This poem, dated 1923 in the Sussex Edition, was not published until three years after Kipling’s death. First publication was in a copyright edition in 1939 with four other poems, “The Waster”, “The Flight”, “Cain and Abel” and “The Appeal”. See David Alan Richards p. 333.
It is collected in Vol. XXV p. 255 of the Sussex Edition, Vol. XXVIII of the Burwash Edition, and Definitive Verse p. 565. ORG lists it as verse 1115, and notes that it is sometimes known as “Man Dies Too Soon”.
The poem pays eloquent tribute to the work of doctors, who relieve pain, stave off death, and explore devotedly the mysteries of life within the human frame.
In 1923, when this poem was written, Rudyard was not in good health. See Charles Carrington pp. 458-9. Since the early years of the war he had been suffering frequent bouts of pain, which—as it proved in 1933—were due to an undiagnosed duodenal ulcer.
[Mrs George Bambridge, Kipling’s daughter, in Carrington pp. 514-5.]
He had occasion to consult many doctors, and was good friends with many, in particular the surgeon Sir John Bland-Sutton, President of the Royal College of Surgeons. See Something of Myself pp. 217-8 for a lively account of the two of hem examining pullets to verify whether the pebbles in their gizzards clicked, as they were supposed to.
Dr Gillian Sheehan, in her article on “Kipling and Medicine” lists no less than fifty-seven doctors of his acquaintence. In his ‘teens, he had briefly considered becoming a doctor.
He was fascinated by their work, and wrote a number of stories and poems about it over the years, as well as this one. See our analysis of “Themes in Kipling’s Works” where twenty stories relating to “Doctors or Medicine” are listed, and twenty-five relating to “Healing”.
Other poems include “Hymn to Physical Pain”, and “The Threshold”.
Kipling also gave three addresseses on matters medical which are collected in A Book of Words: “A Doctor’s Work” at the Middlesex Hospital in 1908, “Surgeona and the Soul” to the Royal College of Surgeons in 1923, the year that this poem was written, and “Healing by the Stars” to the Royal Society of Medicine, in 1928.
Notes on the Text
‘Cloke the shameful nakedness of pain’ Kipling was no stranger to pain, and also wrote of it vividly in his “Hymn to Physical Pain” linked to the story “The Tender Achilles” collected in Limits and Renewals (1932), and in “Dayspring Mishandled” in the same collection:
He coughed, and, as he caught breath, his pain broke through all the drugs, and the outcry filled the room. Manallace rose to fetch Gleeag, when a full, high, affected voice, unheard for a generation, accompanied, as it seemed, the clamour of a beast in agony, saying: ‘I wish to God someone would stop that old swine howling down there! I can’t …
[Verse 2] Dr Gillian Sheehan suggests that this verse refers to different branches of the medical profession:
‘The bold’ could be the surgeons. ‘The seekers of the way’ could be the general practitioners, or possibly those doing post mortems (pathologists), or working in laboratories (e.g. bacteriologists) But I don’t know about ‘the passionless’ or ‘the unshakeable of soul’ – possibly very dedicated researchers in any field of medicine. [G.S.]
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