The English Flag

(notes by John McGivering)

Publication history

This poem was first published in the St. James’s Gazette and the National Observer on April 4th, 1891, with the title “The Flag of England.” It also appeared in the Morning Post of 1 March 1897.

The poem is collected in:

  • Barrack-Room Ballads
  • Inclusive Verse
  • Definitive Verse
  • The Works of Rudyard Kipling (Wordsworth Poetry Library)
  • Lyra Heroica
  • Sussex Edition vol. xxxii, page 305
  • Burwash Edition vol. xxv
  • Stories, Poems, Articles 1887-1891. 28/4 Kipling Papers, University of Sussex

See ‘Rudyard Kipling: A Bibliography’ by David Alan Richards for further details.

As Charles Allen (p. 3) notes, The Morning Post published a three-column facsimile of Kipling’s manuscript when he and his daughter Josephine had pneumonia in New York l in New York in 1899; he recovered but she did not.

See also KJ 237/23 Dr Keith Wilson, ‘The Manuscript of The English Flag’. Also a useful booklist compiled by by Igor Burnashov at the Kazakh National University.

This poem was written only months after the young Kipling’s return from India, and shortly before “The Last of the Light Brigade” which also attacked what he saw as the blindness of the English to their Empire and the men that served and defended it, also published in the St. James’s Gazette.

The theme

A rather clumsily-worded headnote, attributed to “Daily Papers”, tells of a Union Jack on a burning building. When eventually it falls into the flames. the onlookers rend the air with shouts.

However, Dr. Gillian Sheehan has drawn our attention to pages 67-70 from The Holly Bough, a publication of the Cork Evening Echo for Christmas 2018, which reports that the Union Jack escaped unscathed, although the flagpole itself was burnt, and was retrieved the next day.
Charles Allen (p. 317) summarises the poem:

[it] calls on the street-bred people of England to remember that their great empire had been won at a price. The four winds of the cardinal points bear witness to the expansion of British hegemony overseas, each calling in turn for the English people to ‘Go forth’ and do their bit’.

Some critical comments

Alfred Lord Tennyson, the Poet Laureate, wrote to Kipling admiring the poem, and received this reply:

When a private is praised by his general he does not presume to thank him, but fights all the better afterwards. [see Harry Ricketts p. 356]

Lord Birkenhead (p. 129) regards this as:

…a poem of greater significance than any that had gone before.

Birkenhead quotes George Orwell’s essay which draws attention to the extraordinary number of his phrases that have passed into general use, as noted below in the notes on the text.

Charles Carrington (page 260) calls this the first of Kipling’s national odes, and Bonamy Dobree (ch. iv, “The Empire”) links it with “The Lesson” on which he observes (p. 88) that Kipling:

…incurred his greatest unpopularity by lashing out at what he considered the stupidity, the unfathomable stupidity, complacency , and lack of responsibility of the English in their contempt for and neglect of their armed forces.

This unpopularity is echoed by Lionel Johnson, writing in the Academy in 1891-1892:

In some of the finest pieces Mr. Kipling is a prey to the grandiose aspect of things. “The English Flag”, … for example, is grievously spoiled by exaggeration of tone. We know that England is great, that Englishmen have done great things, that the fame of her glory has filled the corners of the earth, but we have no occasion to shriek about it.
[Collected in Kipling, the Critical Heritage Ed. R L Green p. 102.]

Philip Mason (p. 43) discusses patriotism, which, he says:

… is another matter in which there is a discrepancy in the sources, and something of a paradox in the stories. In 1882, an assassin made an attempt on Queen Victoria’s life and Kipling wrote some verses congratulating her on her escape. They were published in the school magazine, of which he was the editor, and are headed “Ave Imperatrix“ – the first of those unofficial odes on national occasions for which he became famous …. It dutifully lays at tne Queen’s feet the homage of a school composed of soldiers’ sons…

Mason explains how Kipling’s school-fellows mocked him for it and thought he had written it with tongue in cheek to get a rise out of a couple of masters, but Dunsterville (the original of ‘Stalky’) thought otherwise. He points to the paradox in “The Flag of their Country” where the patriotism exhibited by the speaker disgusted the boys, who considered it was not a matter for public discussion. Mason continues:

What is more difficult to understand is why Kipling felt that he could talk about what the “jelly-bellied flag-flapper” could not, why he, who had so clearly understood the discomfort flag-waving caused, should have become associated in so many minds with just that offence. Only ten years after “Ave Imperatrix“ he was to publish a song called “The English Flag”, which in most Englishmen today arouses a feeling rather similar to that with which the schoolboys looked at the Union Jack.

