A Conference of the Powers

(notes edited by Peter Havholm)


First published in 1890 in the Pioneer of 23 & 24 May, and the Pioneer Mail of 28 May; also 31 May in Harper’s Weekly and the June edition of the United Service Magazine (not to be confused with the U.S.C.C., the United Services College Chronicle).

Collected in:

  • The Courting of Dinah Shadd and Other Stories, 1890
  • Mine Own People (U.S.A.), 1891
  • Many Inventions, 1893.
  • Scribner’s Edition, Vol. II
  • Sussex Edition, Vol. V;
  • Burwash Edition, Vol. V.


The story is headed by a three-line verse from “Philosophy” by James Thomson, whose poem “The City of Dreadful Night” was read by Kipling at the age of fourteen, when he was on holiday from school at Warwick Gardens in west London. He wrote in Something of Myself (p. 22), that it ‘shook me to my unformed core’. The pessimism of that poem is strongly felt in the latter portion of The Light that Failed, and in that novel Dick Heldar’s masterpiece, the “Melancolia”, takes its inspiration from Thomson’s “Dreadful Night”. Perhaps Thomson’s gloom spoke particularly clearly to the boy who had left the bullying at Southsea only to be bullied ‘scientifically’ in his early years at the United Services College. Certainly Thomson’s poetry loomed large in his mind in 1890: there are at least three allusions in this story alone.

The 1866 “Philosophy” is less gloomy than Thomson’s 1870-74 epic, for while it admits that death ‘work[s] its vile/ Corruption in black secrecy’ beneath the skin, it appears to conclude that taking ocean foam at its word is better than fruitless analysis. As the stanza following Kipling’s excerpt has it:

If Midge will pine and curse its hours away
Because Midge is not Everything For-aye,
Poor Midge thus loses its one summer day;
Loses its all — and winneth what, I pray?

This could be characterized as a deeper level of cynicism or, as J.M.S. Tompkins remarks, it could be associated with the view that that ‘all the powers of man, creative and executive, are ‘solid as ocean foam’. The lama in Kim‘, she notes, ‘takes this for granted’. (p. 193). On the other hand, the story that follows certainly seems to present the dailiness of action as extremely attractive compared to the practice of art. It is possible to see in “The Children of the Zodiac”, the collection’s last story, an answer to this criticism.

At any rate, this story comes from the period in London when Kipling had begun to experience an extraordinary popular and literary success. He was acquainted by this time with Henry James and Edmund Gosse and was the much-admired author of “The Courting of Dinah Shadd” and the earlier Barrack Room Ballads as well as the stories in the English edition of Soldiers Three. This story’s publication in the Pioneer and Pioneer Mail indicates that it was written for his audience in India as well as for the readers of Harper’s in the U.S. and Great Britain.

The story

“I” tells this story, in which his rooms in London (Kipling lived during this time in rooms in Villiers Street, next to Charing Cross Station) are the setting for a chance meeting of an eminent English writer Eustace Cleever (or ‘Cleaver’ in the footnote to “Slaves of the Lamp — II” in Stalky & Co.) with three young army officers just arrived on leave in London from service in India and Burma, ‘Tick’ Boileau, Nevin, and ‘The Infant’, an impressively large young man.

The three have read and deeply admired Cleever’s book, set in the Infant’s county (‘all my people live there’), and their enthusiastic questioning leads Cleever to drop from the manner of ‘the pundit caste’ into colloquial speech — and to realize that, much as he knows of the English countryside and country people, he knows nothing of the Subaltern of the Line.

As they begin to tell him a little, he remarks: ‘the whole idea of warfare seems so foreign and unnatural, so essentially vulgar . . . ‘ “I” explains quickly that all three have ‘seen service’ which leads to Cleever’s demanding that they tell him about it. Whereupon the Infant tells the story of his campaign against murderous dacoits in the Burmese jungle, an assault on a village, and the capture of Boh Na-ghee the dacoit leader. Cleever is delighted, and accompanies the three young men when they leave to dine out and go on to the Empire Music-Hall. They return great friends, and on leaving, Cleever quotes Thomson to “I” to the effect that life is greater than art: ‘Whereupon I understood that Eustace Cleever, decorator and colourman in words, was blaspheming his own Art, and would be sorry for this in the morning.’

Critical responses

Andrew Rutherford judges the story ‘undoubtedly successful in its minor way… in its presentation of the subalterns … [showing Kipling’s] remarkable faculty of observation.’ However, Rutherford believes the story finally ducks the task of resolving the conflict between action and expression. Charles Carrington sees the piece as ‘no very profound matter’, a fictionalizing of experiences of which he wrote to Mrs. Hill from London.’

Philip Mason, in Kipling: The Glass the Shadow and the Fire, sees the story as one of the reasons Kipling’s work fell out of favour with the literary critics of the day: ‘Doing things was better than writing about them. It was contempt for intellectuals as much as imperialism that made him obnoxious’. [to “the critics”] (p. 196).

J M S Tompkins, with the epigraph in mind, comments (p. 147):

The young men, established in their world and not in the least introspective, are those with whom all is well at home, whose solid and daylight concerns leave them no need to explore the countries of the mind. The third line [of the epigraph] suddenly shifting focus, sees them and their achievements as no more than the foam on the vast ocean of time. All men’s achievements are as evanescent as foam, but men, as they work, do not remember this. The poet, however, unappeased by action, is visited by the vision. It is the line of “Bridge Builders” and “Cities and Thrones and Powers”

The historical background

For an account of the background to this tale one cannot do better than “Kipling’s Burma, A Literary and Historical Review” by Gerorge Webb.

[P. H.]

©Peter Havholm 2007 All rights reserved