The Conundrum of the Workshops

(notes edited by John McGivering)


Publication history

This ballad was first published in The Scots Observer on September 13, 1890. See the new (Feb 2010) Bibliography by David Alan Richards (pp. 54 and 74).

It is collected in

  • Barrack-Room Ballads and Other Verses,
  • Inclusive Verse
  • Definitive Verse
  • The Sussex Edition Vol. 32, page 302
  • The Burwash Edition, Vol. 25
  • The Works of Rudyard Kipling (Wordsworth Poetry Library)

The poem is an adaption of “New Lamps for Old”, which appeared in the Pioneer on 1 January 1889. It is collected in:

  • Some early editions of Barrack-Room Ballads
  • The Sussex Edition, Volume 32, page 118
  • The Burwash Edition
  • Early Verse by Rudyard Kipling, ed. Rutherford.

ORG Volume 8 p. 5245, notes that “New Lamps for Old” was not collected after 1900 until the Sussex and Burwash editions.

The theme

Adam, the first man, draws the first picture in the soil and is then prompted by the Devil to wonder if it is really Art. This question is repeated through the ages from Noah and his Ark to cave-dwellers (See “How the First Letter was Written” and “The Cat that Walked by Himself” in the Just-So Stories) until the modern writers in their London club have the same doubts. The poem concludes with the thought that they are still unlikely to know any more than Adam knew.


Kipling was drawn into a literary dispute in 1890 as Andrew Lycett (p. 216) explains. Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was published that year, and covered much of the same ground as Kipling’s recently completed novel The Light that Failed, was not admired by the Scots Observer, in which a review suggested it was written for “outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph-boys”. Wilde, who identified Kipling with the Scots Observer and W. E. Henley, its Editor, retaliated with letters to the paper and to the Nineteenth Century, in the September edition of which he described Kipling as ‘a reporter who knows vulgarity better than anyone has ever known it.’ Lycett writes:

Rudyard rose to the bait: he resurrected an old India poem (“New Lamps for Old”) as “The Conundrum of the Workshops”, which pointed out that Wilde’s criticism of art (in Dorian Gray) were not new; some devil was always asking, of people’s efforts; ‘It’s clever (or pretty) but is it art ’
With the years, Rudyard’s views on this matter firmed by mid-1891 when he wrote “Tomlinson”, the aesthetic on art view was roundly attacked, and later. in his memoirs, he referred to the ‘suburban Toilet-Club school favoured by the late Mr. Oscar Wilde
[Something of Myself, p. 217]

[A Toilet Club was a barber’s shop which, in the 19th century, offered reduced charges to clients who paid a regular quarterly or yearly subscription: OED]  “New Lamps for Old” is to be found in Early Verse by Rudyard Kipling, p. 445 and elsewhere, as described in Rutherford’s Note.

See also Richards, pp. 142 and 344. Apart from the first line, ‘The flush of the new-born sun …, it is a different poem.  Andrew Lycett (p. 242) also discusses “Tomlinson”, which he regards as a sequel to “The Conundrum of the Workshops”, both of which reflect Kipling’s dislike of:

… the shallowness of metropolitan life in contrast to the manly and human values of his favourite soldiers.

This point of view is expressed in a number of Kipling’s writings, including:

  • The Light that Failed
  • the poem “In Partibus” in Abaft the Funnel
  • “The Wrong Thing” in Rewards and Fairies
  • “Hal o’ the Draft” in Puck of Pook’s Hill, and
  • “My Son’s Wife” in A Diversity of Creatures

Bonamy Dobree (p. 161.) observes that this poem:

… reflects the literary world he encountered when he came to London, where each man talked of the aims of art, and each in an alien tongue’, all, moreover, haunted by the doubt Satan continually insinuates, saying, ‘it’s pretty, it’s human, it’s clever “But is it art ?’.

