The Burden

(notes edited by Philip Holberton)


The last verse of this poem was first published as a heading to the story “The Gardener” in McCall’s Magazine of April 1926. and in the Strand Magazine of May 1926. It is listed in ORG as No 1126A.

The poem is collected in:

  • Debits and Credits (1926)
  • InclusiveVerse (1927)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • The Sussex Edition vols x and xxxiv (1939)
  • The Burwash Edition vols viii and xxvii (1941)
  • Cambridge Edition (2013) Ed. Thomas Pinney, p. 1024.

The poem

This poem, set in one of the Great War cemeteries in France, expresses the dreadful grief of women who contemplate the graves of their dead sons. For some, including Helen Turrell, the central figure in the linked story “The Gardener”, there is the burden, not only of grief, but of secrecy about their relationships.

Kipling was inspired to write the story on a visit to the war cemetery at Rouen, with its eleven thousand dead.
Reading this poem one can never forget that only ten years before he and his wife Carrie had lost their only son on a battlefield not far away.

Many of Kipling’s stories and poems, like this one, present ambiguities, and mysteries, with layers of meaning which are not easy to fathom. In the opinion of this Editor, the poem faithfully reflects Helen Turrell’s life story as revealed in “The Gardener”. The ‘burden’ that she carries is the secret she can never tell to anyone, that Michael is her son and not her nephew. In the last verse, the metaphor changes and “The Burden” becomes “the Stone”, which is “rolled away” and lifted from her when the man whom she supposes to be the gardener openly speaks the truth: ‘I will show you where your son lies.’

Roger Ayers, in his talk to the Kipling Society about “The Gardener” on 9 April 2003 (KJ 308 pp. 9-19), finds that only the first verse accurately applies to Helen Turrell. In his view the others better fit the two other women whom we meet in the story, also seeking the graves of loved ones:

The second verse is Mrs Scarsworth, so tired of lying, of acting lies, of thinking lies; but, since her lover is dead, to no profit, all is in vain. And the third verse, which is totally unlike anything which we have heard of Helen’s behaviour, could be the Lancashire woman, for it is she, fearing that she will never find her child, who rages into the story, threatening to go mad.

Which leaves us the last verse. Who was she? In my view, this verse in italics is in a completely different voice, the voice of the original Mary Magdalene, the only Magdalen whose tears the Angel saw and the only one for whom the stone was rolled away.

But however one interprets the meaning of individual verses of the poem, the overarching theme is clear: the power of divine compassion to ‘roll away’ the burdens of grief and secrecy.

Critical comments

J M S Tompkins (p.106) in her chapter on “Simplicity and Complexity” writes:

The relation of the verses to the tales varies very much, and an attempt to force too close an application will sometimes distort either verses or tale or both … mostly the verses are significant. They are not indispensable to the tales, which in most cases were first published without them, and can stand alone. We should, not, therefore, think of them as keys.

I have sometimes wondered whether Kipling added the explicit “The Burden” after he found that “The Gardener” could be misunderstood; but the directness of the statement could easily come about in another way. Here something is expressed which underlies and breathes through the whole tale, but of which the consistently external method of narration forbids the open statement; here alone Helen speaks of the weight and grief of her lie.

Harry Ricketts (p.366) sees the story and the poem as part of Kipling’s mourning for the loss of his son:

Kipling had never been able to grieve openly for the loss of his son. Now, to write a story about a woman who was also unable to grieve openly and had to keep up appearances was the nearest he could come (in the controlling metaphor of “The Burden”) to ‘rolling away the stone’ and assuaging his innermost feelings.

Notes on the Text

[Verse 1]

One grief: Helen has borne an illegitimate son but tells everyone he is her nephew.

No soul can hear: She cannot tell the truth to anyone. In the 1920s, bearing an illegitimate child was perceived much more critically than it is now, and for a middle-class woman could have meant social ostracism.

Mary Magdalene: In Christian tradition, Mary Magdalene is the supreme example of the repentant sinner.

[Verse 2]

dear disgrace: she loved the father of her child, but they certainly never married.

To lie from morn till e’en: she has to keep up the deception the whole time, from morning till evening.

To know my lies are vain: Some critics of “The Gardener” think that most of the villagers knew the truth but accepted the “nephew” story for the sake of propriety. For instance Lisa Lewis in her introductory Notes in this Guide:

Helen’s friends of similar social background do not ostracise her, but appear to collude in the cover-up.

And J M S Tompkins (p. 116):

The narrative, then, speaks through a mask, the candid-seeming mask that Helen had designed and that her friends co-operated with her in respecting.

[Verse 4]

rolled the stone away: In St Matthew’s New Testament account, when Joseph of Arimathaea received the body of Jesus, he ‘laid it in his own new tomb, and he rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre’. (Matt. 27,60.) ‘ And behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door.’ (Matt. 28,2. See also Mark 16,4 and Luke, 24,2.)

©Philip Holberton 2018 All rights reserved