First published in A School History of England (1911) by C.R.L.Fletcher and Rudyard Kipling, and in all subsequent editions of the book. Placed in Chapter II, ‘Saxon England,’ it is untitled, but accompanied in the right-hand margin by the description ‘What “Dane-geld” means’, which Harbord [ORG, Verse 1, 1969, No. 974 (d)] says is sometimes used as an alternative title for the poem. The poem shares with ‘The Pirates in England’, a closely-related poem in the same chapter, one of Henry Ford’s coloured plates called ‘The Landing of the Danes.’
The present title and subtitled dates were first used in I.V., 1919. The poem was then reprinted in D.V., 1940; the Sussex Edition, vol. 34; and the Burwash Edition, vol. 37. For the Sussex, all double quotation marks were changed to single quotation marks.
The phrase ‘paying someone Dane-geld’ has become so associated with Kipling that it is often attributed to him, even in books of quotations. He is certainly responsible for its entry into everyday language, but he did not actually invent it. The phrase had long been used to describe anyone – especially a national leader – who chose to take an easy way out of a problem rather than face up to the more difficult task of solving it once and for all.
Asking for Dane-geld is a form of blackmail. Paying Dane-geld is a matter of giving in to the blackmailer. In the 1930s it was commonly evoked to describe Britain’s policy of appeasement to Germany, a curious example of Kipling’s prophetic gifts when it is considered that a barely hidden meaning of the original poem (1911) is that Britain should never allow itself to be bullied by the Germans as it was once bullied by the Danes.
“Dane-geld” can be taken as a striking example of what Kipling’s critics – unfortunately following, it has to be said, Kipling’s own example – like to think of as ‘verse’ rather than ‘poetry.’ It has one simple message, and Kipling’s poetic skills are given over entirely, and repetitively, to getting that message across. He uses two different, alternating verse forms, with the first, third, and fifth stanzas setting out a proposition (slightly varied but essentially the same), and the second, fourth, and sixth stanzas offering a response (always, of course, the same response).
The first stanza features the long swinging poetic line that Kipling so enjoyed using, with lines one and three dominated by strong internal rhymes. In the first line (of stanzas one, three and five ), the internal rhyme is always the same, with ‘temptation’ being echoed by ‘nation’, these being the two principal emotional appeals of the poem. In the third line of these stanzas, the internal rhyme is jauntily, or pompously, and thus almost comically, varied (i.e. ‘we should defeat you/the time to met you’).
In comparison, stanzas two, four, and six, are deliberately prosaic, stating plainly and decisively that no decent self-respecting nation should have anything to do with Dane-geld. In one final brilliant change to the general verse pattern, Kipling adds an internal rhyme to the penultimate line of the poem, reinforcing the simple central message with a characteristic tone of contempt for anyone who might dare to disagree with him.
“For the end of that game is oppression and shame,
And the nation that plays it is lost!”
©Peter Keating 2005 All rights reserved