The Cursing of Stephen

(notes by John McGivering and
John Radcliffe)


Published in Echoes by Two Writers in Lahore in August 1884. A parody of Tennyson, listed in ORG as No 107.


Collected, with the sub-heading (Tennyson) in

  • The Outward Bound Edition vol xvii (1900)
  • Edition de Luxe vol xviii (1900)
  • The Sussex Edition vol xxxv (1939)
  • The Burwash Edition vol xxviii (1941)
  • Early Verse by Rudyard Kipling (1986) Ed. Rutherford, p. 233
  • Cambridge Edition (2013) Ed. Pinney, p. 1229

The poem

This is a long mock-heroic narrative poem in blank verse in the manner of Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King” which tell of the legendary King Arthur and his court. Kipling’s parody explains, rather irreverently, how a legendary King Stephen took his tailor to task for the sin of greed, in overcharging him for an ill-fitting pair of breeches.


Andrew Rutherford quotes a letter from Kipling to Edith Macdonald in July 1884 ‘I have…. made an Idyll of the King out of the Rhyme of King Stephen’. He may have happened on the rhyme in Percy’s Reliques (1765) or in Shakespeare’s “Othello” (1604), in the Head’s library at United Services College

King Stephen was a worthy peer,
His breeches cost him but a crown;
He held them sixpence all too dear,
With that he called the tailor lown.
He was a wight of high renown,
And thou art but of low degree.
‘Tis pride that pulls the country down,
Then take thy auld cloak about thee. [Othello, Act II Scene 3]


Kipling left United Services College in July 1882, where he had read widely and written copiously, determined to become a published poet. In October he became Assistant Editor of the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore. See our notes on “A Vision of India” for an account of his experiences and state of mind at that time.

Kipling and Tennyson

At this time Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) was the grand old man of English poetry. In 1850 he had become Poet Laureate, and remained so until his death, He had written many enduring works, including “In Memoriam”, “The Lady of Shalott”, “The Idylls of the King”, and “The Charge of the Light Brigade”. .

In Something of Myself p. 7 Kipling recalls being pleased while at Southsea, by extracts in a magazine from ‘poems by A.Tennyson.’ He must also have found many of Tennyson’s works in the Head’s library at USC. There is a record in ORG (p. 1281) of the fifteen-year old Kipling reading Tennyson’s stirring Defence of Lucknow at a meeting of the USC Literary and Debating Society on December 5th 1881.

See also “The Last of the Light Brigade”, and “Fastness”, one of the splendid array of later parodies in the first series of “The Muse among the Motors” (1904).


Ann Weygandt (p. 113) comments on “The Cursing of Stephen”

This could be taken for nothing but what it is – a burlesque on the blank-verse tale as found in “The Idylls of the King” and other isolated efforts of Tennyson’s. “Godiva” is its immediate progenitor; the five lines of legend are based upon four that prelude it, with a possible hint at the mention of Christmas games in the head-link of the original “Morte d’Arthur”; but no knowledge of “Godiva” is necessary to recognize the putative author’s identity. The catching up and repeating of the phrase “worthy peer” (the plot is taken from the nursery rhyme on King Stephen), the heavy alliteration-lines 15 to 20 fairly bristle with b’s, the lyric introduced into the text, the cadence and fall of line, all stamp “The Cursing of Stephen” as a parody of Tennyson. It is the best that Kipling has done.

Perhaps it was his success with “The Cursing” that led Kipling to adopt a similar technique in the writing of a serious poem, “The Sacrifice of Er-Heb.” It, too, is written in blank verse, prefaced by a legend, and resorts to repetition. It is not a very remarkable piece of work in itself, but it is interesting as an imitation – direct or through Sir Edwin Arnold – of Tennyson.

Notes on the Text

[line 3]

rattle in this context a toy for babies that give a succession of sharp knocking sounds when shaken

[line 10]

peer a word of several meanings, including a member of the nobility or an equal in status, income etc. which is not really suitable for a king as he is paramount in his own country. Possibly used here for ‘lord’ as the House of Lords in London is sometimes called the House of Peers.