The resolution of the artist’s doubt, is, however, made in “The Story of Ung”, described as ”A Fable for the Criticized” After all, the artist, here a dweller in the Ice Age ‘sees’ in the way a man of action never can. Defiance of critics who want to reduce everything to pattern is declared in “In the Neolithic Age”, which roundly states, in a now well-worn phrase, that:

There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,


Lionel Johnson, writing in the Academy in 1891 and 1892 admires Barrack-Room Ballads, calling this poem: ‘A charming satire upon critics and criticism’. [Kipling, The Critical Heritage, Ed. R L Green, p. 103.]
Marghanita Laski quotes the opening of this poem at the head of her Chapter Three –“The Craftsman”.

Notes on the Text

[Verse 1]

Eden’s green and gold: ‘And the LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden; there he put the man whom he had formed.’ (Genesis 2,8.) Green for the leaves and gold for the sunlight.

Nothing has changed in several million years. See Verse 7 below and “A Truthful Song”.

Adam: the first man.

the Tree: the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, see Genesis 2,17. This is the beginning of the world as related in the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament.

[Verse 2]

his wife: Eve, the first woman; see Genesis 2,21.

review: in this context a critical article dissecting, praising, or condemning a work of art, book, painting, sculptire, etc. After this and “The Rhyme of the Three Captains” Kipling seems to have learned his lesson, and did not take much notice of the critics or their observations.

his sons: Cain and Abel; see Genesis 4,1-8.

branded Cain: he murdered his brother Abel. He was also literally branded by God. ‘And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him’. Genesis 4.15

[Verse 3]

they builded a tower: the tower of Babel; see Genesis 11,4.

derrick: a simple form of crane for hoisting loads.

each in an alien tongue:  As told in Genesis: the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech, but God said … “Let us go down and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” See Genesis 11,1.

the waters rose: This is the Flood. See Genesis 6 onwards for the story of Noah and his Ark.

blank-canvas: an artist’s prepared surface ready for painting.

dove: See Genesis 8,8-12: Noah … sent forth a dove from him to see if the waters were abated from off the face of the ground, but the dove found no rest for the sole of her foot, and she returned unto him into the ark, for the waters were upon the face of the whole earth … and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark; And the dove came into him in the evening; and, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf pluckt off: so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the face of the earth.

keel: the lowest portion of the bottom of a vessel. There is no guidance in Genesis on whether the Ark had a keel or a flat bottom.

[Verse 5]

Eden Tree: see Verse 1.

lip-thatch: a moustache, but here meaning the onset of puberty.

[Verse 6]

surplice-peg: a device of characteristic shape for hanging clothing in a changing-room or the vestry of a church. A surplice is a loose white linen garment worn by clergy and choristers.

bottle our parents: No doubt Kipling was familiar with the selective breeding of animals, but it seems that the work of Gregor Johann Mendel (1822-1884) was not available to the public until some ten years after the publication of this poem. The thought is that the order of things is reversed, unimportant matters are taking precedence over important ones, and the tail must wag the dog.

the horse is drawn by the cart:  ‘Putting the cart before the horse’ expresses a similar sentiment.

[Verse 7]

the Clubroom’s green and gold: a beautifully-decorated room in a club. See Verse 1.

[Verse 8]

Eden Tree: see Verse 1

Four Great Rivers: See Genesis 2,10-14:
‘And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads. The name of the first is Pison: that is it which compasseth the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; And the gold of that land is good: there is bdellium and the onyx stone. And the name of the second river is Gihon: the same is it that compasseth the whole land of Ethiopia. And the name of the third river is Hiddekel: that is it which goeth toward the east of Assyria. And the fourth river is Euphrates.

Sentry:  a soldier or sailor on guard duty at an entrance, to prevent intruders and pay marks of respect to officers. ‘He [God] placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every which way, to keep the way of the tree of life.’ Genesis 3.24

[J McG.]

©John McGivering 2010 All rights reserved