A Legend of Devonshire

(notes by John McGivering and John Radcliffe)


The first publication of this poem was in the United Services College Chrnicle no. 4, June 30th 1881, when Kipling was fifteen. It was one of the Schoolboy Lyrics published in Lahore in 1881.This was an edition of around fifty for private circulation arranged by his mother the year before Rudyard’s arrival in the city at the age of sixteen, to work as a journalist. It is listed in ORG as No 8.

Collected in:

  • The Outward Bound Edition vol xvii (1900)
  • Edition de Luxe vol xviii (1900)
  • The Sussex Edition vol xxxv (1939)
  • The Burwash Edition vol xxviii (1941)
  • Early Verse by Rudyard Kipling (1986) Ed. Rutherford, p. 62
  • Cambridge Edition (2013 Ed. Pinney) p. 1191.

The poem

A tragic song of old age defeated. An old man, sent out by his three daughters to plough a field by the sea, seems bound to perish in the incoming tide as night falls. The story may be based on an old Devonshire legend which Kipling had happened on in his reading, or he may simply have invented it. Five stanzas of the original eleven stanza version were omitted in the later collections.


After his unhappy years at Southsea, Kipling was sent to United Services College at Westward Ho! in Devon at the age of twelve, in 1878. Because of his poor eyesight he was no good at rugby or cricket, and the Head, Cormell Price, who was a friend of his father, gave him the freedom of his library, where he read voraciously. See Stalky & Co. pp. 217-8)

He also wrote himself, experimenting with styles and language and themes, borrowing from many other writers, finding his own voice, determined that he would become a published poet. Here – transposed to Devonshire – there is an echo of the implacable ‘Border Ballads’, mediaeval folk poems of the savage strife between rival chieftains on the borders between England and Scotland; perhaps also a hint of the fairy-tales of the Brothers Grimm. The young Kipling had also encountered the interest in the mediaeval past expressed by the pre-Raphaelites and their successors, Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris, who were well known to Kipling through his visits in the school holidays to the house of his Aunt Georgie, Georgina Burne-Jones.

See also his later poems “Tarrant Moss” (1887), Heriot’s Ford” (1890),
“The Last Rhyme of True Thomas!
(1894), and “The English Way” (1929).

Kipling was always, incidentally, fascinated by the mystery and power of the sea, and wrote of it later in many stories and poems.


Notes on the text

[Verse 2]

colts in this context a colt is a young male horse under four years old. It is, in fact, rather doubtful if three young horses would have the strength, stamina or inclination to haul a plough which, depending on the land, usually requires a couple of heavy shire-horses, but the youth and liveliness of the colts serves to counter-point the weakness of the old man.

[Verse 4]

crookedly a ploughman prides himself on being able to leave elegant straight furrows in the field.

share in this context the metal blade of characteristic shape that cuts the furrow and, with the mouldboard, leaves the ridge leaning at the right angle.

[Verse 5]

crow and daw a widely distributed genus of medium to large birds in the family Corvidae which crows, ravens, rooks and jackdaws.

[Verse 6]

shingles in this context and usually in the singular, the stones on the beach. This is the rather ominous last verse of the Schoolboy Lyrics version; what follows is left to the reader’s imagination.

[Verse 7]

twain two. Samuel Langhorne Clements was a river pilot on the Mississippi in America. Legend has it that he heard the men taking soundingss reporting the depth of water as ‘mark twain !’ , i.e. two fathoms, or 12 feet and adopted that as a pen-name. He had a long and successful career as a writer, and was much admired by Kipling, who called on him on his journey actoss America in 1889, see From Sea to Sea XXXVII .

[Verse 9]

rising sea the tide is flowing or perhaps the weather is blowing up a bit.

[Verse 10

shore-spume the white foam that collects at the top of the beach

gulls seabirds of the family Laridæ. .

forewheel as the name implies, the wheel at the front of a single-furrow horse-drawn plough.

[Verse 11]

furrows fill it is not clear what has happened – perhaps an unexpectedly
high spring tide or tidal wave

over the hill an expression with several meanings – he might have died, he might simply be too old for the hard work of handling the plough.

©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2017 All rights reserved