Kipling relaxes, however, in his somewhat disrespectful but affectionate “The Widow at Windsor” where a soldier reflects on “The Empire on which the sun never sets”, observing in the third verse:

Take ‘old of the Wings o’ the Mornin’,
An’ flop round the earth till you’re dead,
But you won’t get away from the tune that they play
To the bloomin’ old rag over’ead,

A review of “The English Flag” and other verses in Barrack-Room Ballads by Arthur Quiller-Couch can be found in Kipling, the Critical Heritage Ed. R L Green, p. 174.

Notes on the Text


The Union Flag (also known as the ‘Union Jack’) is the flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

It brings together the red and white Cross of St. George for England and Wales, and the blue and white St Andrew’s Cross for Scotland. (There is an excellent explanation with illustrations on Wikipedia).

[Verse 1]

And what should they know of England: Alice Kipling gave her son this elegant line which he also developed into the deceptively light-hearted poem “We and They”. See Andrew Lycett (p. 502), Angus Wilson (p. 159), Harry Ricketts (p. 165), and Something of Myself (ch. 4).

poor little street-bred people: townsmen with no knowledge of England beyond their streets. See also Mary Hamer’s notes on “The Islanders”.

[Verse 2]

borrow a clout from the Boer: a clout in this context is a cloth; the Boers are the people of Dutch descent in South Africa. This may be a reference to their flag, the significance of which is unclear; suggestions will be welcomed.

[Verse 3]

Bergen: an important city on the south-western coast of Norway.

Disko: an island off the coast of Greenland near which Disko Troop, in Captains Courageous, was born.

floe: an iceberg

North Lights: Aurora Borealis The ‘Northern Lights’ – spectacular electrical phenomena in high latitudes caused by charged particles from the sun entering the atmosphere. In “Quiquern” in The Second Jungle Book<, he wrote:

The sky above them was an intense velvety black, changing to bands of Indian red on the horizon, where the great stars burned like street-lamps. From time to time a greenish wave of the Northern Lights would roll across the hollow of the high heavens, flick like a flag, and disappear; or a meteor would crackle from darkness to darkness, trailing a shower of sparks behind. Then they could see the ridged and furrowed surface of the floe tipped and laced with strange colours—red, copper, and bluish; but in the ordinary starlight everything turned to one frost-bitten gray.

liner:  in this context, a steamship running a regular passenger-service.

Dogger: a large sandbank in a shallow area of the North Sea about some sixty miles (100 km) off the east coast of England.

[Verse 5]

musk-ox:  Ovibos mosch, from Arctic America.

bergs: icebergs

drifts: in this context probably tidal streams and currents, or perhaps snow-drifts. In “Poor Honest Men” verse 7 the word definitely means ocean currents:

Twix’ the Forties and Fifties
South-eastward the drift is.”

[Verse 6]

Virgins: in this context the Virgin Islands, an archipelago in the Caribbean.

thousand islands: There is a choice of at least two archipelagos so called; a group of islands straddling the Canada-U.S. border along the Saint Lawrence River, and another off Jakarta, in present-day Indonesia; or, as Philp Holberton suggests, simply the multitudinous islands of the West Indies.

sea-egg:  the ‘sea urchin’, a small, globular animal belonging to class Echinoidea, found all over the world. See also “In the Matter of One Compass“.

coral: a marine organism, class Anthozoa of the phylum Cnadaria. It builds reefs of limestone which it extracts from the surrounding water.

lagoon: an area of the sea enclosed within coral reefs, usually in the shallow water around an island.

[Verse 7]

keys: in this context low islands, sandbanks or reefs.

scud: in this context foam driven by the wind.

[Verse 8]

halliards: in this context lines used to hoist a flag to the masthead, gaff, or yard-arm of a sailing ship.

Horn: Cape Horn, the southern tip of South America

Lizard: the most southerly point of Cornwall and an important landfall for vessels heading up the English Channel from the west.

slaver: a vessel carrying slaves (usually from West Africa) to the plantations in the West Indies and North America. Slavery in the British Empire was abolished in 1833, in the U.S.A, in 1865. Any slave who managed to reach British territory was automatically freed.

[Verse 9]

basking sunfish: Mola mola, or common mola, the heaviest known bony fish in the world. has an average adult weight of 2,200 lb (1,000 kg) and is native to tropical and temperate waters around the world.

albatross:  a large seabird, genus Diomedea with a wing-span of soe 12 feet (3 metres).

Southern Cross: a constellation of the southern hemisphere, the five principal stars of which form a rather irregular cross.

[Verse 10]

Kuriles: a volcanic archipelago some 800 miles (1,300 km) northeast from Hokkaido, Japan, to Kamchatka, Russia, which separates the Sea of Okhotsk from the North Pacific Ocean.