[line 13]

cots in this context ‘cottages’, (archaic)

[line 19]

mailed here with the stress on the last syllable, wearing a metal gauntlet (glove).

[line 20]

dam a word of several meanings, here a construction to hold back water in a lake or river to form a reservoir. See also line 22.

[line 22]

Damn with this spelling it is a curse. ‘Damnation!’

[line 26]

Saul King of Israel consulted the Witch of Endor who summoned the spirit of the Prophet Samuel in the First Book of Samuel, Chapter 28. See Kipling’s poem “En-Dor” which advises against spiritualism.

[line 27]

Son of Jesse King David: see 1 Samuel, 16, 23.

[line 28]

sackbut and psaltery An early type of trombone and a stringed instrument similar to a zither.

Perhaps an echo of Daniel 3.15:

Now if ye be ready that at what time ye hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, and dulcimer, and all kinds of musick, ye fall down and worship the image which I have made; well: but if ye worship not, ye shall be cast the same hour into the midst of a burning fiery furnace …”

[line 41]

fosse a long narrow trench, particularly in a fortification.

[line 46]

armed and mailed he is wearing a suit of armour.

[line 51]

silk and samite miniver and lawn various kinds of expensive cloth.

[line 52]

mast in this context the edible seeds produced by forest trees that accumulate on the forest floor – beech, oak etc, which are eaten by wild life and some domestic animals like pigs.

[line 56]

A Devil and a Tailor, fiend and man legend has it that a tailor had a sewing contest with the devil, the tailor used a short thread, the devil a long one; the tailor won.

[line 63]

miniver white fur used for trimming or lining a garment.

samite a rich silk cloth interwoven with gold and silver thread.

[line 67]

gauds cheap showy trinkets

[line 72]

Credit is the thief of time an echo of ‘Procrastination is the thief of time’ in Night Thoughts, the 10,000 line poem by Edward Young (c. 1683-1765).

[line 84]

churl a mean-spirited and impolite person.

[line 74]

reverence here meaning an inclination of the head and upper body as a form of courteous greeting.

[line 87]

Chine in this context the backbone of an animal.

[line 88]

ninth-part man From the proverb “Nine tailors make a man.” The saying was the result of a series of puns on “Nine tellers mark a man.” In olden times at funerals the church bell was tolled three times for a child, six times for a woman and nine times for a man. Tellers and mark became corrupted into ‘tailors’ and ‘make’. There’s a lovely story of Queen Elizabeth I greeting a delegation of 18 tailors: ‘Good morning, gentlemen both’. Dorothy Sayers wrote a memorable tale called The Nine Tailors set in a church in East Anglia with a fine ring of bells, which causes the death of a man.

[line 105]

hose and doublet Covering for the legs and lower body and a fitted jacket of 14th to 17th Century, from the German ‘hosen’. ‘Trousers’.

[line 154]

usury lending money at an exorbitant rate of interest.

[line 157]

cantle the raised part of the rear of a saddle.

selle saddle (French.)

[line 166]

such vile stars as saw thy birth the arrangement of stars and planets at his birth, his ‘horoscope’ which some believe influence one’s life. See Kim, Chapter 2.

[line 168]

Lancelot the most famous of King Arthur’s knights, and lover of Queen Guinevere

[line 177]

lown a word of many meanings including ‘calm’, but in this context a worthless and unpleasant man.

weald The Weald is a beautiful area of oak forest and ancient iron works, between the North and South Downs in Kent and Sussex, which Kipling loved, and where he later made his home. It figures in many of his poems and tales, particularly in the ‘Puck’ stories. He would have seen something of the Weald during his visits to Rottingdean before sailing for India in 1882. Here it probably has its Old English meaning of ‘the forest’.

[line 184]

logwise rolled before the charger’s feet.

©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2017 All rights reserved