First published in A School History of England (1911) by C.R.L. Fletcher and Rudyard Kipling, and all subsequent school and non-school editions of the book. It was used to close chapter VI, ‘The End of the Middle Ages: Richard II to Richard III, 1377-1485.’ An entry in the right hand margin beside the poem reads: ‘The hour before the dawn’ which might – given that the poem is centrally about process rather than achievement – make a more precise title for the poem than the one it carries. It was reprinted in I.V.1919, when the explanatory subtitle (The Fifteenth Century) was added; in the D.V., 1940; the Sussex Edition, vol. 34; and the Burwash Edition, vol. 27. For the Sussex Edition the double quotation marks in the second stanza were replaced by single quotation marks. In the ORG it is numbered 979(i).
“The Dawn Wind” is a highly ambitious poem which seems to have been designed to operate on two levels, the natural and the allegorical. In this, it functions in a similar manner to certain of the more complex of Kipling’s short stories, revealing its deeper meanings only as the full pattern (or in this case the historical context) is identified. It is unusual in this series of poems in making few concessions to the young readers for whom A School History was written.
There are no direct references to historical events or people anywhere in the poem. Read out of context, it seems to be evoking a very personal experience. It begins with someone – man or woman, adult or child – waking early in the morning, opening the window, but not so much looking out of it (because it is too dark for anything to be seen), but rather listening to the sounds made by the wind and the trees. The second stanza extends the same experience to animals and birds. The third moves time forward to the breaking dawn, and the fourth stanza expands the experience still further to encompass the whole world as though waking from a nightmare.
The effective atmospheric opening of the poem is not successfully maintained. Natural description was never one of Kipling’s strengths as a poet, and “The Dawn Wind” illustrates why. The language is extremely conventional – trees ‘rustle’ in the wind and ‘glisten’ in the moonlight, a bird ‘chirrups,’ sunlight ‘floods’ over the fields, cows ‘chew the cud’ – and the central image of the Wind is itself awkward, if considered in naturalistic terms. Does anyone think of the wind as having ‘feet’ (let alone ‘hear’ them running along) or ‘calling’ or ‘shouting’? And does the wind have any power to control or encourage the sun’s activities as it is assumed to have here?
The reason why the poem doesn’t fully succeed at this naturalistic level is that nothing in it is really what, at first reading, it claims to be. The poem’s main purpose is to convey not a personal experience as such, but rather the effect of highly complex ideas on the personal lives of the whole of humanity. Fletcher and Kipling subscribed to the then traditional historical view that the Battle of Bosworth, 1485, in which Richard III died and was succeeded as King of England by Henry VII, the first of the Tudors, marked the end of the Middle Ages and the opening up of the modern era. As “The King’s Job”, the next poem in A School History, makes clear, Fletcher and Kipling believed it was fortunate for England that Henry took over the throne at this time, though they also stress that he himself should not be seen as anything other than a relatively humble agent for the massive intellectual achievements that were about to transform the whole of the known world. This transformation is the main subject of “The Dawn Wind”.
In his Novum Organum (1620), talking of just this period of time, Francis Bacon observed that the ‘whole face and state of things throughout the world’ had been altered beyond recognition by a series of inventions, three of which ‘were unknown to the ancients, and of which the origins, though recent, are obscure and inglorious; namely, printing, gunpowder, and the magnet.’ Here is Fletcher, A School History, p. 109, in the paragraph leading in to “The Dawn Wind”, writing very clearly with Bacon in mind: ‘Four things, then, were to change the face of the world – gunpowder, printing, geographical discovery, and Greek.’ Fletcher’s ‘geographical discovery’ spells out the significance of Bacon’s ‘magnet’ (or compass), and by adding ‘Greek’ he includes the wider intellectual and artistic Renaissance to which Bacon himself made such a distinguished contribution.
This is the new ‘dawn’ being heralded by the wind in the poem. It can’t yet be experienced ( all being dark outside of the window with nothing to be seen ) though the sounds of its imminent arrival can already be heard. Everyone – first the individual waking early and standing at the open window, then the animals and birds, then the whole of the world – can sense that fundamental changes to their lives are on the way. When the dawn sun does finally break, heralded by the shouting wind, the old world will be banished and an entirely new one set in its place. The anthropomorphic treatment of the wind, giving it feet and a voice and a mission to stir the world to great new things is meant, perhaps, to represent the new humanism.
©Peter Keating 2003 All rights reserved