Bitter Seas: the Great Bitter Lake and the Small Bitter Lake lie between the north and south sections of the Suez Cana, but we have not identiified the ‘Bitter Seas’. Suggestions will be welcomed.

Home-Wind for I bring the English home: presumably from India.

typhoon: a violent tropical storm in the westen North Pacific – known as a hurricane in the western North Atlantic, and parts of the Pacific, and a cyclone in other seas. [The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea.]

Praya: a promenade by the waterfront in Hong Kong, from the Portuguese term for the broad stone-faced road that runs parallel along the harbour in front of the city.

Kowloon:  an urban area in Hong Kong, comprising the Kowloon Peninsula and New Kowloon, north of Hong Kong Island and south of the mainland part of the New Territories.

[Verse 11]

junks: classic Chinese sailing-vessels, the origins of which are lost in the mists of antiquity. See “An Unqualified Pilot” (Land and Sea Tales) and “The Junk and the Dhow”.

roadstead:  a place where vessels may conveniently and safely lie at anchor near the shore.

Singapore: now the Republic of Singapore, an island city-state off the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula; then a British colony.

Hoogli: an important river in West Bengal, India, on which Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) stands. See “An Unqualified Pilot” (Land and Sea Tales), p. 57 line 16.

steamers: in this context vessels propelled by power, usually steam at that time.

[Verse 12]

lotos: now usually spelt lotus, a plant, Nelumbo nucifera, known by several names, including ‘Indian Lotus’, ‘Sacred Lotus’, ‘Bean of India’, or simply ‘Lotus’.

suckling: in this context a baby, still feeding at the breast.

[Verse 13]

wild-ass: perhaps the African Wild Ass (Equus africanus), a wild member of the horse family, Equidae, believed to be the ancestor of the domestic donkey.

white leopard: perhaps the ‘snow leopard’ or ounce (Panthera uncia), a native of mountain ranges of central and southern Asia, including India.

[Verse 14]

galleons: large sailing ships with several decks, used mainly by European nations between the 16th and 18th centuries.

that bear the wheat and cattle: an echo of the poem “Big Steamers” first published in Fletcher and Kipling’s School History of England in 1911, pointing out that Great Britain is not self-supporting as much of her food is imported, and therefore the importance of free trade, particularly within the Empire. The verses finish with the significant line:

And if anyone hinders our coming, you’ll starve!

The transport of cattle  across the Atlantic is also the theme of “Mulholland’s Contract.”  [D.H.]

street-bred people: see Verse 1 above.

I loose my neck from their rudder: Philip Holberton suggests that since the galleons are using the West Wind as their slave, the “rudder” is a mark of servitude.

whelm: in this context, to overturn, capsize, drown.

[Verse 15]

They bellow: In or near an area of restricted visibility, whether by day or night, the signals prescribed in this Rule shall be used as follows:

A power-driven vessel making way through the water shall sound at intervals of not more than two minutes one prolonged blast. [The International Rules for Preventing Collisions at Sea 35(a)].

That is the 1972 wording, which is probably much the same as it ever was. But I do remember a more poetic version of my youth: In fog, mist or falling snow, a vessel at anchor shall… [Ed.}

frightened ship-bells toll: A vessel at anchor shall at intervals of not more than one minute ring the bell rapidly for about five seconds. [ib. Rule 35 (f)]

strange bows above them: in this context the bow is the stem of a vessel – here about to collide with another.

[Verse 16]

wrack-wreath: ‘wrack’ is an obsolete word of several meanings – including to suffer shipwreck or the wrecked vessel itself. ‘Bladder-wrack’ is a variety of seaweed. This expression may thus mean a funeral wreath of seaweed, but alternative suggestions will be welcome. Philip Holberton writes:

I do not think it can mean a funeral wreath, as in the context “they” have not yet died.
The Shorter Oxford Dictionary has: ‘Rack (also wrack): a mass of thick fast-moving cloud, driving mist or fog.’ One of several meanings of ‘wreath’ is: ‘a curving mass of cloud, vapour etc.’ Both words mean much the same thing, cloud driven fast by the wind, thus contrasting with the preceding .calm’.

There is another place where Kipling uses “rack”, in “The Bell Buoy”, verse 3:

“When the smoking scud is blown,
When the greasy wind-rack lowers.”

Again the sense seems to be of wind-blown cloud.

conger: conger conger, a large and predatory eel found in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean.

plates: at this time the steel plates of which ships are built were held together by rivets.

rollers: in this context waves

[J McG.]

©John McGivering 2010 All rights reserved