Cain and Abel

Western version


(notes edited by John McGivering)

Publication history

ORG Volume 8, page 5486 lists this poem as Verse No.1218. It was first published in a copyright edition in 1939, three years after Kipling’s death, with the sub-title “A Cattle Song, 1934.” See David Alan Richards p. 333.

It is collected in:

  • Definitive Verse 1940, with the subtitle “Western Version, 1934”
  • The Sussex Edition, Volume 35 p. 300
  • The Burwash Edition, Volume 28
  • The Works of Rudyard Kipling, Wordsworth Poetry Library, 1994


This is Kipling’s re-telling of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve, related in Chapter 4 of The Book of Genesis, the tale of the first murder. In Genesis Cain, the elder brother, a farmer, finds that his offerings to the Lord are rejected, while those of his brother Abel, the shepherd, are accepted. In a rage he kills Abel, and is cursed for ever after. The moral is, perhaps, that jealousy, even between brothers, can lead to murderous violence, that murder cannot be forgiven, and that obedience to the Lord God is all.

The story had clearly captured Kipling’s imagination. He couches the tale in the language of the farmers he had met in North America, where conflicts on the land between cattle ranchers and farmers, often over water, have provided the plots for many stories and films. He also significantly changes the underlying moral message.

In Kipling’s version, Cain is the farmer, with land on the bank of the Euphrates, one of the Rivers of the Garden of Eden, while Abel is the rancher running cattle on the range. There is a long drought and requests for water by Abel and his cattle are rudely refused several times; Abel digs a hole in a dyke releasing water onto his land for his cattle to drink. Cain taunts his brother, who makes to strike him. But Cain gets in first with a fatal blow.

Cain is left to the judgement of God; but the narrator, another American-style farmer, concludes with the observation:

…seein’ all he had had to bear
I never could call that Judgement fair !


The newly wed Kiplings lived in Brattleboro, Vermont, in the United States, from 1892 to 1896. (See Something of Myself Chapter V, “The Committee of Ways and Means”, and Charles Carrington, Chapter IX). On their honeymoon journeys they had travelled from coast to coast and back across the American continent. They set up house in Brattleboro, Kipling went on with his writing, and their two daughters were born there. Kipling talked a good deal to the local people, comparing the America he saw with the England he knew, and picking up many American attitudes and turns of phrase which are reflected in stories and poems – even years later. Besides this poem these include:

See also our notes on “New Lamps for Old”, and the poem “Alnaschar and the Oxen”.

See also some personal reflections on the poem from Carlos Sanchez Fernandez.

Notes on the Text

[Heading] “Western” in this context refers to the Western states of the USA.

[Verse 1]

Koop-la! a shout of encouragement when driving cattle

raised in this context ‘grew’

[Verse 3]

banked and sluiced These lines describe the building of dams with sluice-gates and other works for irrigating land.

Euphrates a river which rises in modern-dayTurkey, and flows southwards through the deserts of various countries, including Iraq, to the Persian Gulf. Genesis 4 records it as one of the rivers of the Garden of Eden

[Verse 4]

dams in this context barriers of earth, rock etc. erected across the course of a stream to form a reservoir.

[Verse 6] With the hot red Sun between their brows In the blazing sunshine. We have not traced any earlier literary source for this expression; information will be welcomed.

pore Here an American pronunciation of ‘poor’, though one that is not confined to America. See Mr Marsh, in “His Gift” in Land and Sea Tales: Pore Boys !’

[Verse 7]

With the cold white Moon between their brows At night, by moonlight. As for the sun in verse 6, we have not traced any earlier literary source for this expression, and information will be welcomed.

[Verse 8]

li’l an abbreviation of ‘little’

With the Evenin’ Star between their brows The cattle came for water In the evening as well as by day and night.

we’ll be cows we will grow up to be fully grown beasts.

[Verse 10]

hatches in this context sluice-gates for controlling the flow of water

[Verse 12]

breach in this context to make a hole in a wall or dam.

[Verse 13]

bull-goad a stick with a sharp point for driving cattle.

the Eden road the road leading to the garden of Eden.

[Verse 17]

hickory-limb the branch of a hickory tree (genus Carya) which grows in North America and Asia. Its wood is particularly hard.

[Verse 19]

hat an’ spurs the classic cowboy hat was designed by John Batterson Stetson (1830-1906) Spurs are worn on one’s boot-heels to dig into the horse’s flanks and increase his pace,

Hell-hoofin’ slang for riding roughly

[Verse 20]

steers bullocks, castrated oxen, two to four years old.

garden-truck the produce of a market-garden, vegetables etc.

[Verse 24]

milled here meaning ‘moved around together aimlessly’.

the Land of Nod the country to which Cain was banished after the murder. (See Genesis 4,16.) The expression is also used for small children; to visit the Land of Nod is to fall asleep.

[Verse 25] ‘I never could call the Judgment fair!’ Kipling is expressing a different moral viewpoint from that of the Old Testament, where there is no question of challenging the dictates of the Lord God. Genesis does not tell us the full story, in particular we are not told why the Lord accepted Abel’s offering and rejected that of Cain.


[J McG.]

©John McGivering 2011 All rights reserved