This poem was first published in The Years Between in April 1919, less than six months after the end of the Great War, where it follows Kipling’s earlier reverential poem on the death of Edward VII “The Dead King” (1910). It is also collected, with the subtitle ‘1918’, in:
- Inclusive Verse (1919)
- Definitive Verse (1940)
- The Sussex Edition vol 33 p. 420
- The Burwash Edition vol 26
This must be the most savage poem Kipling ever wrote. It is set around the bed of the Kaiser who – in the poet’s imagination – is dying from cancer of the throat. As Peter Keating writes:
The Kaiser, the Devil himself, could expect from Kipling even less sympathy than the Pope (whom he had just castigated in “A Song at Cock-Crow”: Ed.). “A Death Bed” was basd on a report that the deposed Kaiser was dying of throat cancer. The poem interweaves three voices – those of the Kaiser, his doctors, and a commentator who makes the crucial judgement that this slow painful death is appropriate for the man who has been responsible for the death of so many other people:
Some die shouting in gas or fire,
Some die silent, by shell and shot.
Some die desperate, caught on the wire.
Some die suddenly. This will not.
“A Death Bed” is Browningesque in its callous flirtation with a subject “on the dangerous edge of things” (“Bishop Bloughram’s Apology”, l. 395.), the voices that never communicate with each other, and the final throwaway line.
After four years of war, from the atrocities the German army committed in Belgium in 1914 (see “Swept and Garnished” – 1915), the deaths of so many young men, including Kipling’s son John, and the horrors of the Somme battles, Kipling saw the Germans as evil, and the Kaiser, their leader, responsible for starting the War, as supremely evil. Andrew Lycett (p. 474) writes of 1918, when the poem was written:
Rudyard dismissed anyone who dabbled in peace proposals. They had all been infected with a German cancer that needed to be excised – an idea he took to its literal, distasteful conclusion in his poem “A Death Bed.” … But Rudyard’s gloating insistence that only a slow death from throat cancer was good enough for the Kaiser was sadistic and nasty.
Angus Wilson (pp. 301-2) also views the poem with revulsion – ‘verses more revolting to me than anything else Kipling ever wrote’. But he is clear-sighted enough to see it as an expression of the widespread anti-German feeling of the time, of which he himself has childhood memories (he was born in 1913):
He [Kipling] was spokesman of very very many middle-class homes (as I can vouch for from my own memory of my family home when I was four and five years old, where anti-Germanism was an hysteria, where my mother ordered my twice-wounded brother out of the house because he expressed doubts about German barbarity; and my father told me at five how the splendid Aussies had not taken prisoners but crucified the Germans they captured, because of German wickedness to the Belgian women).
It was for such violent British feeling that he spoke. And he also spoke for himself.
One of the most dreadful of all Kipling’s expressions of hate is his poem of 1918 written on a rumour that the Kaiser was dying of cancer of the throat. The poem has extra overtones of horror, when we remember that it was exactly this disease that Kipling had feared so much as the family malady.
Kipling and cancer
In May 1891 Kipling made an urgent voyage to New York, to visit his uncle Harry Macdonald who was dying of throat cancer. The same year he published the strange story “The Children of the Zodiac.” The hero is Leo, a poet and singer. Cancer the Crab tells him: “You were born into my House, and at the appointed time I shall come for you.” (Many Inventions p. 370 line 32).
‘In the end he felt the cold touch of the Crab’s claw on the apple of his throat. Then Leo’s speech was taken from him and he lay still and dumb, watching Death until he died.’ (pp. 383-4).
Discussing this story, Charles Carrington (p. 470) referring to a letter from RK to Mrs. Hill, 29 June 1906. says:
We have his word for it elsewhere that he regarded cancer of the throat as the “family complaint”
Kipling himself, suffering frequent pain from undiagnosed duodenal ulcers in the last twenty years of his life, clearly feared cancer. In his last collection, Limits and Renewals, Castorley in “Dayspring Mishandled” dies painfully of the disease, and in “Unprofessional” he describes a group of researchers tracing links between the strange tides in cancer cells in human bodies and the movements of the heavenly bodies far beyond the earth. See also his “Hymn to Physical Pain” in the same collection.
The Kaiser’s own father had died of throat cancer, but he was not in fact suffering from the disease. After he was deposed in November 1918 he took refuge in the Netherlands. Despite the wish of British leaders to have him extradited and tried for war crimes—Lloyd George wanted to ‘Hang the Kaiser’—Queen Wilhemina refused to give him up, and he lived there in comfort until June 1941, despite Hitler’s brutal attack on the Netherlands in 1940.
Notes on the text
[Verse 1] The Kaiser maintains that he has absolute power. In fact he was forced to abdicate on 9 November 1918, two days before the Armistice which ended the war.
The cancer has spread to lymph-glands behind the jaw and in the neck (this is medically accurate) and is now inoperable. ‘it is rather too late for the knife’ (Verse 5)
[Verse 2] Some die suddenly. This will not. There is no prospect of a quick end to the Kaiser’s suffering. The commentator shows no compassion: the patient is not even seen as human, merely a thing, referred to as “this”.
[Verse 3] “Regis suprema voluntas Lex”. Latin: “The will of the king is the supreme law.”
Daniel Hadas notes: ‘the Kaiser had asserted his right to be an absolute monarch, like the Czar of Russia. .In October 1891 he had written the absolutist dictum in the Golden Book of the City of Munchaen:
His mother the Dowager Empress wrote to her mother Queen Victoria in November 1891 to express her concern. (see John C. G. Röhlm Wilhelm II: The Kaiser’s Personal Monarchy, 1888-1900, translation S. De Bellaigue, 2004, Cambridge, 507-8.)
The order used by Kipling is highly unnatural Latin: suprema would naturally be taken as agreeing with voluntas, so that the phrase would probably have puzzled readers if it wasn’t already well-known. ‘[D.H.]
the usual course of – throats. Even the doctor avoids the word ‘cancer’.
[Verse 4] Some – give trouble for half a year. The commentator includes the Kaiser among these, again with no compassion, only thinking of those who have to look after him, not of his suffering.
[Verse 5] The cancer is inoperable, only palliative care is available. Before the development of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, surgery was the only possible treatment.
[Verse 6] Some die easily. This dies hard. As in Verse 2 the commentator reacts with depersonalisation and no compassion
[Verse 9] Right to the end, the Kaiser blames others for starting the War.
Kipling held him responsible for it, and for all the millions of deaths that followed.
All we can do is to mask the pain Palliative care.
[Verse 10] Yes, All-highest, to God, be sure. The doctor addresses the Kaiser by his royal title and assures him that he is going to Heaven. Peter Keating calls this ‘the final throwaway line’ (see above).
© Philip Holberton and John Radcliffe 2012 All rights reserved