from Barrack Room Ballads


(notes by Philip Holberton and John Radcliffe)

Publication history

This poem was first published in America in April 1892 in Ballads and Barrack-Room Ballads, and in London in May 1892 in Barrack-Room Ballads and Other Verses. The first five verses and two lines of the sixth verse are taken from his 1890 poem “The Blind Bug”.

It is collected in later editions of Barrack-Room Ballads, and in:

  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • The Sussex Edition (vol 32, p. 167)
  • The Burwash Edition (vol 25)


The poem is a high-flown paean of praise to the makers and creators and brave fighters who have built the world of men, the Strong Men, the heroes. In the final verses, Kipling is speaking directly of the qualities of his great friend and collaborator Wolcott Balestier, who had died the previous December, only weeks before, and for whom this is his tribute.

As with his later heroes like Cecil Rhodes, Alfred Milner, or Joseph Chamberlain, he gave his loyalty unstintingly and mourned with passion and eloquence.

The poem “To T.A.” subtitled “Prelude to Barrack Room Ballads”, was presumably planned as the original dedication to the collection, before Wolcott’s death.

This “Dedication” is set in a sort of Valhalla, with the pagan Norse Gods of the Elder Days, though there are also references to the Christian “Our Father” and “the wise Lord God”, ‘the Devil” and “the Pit” of Hell, “Edens newly made”, and Azrael the Islamic Angel of Death.


Wolcott Balestier came to London in December 1888 as the agent of the American publisher Lovell, to arrange for the American publication of distinguished British writers. His two sisters took it in turn to come over to keep house for him. The elder, Caroline, was to become Kipling’s wife.

Kipling had been infuriated by the way American publishers reprinted his writings and paid him nothing for them – or in the case of Harper’s, £10, which Kipling rejected as “the wages of one New York road scavenger for one month”. (See his poem “The Rhyme of the Three Captains”, where he likened Harper’s to ‘the notorious Paul Jones, an American pirate’ and himself to the skipper of a plundered trading brig.)

At the time, American copyright could only be secured by the publication of an authorised edition there. Wolcott arranged this for several of Kipling’s works: The Light That Failed and Barrack-Room Ballads in November 1890, and a book of short stories, Mine Own People in Spring 1891. (For the English edition, the title was changed to Life’s Handicap.)

Wolcott had great charisma. Birkenhead (Star Paperback edition 1980 p. 116),
Carrington (Pelican Paperback 1970 pp. 224-5), and Seymour-Smith (Second Edition Paperback 1990 p. 154) all list novelists, poets, critics and artists who came under his spell. Seymour-Smith suggests that the relationship between Kipling and Balestier was in essence homosexual, but this view is not shared by other biographers. Kipling felt strong antipathy towards homosexuality, and had been engaged to Wolcott’s sister Caroline since at least the previous August. (See Carrington pp. 192-3. See also Philip Holberton’s longer note.)

Harry Ricketts comments (p. 179):

Quite apart from his personal charm, Wolcott appealed to Kipling in various ways: as a confidant, with that role vacant in the absence of Trix, cousin Margaret and Mrs Hill; as an American, capable of sharing Kipling’s own sense of ‘foreignness’; as someone intimate with the English literary scene, yet not constrained by its archaic gentility; and as a doer, above all revealed
through his campaign against the American publishing pirates.

Ann Parry (p.47) discusses this poem at length. She sees it, together with the Other Verses included with Barrack Room Ballads when published in book form in 1892, as confining and sanitising the Ballads and making them fit to be read safely in middle-class drawing-rooms. These lines, she writes:

… speak of the inheritors of grace, those who have been granted eternal life: ‘Beyond the path of the outmost sun….. Live such as fought and sailed and ruled and loved and made our world……’ Kipling’s friend, Balestier, in death it seems is among the Empire builders. The elect of these verses are in the mould of the public-school Christian ‘gentleman unafraid’, who from his birth, ‘in simpleness and gentleness and honour and clean mirth’ had done ‘his work and held his peace and had no fear to die’. Noticeably, it is only ‘gentlemen’ who have entered into this eternal dimension; ‘Maidens’ appear fleetingly and decoratively gracing the table of the ‘Gods of the Elder Days’.

