ORG vol. 8, p. 5456 lists this as verse no. 1061. First publication was in The Years Between (1919) and Inclusive Verse (1919). It is later collected in:
- A Kipling Pageant 1935
- Definitive Verse 1940
- Sussex Edition Volume 33, page 87
- Burwash Edition, Volume 26
- The Works of Rudyard Kipling, Wordsworth Poetry Library)
The poem, written during the last year of the Great War [Lycett, p.478], in which so many young men died, utters a grave and deeply felt warning against ‘spiritualism’, which claimed to enable communication with the dead. The poet suggests that for a sorrowing mother or wife this will only lead to greater sorrow.
Kipling confirms this in a letter to Frank Doubleday, his American publisher on March 18th 1919 about his new volume of poems The Years Between [Letters of Rudyard Kipling Ed. Pinney vol 4 p. 542] in which he describes the poem as:
A direct attack on the present mania of “Spiritualism” among such as have lost men during the war. It ought to be quoted extensively in the U.S. especially the third verse and the last. It will provoke a great deal of protest and discussion…
“Spiritualism”, which claimed to be able to communicate with the dead through ‘mediums’, people with special ‘psychic’ gifts, was fashionable in the years between 1880 and 1920, and fraudulent spiritualist practitioners undoubtedly exploited the sorrows of the bereaved during the Great War—for money.
Kipling had encountered spiritualists as a young journalist in India, where there was much interest in ‘the occult’ among Anglo-Indians. When Madame Blavatsky, the spiritualist and theosophist visited Simla in 1880, Lockwood Kipling attended one of her séances, and described her as ‘one of the most interesting and unscrupukous impostors’ he had evet met [Lycett, p. 111].
In 1888 Rudyard publshed “The Sending of Dana Da”, an elaborate exposé of a trickster who claimed supernatural powers.
In his hostility towards spiritualism Kipling may well have been influenced by the experience of his sister ‘Trix’, who suffered recurrent mental illness from her thirtieth year. As Dorothy Adelson writes of Kipling’s mother and his aunts in KJ 204 for December 1977:
The Macdonald sisters in their youth had experimented
with table-turning and other spiritualistic practices. From them Trix
inherited psychic abilities of more than amateur quality. As a young
married woman of twenty-five in India she had discovered that she had
a gift for crystal gazing and automatic writing. Now, in her thirties,
she again took up automatic writing, with startling results that she
reported to the British Society of Psychical Research in London.
[In ‘Table-turning’ people sit around a table, place their hands on it, and wait for it to rotate, as a means of communicating with the spirits; the alphabet is recited and the table tilts or rotates at the appropriate letters, spelling out words and sentences. In ‘Crystal-gazing’ the medium throws herself (or himself) into a trance by looking intently at a bright light, and sees visions or expresses messages which are said to come ‘from the other side’. ‘Automatic writing’ or psychography is writing which the writer states to be produced subconsciously from an external ‘spirit’ source. Ed.]
Trix’s family linked her madness with her psychic interests. When asked whether he thought there was anything in spiritualism, Rudyard Kipling replied “with a shudder”:
“There is; I know. Have nothing to do with it.” He is presumed to
have been thinking of his sister.
[Baldwin p. 126.]
And Andrew Lycett (p. 478) suggests that the condition of Trix in 1917 was very much in Kipling’s mind when he wrote “En-Dor”.
Kipling and the supernatural
Meryl Macdonald writes of Kipling:
… he was uncomfortably aware of the Celtic gift of second sight while disclaiming it in himself – unconvincingly but with good reason – it was present in several of the Macdonalds, including his mother and sister..
In ‘They’, published in 1904, five years after the death of his little daughter Josephine, Kipling had written of a bereaved father finding himself in a beautiful old house, haunted by the ghosts of dead children, including his own lost child, who greets him with a familiar secret kiss on the hand; but he concludes that such things are not for him.
Angus Wilson (pp. 266-7) suggests, on the basis of Kipling’s correspondence with Rider Haggard, that he had had transcendental experiences, but that he ‘carefully avoided using his gifts, or at any rate making them public.’ Wilson goes on:
The pressure upon him both from within himself and from friends and acquaintances, and above all from Trix, to resort to mediums after his son was killed in action, must have beem considerable … his answer was firmly given in the poem “En-Dor”.
And in Something of Myself (Chapter VIII) Kipling later wrote:
… there is a type of mind that dives after what it calls ‘psychical experiences.’ And I am in no way ‘psychic.’ Dealing as I have done with large, superficial areas of incident and occasion, one is bound to make a few lucky hits or happy deductions. But there is no need to drag in the ‘clairvoyance,’ or the rest of the modern jargon. I have seen too much evil and sorrow and wreck of good minds on the road to Endor to take one step along that perilous track.
Despite this personal antipathy towards spiritualism, Kipling was clearly fascinated by the supernatural, and by the mysterious processes of communication across time and space, some scientifically explicable, some less so, which he wrote of in many stories, from his earliest collection to the last. These include:
- “By Word of Mouth” in Plain Tales from the Hills
- “The Phantom Rickshaw” in Wee Willie Winkie
- “At the End of the Passage” in Life’s Handicap
- “The Finest Story in the World” in Many Inventions
- “Wireless” in Traffics and Discoveries
- “The House Surgeon” in Actions and Reactions
- “The Dog Hervey” in A Diversity of Creatures
- “The Wish House” in Debits and Credits
- “A Madonna of the Trenches” in Debits and Credits
- “Unprofessional” in Limits and Renewals
However, this interest did not mitigate his contempt, savagely expressed in this poem, for dishonest “spiritualists” who exploited the suffering of the bereaved for gain, or his belief that this could bring nothing but further suffering.
Notes on the Text
[Heading] ‘Behold there is a woman…’ The Witch of Endor calls up the ghost of the prophet Samuel for King Saul of Israel. The story is told in 1 Samuel, chapter 28, verses 3–25. ..
passed to the further shore Died. The image of crossing a sea or river in death is the theme of many hymns and spirituals. Here it is perhaps an echo of the death of Mr. Standfast in The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan (1628-1688):
So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.
See also Julian Moore’s paper on “The Holy War”.
hailed – at a price the departed may be greeted but the medium must be paid
hireling a derogatory term for one employed for payment
This describes the antics of fraudulent “mediums” who are often ventriloquists, speaking from the stomach without moving the lips—’the voice from the belly’—appearing to go into trances, uttering curious noises, then asking for payment.
Witch’s abode ‘There is a woman that hath a familiar spirit at En-Dor’. 1 Samuel 28,7.
Saul King of Israel (reigned 1049-1007 BC) See the Books of Samuel in the Old Testament.
©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2011. All rights reserved