The English Way

(notes by Philip Holberton)



The poem (ORG No. 1165) was first published in The Legion: The Book of the British Legion by Britain’s Foremost Writers in Prose and Verse, Double Doran, 1929. [The Royal British Legion, sometimes referred to as simply The Legion, is the United Kingdom’s leading charity supporting those who have served or who are currently serving in the British Armed Forces, and their dependents.]

It is collected in:

  • Inclusive Verse (1933)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition vol. 35 p. 279
  • Burwash Edition vol. 28

The poem

Peter Keating (p. 232) discusses this poem at some length:

In 1929 Kipling published in The Legion Book a poem called “The English Way” which seemed totally remote from contemporary political issues. It was written tin the form of a border ballad, and its opening lines announced its kinship with two famous examples of the genre – “The Battle of Otterburn” and “Chevy Chase.” These were, respectively, the Scottish and English versions of a battle fought in 1388 between the Scots, led by the Earl of Douglas, and the English, led by Sir Henry Percy, Shakespeare’s Hotspur. [Henry IV Part 1]
“The English Way” has, however, only indirect connections with the traditional ballads. It opens “after” the battle of Otterburn, and departs from historical events and the earlier ballads in assuming that Percy has been killed in the battle.[Kipling does not actually mention “Chevy Chase” but he follows it, for in that version of the battle Percy was killed: Ed.] Percy’s shade is addressed by a “witch-wife”, who is also a Kipling addition, though the idea for her may have been picked up from a related poem, “Northumberland Betrayed by Douglas”.

In that ballad, Percy (Earl of Northumberland – the names are equivalent) is in exile in Scotland. Douglas invites him to a “shooting” but Douglas’ own sister warns him that her brother is planning treachery. In proof, she shows his chamberlain, by magic learnt from her mother, three English lords who are waiting in ambush:

My mother, she was a witch woman,
And part of it she learned me;
She would let me see out of Lough Leven
What they did in London city.

Keating continues:

The witch-wife questions Percy about the attitude of his men towards war, and is told that they are enormously brave, yet so modest that, off the battlefield, it would be difficult to recognise them as warriors at all::

We would not speak of steel or steed,
Except to grudge the cost;
And he that had done the doughtiest deed
Would mock himself the most.

[Verse 10]

Impressed by Percy’s account, the witch-wife promises that the same qualities will characterise Englishmen for ever. It will be the “English way” to hide strength and determination beneath an outward display of complaints and indifference. “The English Way” is in effect a reworking, for the special conditions of the late 1920s, of earlier poems, such as “Et Dona Ferentes” and “The Puzzler”. Then, as now, Kipling was warning potential enemies that they should not be misled by the English talk of pacifism, disarmament, and never becoming involved in another war: if the country should be threatened again, then the true spirit of England, epitomised by Percy and blessed by the witch-wife, would reassert itself.


The title of “Et Dona Ferentes” (written in 1896) is a quotation from Virgil’s Aeneid: ‘I fear the Greeks … even when they bring gifts’, and Kipling’s poem ends with the line: ‘But oh, beware my Country, when my Country grows polite!’
“The Puzzler” (1909) which accompanies the story of the same name in Actions and Reactions, warns ‘The English – ah, the English! – they are quite a race apart’:

Their psychology is bovine, their outlook crude and raw,
They abandon vital matters to be tickled with a straw;
But the straw that they were tickled with, – the chaff that they were fed with –
They convert into a weaver’s beam to break their foeman’s head with.


Notes on the Text

[Verse 1]

ravens: large black birds (Corvus corax) of the crow family, feeding mainly on carrion – including dead soldiers on ancient and mediaeval battlefields. See Kipling’s poem “Rimini” verse 4:

And the end may be death in the heather
Or life on an Emperor’s throne
But whether the Eagles obey us
Or we go to the Ravens – alone …

[Verse 1 line 4 / Verse 2 line 1]

Earl Percy/Northumberland: the same person: Henry Percy was the Earl of Northumberland. Percy is his family name, Northumberland his title.

[Verse 3]

“Five hundred Captains as good”: see “Chevy Chase”:

Tidings to King Henry came
Within as short a space,
That Percy of Northumberland
Was slain in Chevy Chase.


Now God be with him!” said our King,
“Since it will no better be
I trust I have within my realm
Five hundred as good as he!

[Verse 5]

steel and brand: both words mean sword

fray: fight, battle

[Verse 6]

Hither and yon: to and fro

[Verse 8]

quick: alive

[Verse 10]

doughtiest: bravest

[Verse 11]

keep and tower: his castle. The keep is the innermost stronghold of a castle

[Verse 14]

‘twixt quick and dead: while he was neither really alive or really dead. The Witch-wife has been holding his soul in his body by her witchcraft, though he asked her to ‘let my spirit pass’ and to ‘let me to my rest.’At last [verse 13 line 4] she ‘loosed him to his rest.’ Now he is really dead and ‘shall not speak again.’

[Verse 15]

Severn: the longest river in Britain, flowing south-west into the Bristol Channel between England and Wales.

Humber: the estuary of the Rivers Ouse and Trent, flowing east into the North Sea

[Verse 16]

Tweed: a river forming part of the boundary between England and Scotland.

cloke: old spelling of “cloak.”; to hide or disguise.

[Verse 17]

quarry: the animal pursued in a hunt.

rehearse: relate, tell


© Philip Holberton 2012 All rights reserved