A Song of the English

(notes by Alastair Wilson)

Publication History

The poem was first published in the English Illustrated Magazine, in May 1893. It included the six subsidiary poems which follow. There is no indication in the Carrington extracts from Carrie Kipling’s diaries as to when Kipling might have started writing the poem, but it would seem probable that it was completed while they were living in Vermont after August 1892.

The six poems which follow are:

“The Song of the English” was collected in The Seven Seas, and published simultaneously in London and the USA on 30 October 1896: London, Methuen & Co. New York, D. Appleton & Co. (In 1892/3, Kipling had instructed Appleton & Co to use English spelling for any of his work that they published.)

A separate edition of the poem, including the six subsidiary poems, was published by Hodder and Stoughton in London in November 1909, with illustrations in colour and black and white by W Heath Robinson. The colour plate above, with its accompanying verse, is the frontispiece of this and subsequent separate editions. See Richards (p.194). Richards notes that there is a manuscript in Magdalene College, Cambridge in which there is an alternative first line: Praise ye the Lord in the vault above the Cherubim!
The Seven Seas was itself collected in the successive editions of Rudyard Kipling’s Inclusive Verse (1918, 1926, 1932) and Definitive Verse (1940): also in the Sussex Edition (Vol. XXXV) and the Burwash Edition (Vol, XXVIII).

The theme

The theme underlying much of this collection is that the English are the Chosen under the Lord, so long as they obey the Law. ‘The Law’ is a theme Kipling used elsewhere (in the Second Jungle Book, where the poem “The Law of the Jungle” appears as an introduction, or postscript (depending on the edition). The idea of a chosen people is, of course, a biblical one, echoing the ancient Israelites’ belief in their uniqueness.

Peter Keating (p. 113) notes:

Kipling’s use of religious language seems to have little theological or doctrinal
meaning: rather, it serves to establish an appropriately solemn tone
and a set of values that is crucial to the maintenance of “the Law”.
When Kipling addresses the British people in this way, he is not calling
on them to be more religious, but to be true civilising imperialists.
That involves, centrally, the application of Christian principles and the
exercise of religious tolerance.’ It was another of Rudyard’s contradictions that, as an agnostic, he could so easily stir British sentiment with an appeal to an outdated mid-Victorian religiosity.

The English around the world

The idea of the English as the Chosen is mentioned, merely as an aside, in ‘”The Propagation of Knowledge”, from Stalky & Co.. Kipling had effectively travelled around the world between 1889 and 1892, and had seen the Seven Seas, and begun to get an appreciation of what the sea meant to Great Britain and the Empire. (Like many of his contemporaries he was often lacking in sensibility as to the differences between the English and the British, though, particularly later when writing about Sussex, when he said English, he meant English.)

This is one of Kipling’s earliest verses specifically setting out his vision of the British Empire, and the duties which it imposes on the English (British) people. His definition of ‘the English’ is wide, certainly embracing the people of the overseas Empire, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa, but arguably also the Americans among whom he has lived in the years after his marriage in1892.

Some critical responses

Harry Ricketts (p. 229) notes that The Seven Seas was a hit in the United States, with Charles Norton in the Atlantic Monthly particularly fulsome, saying that Kipling could take his place :

… in the honourable body of those English poets who have done England service in strengthening the foundations of her influence and of her fame.

Ricketts goes to quote W D Howells in McClure’s Magazine:

Recognising the real audience at which The Sevn Seas was directed, he crowned Kipling “The Laureate of the larger England”. Astutely, he linked the poem’s intense patriotism with Kipling’s own colonial background…

Peter Keating (pp. 99-101) writing a hundred years after Kipling, when the world-wide Empire was a distant memory, notes that when The Seven Seas was published in 1896, its solemn air of commitment to a great purpose is taken up immediately in “A Song of the English”:

It had been written three years earlier to mark the inauguration in London of the Imperial Institute, and first published in the English Illustrated Magazine, May 1893 …The importance he attached to this poem is apparent not only in the message it carries, but also in its ambitious structure which consists of seven interconnected “songs”, several of them subdivided into separable units. Kipling’s own description of the whole poem as “a song of broken interludes” captures exactly the effect achieved by his use of varied verse forms and different voices. In English versification it belongs with such works as Dryden’s ode “Alexander’s Feast” and Burns’s cantata “Love and Liberty”…

The first response, in turning from Barrack-Room Ballads to “A
Song of the English”, is shock at Kipling’s pomposity and loss of poetic inventiveness…The initial mood of prayer, absurdly undercut by Kipling’s own God-like interjections, portentous italics, exclamation marks, and religiosity, serves only to make the shameless boast that the English are God’s chosen people, destined to rule the earth.

It recalls the patriotism of Dickens’s Mr Podsnap, though without
the deflationary satire:

“No Other Country is so Favoured as This Country … This Island was Blest, Sir, to the Direct Exclusion of such Other Countries as – as there may happen to be.”
[Our Mutual Friend (1864/5) Ch. 11.]

The covenant between God and the English goes even further than anything Mr Podsnap could envisage. Although the people have “sinned”, and their “rulers” have gone from “righteousness”; even though “Deep in all dishonour … we stained our garments’ hem”; still, forgiveness will follow: “We were led by evil counsellors – the Lord shall deal with them!” The manner is that in which the God of the Old Testament comforted one of the leaders of His chosen people: “Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward” (Genesis, 15:1).

Kipling was, of course, expressing, in rolling Old Testament language, ideas which were common currency among late-Victorian writers and their readers. Ann Weygandt (p. 126) notes Kipling’s debt to the style and rhetoric of Swinburne’s work, in particular, “Litany of Nations” in Songs before Sunrise (1871). See also Kipling’s later poems “Recessional” (1897) and “The White Man’s Burden” (1899).

See Wikisource for the 1909 edition, with illustrations.

Notes on the Text

[First stanza] “We (the English) have been given as our heritage by the Lord our God, mastery of the sea-lanes around the earth, and we should be suitably humbly grateful for that gift.”

[Line 1] Fair is our lot: See Psalms 16,7: ‘The Lot is fallen to me in a fair ground: yea I have a goodly heritage’. Kipling repeated this theme in the later poem “Sussex”.

[Second stanza] “Even though we have, in the words of the General Confession, “erred and strayed from Thy ways like lost sheep”, led astray by evil counsellors, we can be assured that the Lord will give them their deserts.

[Third stanza] “Hold on to your faith in the Lord, the faith that our forefathers bequeathed to us. Unless you do so, serving the Lord single-mindedly, your children may suffer a triple punishment.”

[Line 5] treble-tale: three fold. The Oxford English Dictionary gives as “obsolete, rare” the meaning “enumeration”. [The Editor is obliged to a number of colleagues in the Kipling Society who have elucidated this point.]

[Fourth stanza] “Keep God’s Law: do good, both in spiritual and material things. Ensure that each man can enjoy what is his own, and that he receives a just reward for what he has done. And thus, by enabling people to live in peace, men shall know that we are serving the Lord.”

One may say that these two stanzas are an expression of the phrase “Fear God, Honour the King”, which appears, in slightly differing forms, in a number of places in the Bible: in particular in 1 Peter 2, 17: ‘Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the King.

[Fifth stanza] “Here follows the song of the English – not a single song, but a number of word pictures of ordinary things, composed by an ordinary versifier, using plain words, in the hope that you will interpret them as I, the singer, have proved their truth at the ends of the earth”.


©Alastair Wilson 2012 All rights reserved