kept them alive.

[Verse 3] The speaker prays that Rome may send forth a brood unshakeable – like those Kipling had seen sent out from England to serve in India, twenty years before. For example, Tallantyre (“The Head of the District” in Life’s Handicap) or John Chinn (“The Tomb of His Ancestors” in The Day’s Work).

[Verse 4] In line 3 ‘the Empire’ must refer to the current British Empire as well as to the Roman one.

[Verse 5] The poet calls on those at the centre of the Empire to guard The Imperial Fire. At the time he wrote “Puck of Pook’s Hill”, Kipling saw Britain as doubly threatened. One threat was her apparent inability to address herself socially, imperially, culturally, and technologically to the future, and the other, the new radical menace from the left, to be labelled for convenience ‘ socialism’. ( See Angus Wilson, pp. 310-11).

the Imperial Fire:  This refers to the fire of Vesta, kept alive by the Vestal virgins. The poem is dated to shortly after the last evidence for Vestal virgins. (see Wikipedia)  Kipling was probably aware of this, which makes the reference to the fire more poignant. He may want us to imagine that news of the fire’s extinction had not yet reached the speaker. [D.H.]




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