This poem was first published in the Daily Telegraph of April 15th 1925, as a heading to an article by Kipling’s friend Perceval Landon about stained glass. It is listed in ORG as no. 1124A.
It is collected in:
- Inclusive Verse (1927)
- Definitive Verse (1940)
- The Sussex Edition vol. xxxv (1939)
- The Burwash Edition vol. xxviii (1941)
- Cambridge Edition (2013) Ed. Thomas Pinney, p. 1410.
This is a sonnet, finely chiselled by a skilful hand. The poet is in Chartres Cathedral, one of the great churches of Europe, with its magnificent stained glass. Organ music is playing, but he is more conscious of the beams of many-coloured light from the high windows, revealing the people below in all their humanity.
But he sees that the evening light does not reach the pavement where generation after generation of feet have trodden. As Roger Ayers notes: ‘one of the very special things about stained glass at the point of dusk, or dawn, is that the sun’s beams are as near horizontal as they can be and do not strike the floor.‘ Kipling reflects that a day will come for everyone when there will no longer be the unjudging sun through the windows, but the piercing light of God, holding one’s spirit to account.
The Kiplings were driving through France in March 1925 with Perceval Landon. They had been at Rouen on March 13th to see the 11,000 graves at the war cemetery (right) Rudyard wrote to Rider Haggard the following day:
‘One never gets over the shock of the Dead Sea of arrested lives.’ (Thomas Pinney (Ed.) Letters vol 5 p. 212)
He was inspired by an encounter there to write “The Gardener”, which he started on March 14th
and continued in the days that followed.
That day they drove on to visit the church of Our Lady at Les Andelys and the cathedral at Evreux. In the same letter he wrote of the stained glass at Les Andelys:
Colour, old man, is what, au fond, clinches a creed. Colour and the light of God behind it. That’s as near as Man will ever get.
Then in the late afternoon, they came to Chartres.
Got into the Cathedral – on the very last fading of the twilight and it was as though one moved within the heart of a Jewel of the Faith. You know the inexpressible colour glories of Chartres – all the windows superb and some without flaw or blemish in any aspect. Last time I’d seen it the glass was all out, because of bombings by the Hun. Now all the glories were returned – rose window and all – and in that last few minutes of darkness overcoming day, the windows burned and glowed like the souls of martyrs. Don’t know when I’ve been more touched in the deeps.
On page 213 (note 7) Thomas Pinney quotes from an entry in Kipling’s diary of his motor tours for March 20th:
‘…to bed early after having touched up sonnet on Chartres windows which is coming into shape’
Rather surprisingly, this elegant and deeply felt poem has attracted little attention from Kipling’s critics and biographers, though Peter Keating (p. 228) mentions it as one of a group of poems which benefit from:
Kipling’s post-war dedication to conscious craftsmanship … and [are] also impressive testimony to the continuously speculative nature of Kipling’s mind in the 1920s.
Jan Montefiore writes:
I envy Kipling having seen a great cathedral as the last light faded. Electric light, with all its boons and blessings, has put a stop to that now. Kipling saw the windows at dusk, as the last light goes. I think there’s an implied metaphor here suggesting that the day nearing its end represents the poet’s own life, which is also nearing its close. When he writes about the light fading, I suspect that Kipling also may have had in mind Shakespeare’s sonnet about ageing:
‘That time of year thou may’st in me behold’, especially this quatrain:
In me thou see’st the passing of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In Kipling’s fourth line ‘And all the lit confusion of our days’, ‘days’ means the days that pass, including this one; also, ‘our days’ is a synonym for ‘our lifetime’, as in ‘walk in the same all the days of my life’ in the catechism in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, which Kipling would have known from his childhood.
[Incidentally, Kipling was aware that in this poem he was following Shakepeare. He wrote to Rider Haggard on March 31st, after finishing the piece: I’ve done a Sonnet, a real 14-line Sonnet—only it breaks a lot of rules that apparently William Shakespeare had laid down for the fabrication of sonnets, so you see t’isn’t a real sonnet. But, I swear, it reads all right.]
But of course, what Kipling is seeing in Chartres is not a fading sunset but the ‘blazon’ of the glass in the last light of the day. The beauty and intricacy and complexity of the coloured patterns represent his own life, love and passions. In stained glass you can see there IS a pattern but a lot of the details escape the eye.
