Told in the Dormitory

(notes by Philip Holberton, drawing on the researches of Andrew Rutherford)


Published in United Services College Chronicle, no. 7, 5 December 1881, with subheading ‘A****d T******n’ [Alfred Tennyson]. Part 2 published in USCC no.8, 20 March 1882, and Part 3 in USCC no. 9, 3 June 1882. (Andrew Rutherford)

The poem was never collected by Kipling, but is to be found in Rutherford (p. 81), and Pinney p. 1595

The Poem

The piece is modelled on the style and structure of the leisurely narrative poems of Alfred Lord Tennyson.

Here, the narrator has come from another “College in the north.” When the boys are in bed, before they go to sleep, he tells a story from his time there, so long that it has to be spread over three nights. It concerns a practical joke that they played on a new boy and how it went very wrong.

In “An English School” (Something of Myself p. 267) Kipling, writes of himself:

There was a boy who had to tell stories night after night in the Dormitory – until his stock ran out and he fell back on reading books.

Kipling and Tennyson

At this time Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) was the grand old man of English poetry. In 1850 he had become Poet Laureate, and remained so until his death, He had written many enduring works, including “In Memoriam”, “The Lady of Shalott”, “The Idylls of the King”, and “The Charge of the Light Brigade”.

In Something of Myself p. 7 Kipling recalls being pleased while at Southsea, by extracts in a magazine from ‘poems by A.Tennyson.’ He must also have found many of Tennyson’s works in the Head’s library at USC. See also “The Last of the Light Brigade”, and “Fastness”, one of the splendid array of later parodies in the first series of “The Muse among the Motors” (1904).


Notes on the Text

[Part 1 line 20] the flesh they smote upon In the college in the tale corporal punishment was used a an aid to learning – as at `Westward Ho! Kipling suffered in this way but bore no resentment. In “An English School” he writes:

a cut or two [strokes with a cane], given with no malice, but as a reminder, can correct and keep corrected a false quantity [an error in Latin] or a wandering mind, more completely than any amount of explanation. (Something of Myself p. 268).

There are many accounts of the use of the cane in Stalky & Co., though there is some evidence that Kipling tended to exaggerate the scale of beating at USC.

[Part 1 lines 31-33] than mine … than mine … than mine Tennyson, whose style is parodied in this poem, frequently uses the same word to end a triplet of consecutive lines of blank verse.

[line 44] portcullis A grating (right) to secure the entrance to a castle. Here it is used of his mouth.

[Part 2 line 7] bolsters Pillows thrown at the speaker to make him go on with his story. cf. the poem “The Pillow-Fight” in this guide.

[Part 2 line 17] ten-storied legends “tall” – unbelievable – tales, as tall as a ten-story building.

[Part 3 line 9] the fountains of his speech were broken up an echo of the Biblical story of the Flood: ‘All the fountains of the great deep were broken up’ (Gen.7.11).

[Part 3 line 52] hind farm labourer. The new boy thinks that the whole world is one great farm-stead and only through folly are men anything other than farmers.

[Part 3 line 59] babble of green fields A quotation from Shakespeare’s “Henry V” Act II sc.2.

[Part 3 line 75] cole-wort Cabbage

[Part 3 line 96] imagined tinglings in the back They already imagine the feel of the Dean’s cane on their backs, foreseeing the pain of the final line.


©Philip Holberton 2019 All rights reserved