In 1892, before a reader encountered anything else, an image was projected a world under the imminent protection of the secularised ‘wise Lord God, master of every trade’, who was accompanied by the obedient, those whose ‘will [is] to serve or be still as fitteth our Father’s praise’. The ballads have been inserted into a pseudo-Christian framework in which eternal life was reserved for ‘gentlemen’ driven by a high sense of duty, sacrifice and obedience, who never doubted, as ‘Tommy’ did, that they had served a worthy purpose …The ‘sentries’ of the Empire go to a place ‘Where it’s always double drill and no canteen’, and may only look forward to ‘a swig in hell from Gunga Din’. However, the ‘gentlemen unafraid’ are in God’s confidence, as He ‘tells them tales of His daily toil, of Edens newly made’ . ..

The major effect of these verses in the 1892 edition was to reveal the existence of a group of natural leaders superior both to those they led and those they conquered. Tommy Atkins’ role in the making and keeping of the Empire faded into insignificance..

Wolcott and Rudyard had collaborated on The Naulahka, Wolcott writing the American chapters and Rudyard the Indian. The book (See Sharad Keskar’s notes) was serialised in the Century Magazine from November 1891, but in December Wolcott died from typhoid fever. On hearing the news Rudyard broke off a visit to India. and arrived home on January 10th. Within eight days he had married Caroline.

And Kipling had certainly not abandoned “Tommy Atkins”. Some of the most powerful and least inhibited of the soldier poems,

“Back to the army again”,

“The ‘Eathen”,

“That Day”,

“The Sergeants Weddin'”, and –

“The Ladies”,

were written in Vermont when the Kiplings had settled there, and published in The Seven Seas in 1896.

Notes on the Text

[Verse 2] the Maidens Nine: in the setting of a sort of Valhalla, these are presumably the Valkyries, the ‘choosers of the slain’, female figures who in Norse mythology decide who dies in battle.

[Verse 6 line 3] my brother: Wolcott Balestier. Calling him his brother shows how close Kipling felt to him. Harry Ricketts (p. 180) quotes a letter from Wolcott to Kipling, probably written when Kipling was on his voyage to New Zealand in late 1891, which Wolcott in his turn signs “Your brother.”

In The Naulahka, the novel that Rudyard and Wolcott wrote in collaboration, there is a strange phrase. Tarvin, the hero, has just met the Maharajah of Rhatore and found that they share a love of dogs:

As a brother dog-fancier he was to Tarvin more than a brother; that is to say, the brother of one’s beloved. [Chapter VIII, p. 92 line 4].

Tarvin has followed his beloved from America to Rhatore, but of course she is no relation to the Maharajah, so the phrase is strictly meaningless here. On the other hand, Kipling was attached to Wolcott’s sister Carrie, who became his wife in January 1892. We don’t of course know which of the collaborators wrote this chapter, but it was probably Kipling.

R.E.Harbord, the Editor of the ORG, consulted Charles Carrington (Kipling’s first official biographer) on this point. Carrington could only conclude: ‘it must be an echo, perhaps unconscious, of the Rudyard-Wolcott-Carrie triangle.’

[Verse 8] who had done his work: Kipling always admired the man of action. ‘Tomlinson’ in the poem of that name (also collected in Barrack-Room Ballads and Other Verses) cannot find a place in either Heaven or Hell because he has done nothing.

And in “A Conference of the Powers” (Many Inventions), the distinguished author Eustace Cleever feels he is inferior to three young army officers, who have actually seen action. Wolcott had at least successfully fought the American pirate publishers.



©Philip Holberton and John Radcliffe 2011 All rights reserved