When he says that Time will bring the brilliant colours:
‘ grozed and leaded and wedged fast
‘ To the cold stone that curbs or crowns desire
I think two thoughts are going on. On the one hand, the brilliant colours and patterns of the window represent our lives, and that the stone margin of the window represents the temporal limit of our lives . So all that liveliness of colour and pattern, all the ’holiest moments’ and ’surrender’ – which may mean surrender to God, but as Kipling wasn’t much of a mystic, more likely means ’surrender to the moment’, as in
T S Eliot’s “The Waste Land”:
The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only , we have existed’
All that and ‘desire’ (another telling word, certainly implying the artist’s desire to create, but other kinds of desire as well including the physical) – will end in the ‘cold stone’ of the tomb. He may have had in mind John Shirley’s 17th Cemtiry poem “The glories of our blood and state”, and the final
‘Your heads must come
To the cold tomb’.
The other idea, related but not the same, is that the brilliant intricacies of the stained glass represent not only life but the triumph of art rendering its time-bound mortal beauty into an enduring pattern which is immortal, triumphing over the passing centuries. One is reminded here of what Henry James wrote to Kipling about Kim:
. . . The way you make the general picture live and sound and shine, all by a myriad [of] touches that are like the thing itself pricking through with a little snap – that makes me want to say to you: ‘Come, all else is folly – sell all you have and give it to the poor!’ By which I mean chuck public affairs, which are an ignoble scene, and stick to your canvas and your paint-box. There are as good colours in the tubes as ever were laid on, and there is the only truth. The rest is base humbug.
(Letters, vol iv – 1895-1916, pp. 210-211)
Oil paints are not stained glass, and James’ letter was over twenty years before he wrote the poem. I’m not suggesting Kipling had it in mind, just that it’s useful as a sort of gloss. The figure here is the ancient craftsmanship of building that Kipling so loved to invoke, the techniques of grozing and wedging and so on.
But whatever the craftsmanship, the windows can’t show anything unless the sun lights them – and here the sun represents God, the source of life. And because the patterns of the rose window at Chartres, taken as a whole, can seem abstract, the vision of these patterns is at once common to everyone and personal – each of us can see the patterns as ‘the lit confusion of our [own] days’. The idea is that everyone can find their own experience contained in a work of great art, even the most intimate and unspoken things. As when you listen to a Mozart or Shostakovich quartet and it seems to speak intimately to you across time.
I think the echoes of Shakespeare and Shirley probably are conscious, at least on some level – Kipling was deeply read in English poetry and he’d certainly have known those poems. The echo of Eliot in ‘each man’s surrender, each man’s holiest hour ’ may be mere coincidence, arising from Kipling finding in ’surrender’ the mot juste his scansion required. The modernism of “The Waste Land” wouldn’t have been up Kipling’s street, still less its despair which he would have thought decadent. Still, he might have read it and the line stuck in his mind, as the thought in both poems is quite close.
Henry James, whom he regarded as a Master,
might well have come to mind when Kipling
was celebrating great art as a rendering of life.
I find this poem very Jamesian. [J.M.]
Notes on the Text
The Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres (Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres) is in the town of Chartres, about 80 km south west of Paris. It is some eight hundred years old, the present building having been mainly constructed between 1194 and 1220.
The original stained glass windows, which are world-famous, have largely survived from that time. In the Middle Ages Chartres was the greatest centre of stained glass manufacture in Europe, producing glass of unrivalled quality.
Stained glass, as an art form, reached its height in the Middle Ages when it was used to adorn Christian churches, and illustrate the Bible stories to largely illiterate people. Between 950 and 1240, the windows demanded large expanses of glass supported by strong iron frames, as at Chartres or, for example, Canterbury in Southern England.
Stained glass is coloured by adding metallic salts during its manufacture. The coloured glass is crafted into stained glass windows in which small pieces of glass are arranged to form patterns or pictures. The pieces of glass are about 1/8-inch (3.2 mm) thick and bound together by strips of grooved lead, soldered at the joints. The entire window is secured in the opening at regular intervals by metal saddle bars tied with wire, soldered to the leads, and reinforced at greater intervals by tee-bars fitted into the masonry.
In his poem Kipling uses a number of technical terms, which take the reader closer to the mediaeval makers of the windows, seven hundred years before.
[line 5] purfled with iron ‘purfled’ here simply means ‘bordered’, within the iron frame that held the window.
[line 5] traced in dusk and fire the poet is looking up at the light at dusk streaming through the window. ‘tracery’ is ribbed stonework.
[line 7] grozed and leaded and wedged fast To groze is to trim a piece of glass to shape, with a ‘grozing iron’. At the time of the production of the Chartres glass, this was a short stout metal rod with a hooked end which gave a characteristic nibbled edge to each piece of glass. As explained above, the glass was leaded – held in place with lead – and with iron wedges.
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