The Five Nations

(notes by Mary Hamer)

Publication history

First published in The Five Nations and collected in I.V. 1919, D.V. 1940, the Sussex Edition vol. 33 and the Burwash Edition, vol. 26, where it is known by its first line ‘Before a midnight breaks in storm’.


The poem sounds an apocalyptic note, warning against the danger that comes when the signs of impending disaster are ignored. Kipling was frustrated by the failure of those in power to register the threat from Germany, whose military and imperial ambitions were evident to him. The language is exceptionally enigmatic and condensed, suggesting that Kipling’s private anxieties concerning unforeseen attack underlie and give resonance to the talk of a more public threat.

Notes on the Text

[Stanza 3] Even crystal-gazers, those who try to foretell the future, can fail to ask themselves the right questions. The stanza appears to refer to the sequence of changes, through mistiness to blackness and emptiness which may appear to take place in the crystal ball as it is gazed into with a view to predicting the future. Kipling associated spiritualism and its attendant practices with deep suspicion, feeling that her involvement in them had contributed to the mental illness of his sister, Trix, who owned and used one of these balls herself. Yet Kipling shared his sister’s sensitivity and admitted that unsought experience of ‘the Sight’ had come to him.

[Stanza 4] In a language that is compacted and obscure Kipling appears to be prophesying: he foresees a future to be compared with the end of the world, an end to be brought about by the destructiveness of the Gods themselves. For ‘sport-making gods’ cf Shakespeare’s King Lear IV ii:

As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods
They kill us for their sport.

The failure of the ‘all-pregnant sphere’ to deliver its message perhaps refers again to the crystal ball and the difficulty of reading what it shows.

[Stanza 5] Among the compressed and difficult language can be made out a possible reference to the airmen – ‘winged men’ – whose crucial part in future warfare Kipling foresaw. (It was at the end of 1903, the year in which this collection was published that the Wright brothers achieved their first powered flights.) Yet the notion that ‘our lives’ all will be taken to make up the huge total that is required for the giant day to come seems like a glimpse of a catastrophe that is personal, one that would arrive for Kipling in 1915 with the death of his son John at the front.


©Mary Hamer 2007 All rights reserved