[Title] Edgehill Fight: Edgehill is in Warwickshire in the west Midlands,
north west of Banbury. It is not clear why Kipling describes this first clash between the
Royalist and Parliamentarian forces as a ‘fight’ rather than the more customary ‘battle.’ Perhaps he wanted to demote or domesticise the event. That would certainly be in keeping with the low-key, largely undramatic approach he adopts in the poem.
[Line 1] Cotswolds:. a range of hills in southwest England, mainly in Gloucestershire.
[Line2] the autumn sun: The battle was fought on 23 October.
[Line 3] stubble fields: fields that have been harvested, leaving only the stalks (i.e. stubble) of the crop.
[Line 4] Stour and Avon: rivers that flank Edgehill. The Avon is to the north, the Stour to the south.
[Line 7] She should have passed in cloud and fire: an allusion to Exodus 14, 24:
‘And it came to pass in the morning watch, that the LORD looked forth upon the host of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and of cloud, and discomfited the host of the Egyptians.’
Here in Exodus the ‘pillar of cloud and of fire’ is symbolic of a protective God constantly on hand to help the Israelites escape from their enemies. At Edgehill God has withdrawn, leaving the opposing armies to determine their own destinies.
‘She’ is slightly ambiguous, and the ambiguity is not helped by the version of the poem as published originally in the School History, having a comma at the end of the fourth line. In subsequent editions, this was changed to a full stop. ‘She’ would seem to refer to ‘the patient land’ (line 5), a view supported by the continuation of the idea in line 13, but the reference could possibly be taken further back to ‘the autumn sun’ (line 2). The general meaning, though, is clear. The land or sun (i.e. England or the day) should have passed ‘patiently’ in an atmosphere of ‘cloud and fire’ caused by the burning of the stubble which was then a familiar autumnal activity in the English countryside. Instead, the day will pass in cloud and smoke created unnaturally by Englishmen fighting each other.
In his poem ‘In Time of “The Breaking of Nations”’ (1915), lines 5-8, Thomas Hardy uses a related rural image – that of burning couch-grass – in much the same way as Kipling, to symbolise the enduring pattern of English rural life in a period of destructive war:
Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.
[Lines 8-9] sin… red war …sire: the primal sin of one member of a family killing another. See Genesis 4, for the murder of Abel by his brother Cain, especially chapter 10:
‘And [the Lord] said, What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground.’
The ‘sin’ here is fratricide; but patricide is also involved, with son against father just as brother is against brother. The primal sin is also against God the Father. In line 8, Kipling must surely be using the archaic word ‘sire’ (line 8) to mean father as well as king. In the succeeding three stanzas, Kipling gradually extends the murderous impact of the war on various kinds of family relationships, including women as well as men.
[Line 10] kith and kin: friends and relations.
[Line 11] shire: County.
[Line 14] brow-head: the summit of a hill. Fletcher explains the importance of the hilly battle-ground in a passage that Kipling probably had in mind:
‘The Royalist position, on a steep westward-facing hill, was very strong. Essex sat down below, and looked up at it; he liked what he saw far too little to attempt an upward attack. Rupert, as he looked down, must have felt confident of victory; but, as Essex would not come up to him, he had to go down if he were to fight Essex, and the two armies were finally drawn up without much advantage of ground to either side’ (An Introductory History of England, II, 375).
[Line 19] chase: a loosely-organised country hunt.
[Line 22] cudgel-play or brawl: Cudgel-play was a village sporting contest with cudgels (or clubs): a brawl is a noisy quarrel. Here they are both used to describe normal boisterous activities which are about to be turned to more serious purposes.
[Lines 31-2] Thank Heaven!….gives way: a cry not of welcome for the war, but of relief that the almost unbearable waiting is over. The issue can now be settled, one way or the other, before the long-drawn-out tension exhausts both sides.
[Line 33] Commonweal: Commonweal or commonwealth means the general good or welfare of all the people, and is here employed by Kipling to denote a type of government opposed to and contrasted with that of a monarchy. It became the general term used to describe the period of republican government in England 1649-1660, a ‘Commonwealth or Free-State’ having been declared by Parliament following the execution of Charles I in 1649.
[Line 35] dry rattle: the noise of swords, which have never before been used in this terrible unnatural way, being drawn from their scabbards. It is, surely, also intended to be symbolic of the human noise – the death rattle in the throat – that the swords will create once they are put to use.