The Fabulists

(notes by Philip Holberton)

Publication history

This poem was published in April 1917, in the collection A Diversity of Creatures linked to the story “My Son’s Wife”. In some collections, including the Sussex Edition it is linked to “The Vortex”. It is listed in ORG as No 1040.

It has since been collected in:

  • InclusiveVerse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • The Sussex Edition vols ix and xxxiv (1939)
  • The Burwash Edition vols ix and xxvii (1941)
  • Cambridge Edition (2013) Ed. Thomas Pinney, p. 971.

The poem

The theme of this poem is the need to disguise unpleasant Truths, otherwise they will not be heard at all. The subtitle “1914-18” sets it during World War I. It can be compared with Kipling’s later poem
“A Legend of Truth” (1926) where Truth has to call on her sister Fiction for help in recording the facts of the horrors of modern warfare.

Critical comments

Charles Carrington (p. 456) used the first four verses to preface his chapter 16, “At Bateman’s”. He did not comment on the poem, but as this chapter covers 1908-14 he was applying it to the pre-war years leading up to ‘that disaster, the European War against which [Kipling] had, for so long, been warning his fellow-countrymen. (p.489). Verse 2 in particular applies to that time. Verse 5, which Carrington did not use, brings the poem up to wartime.

Peter Keating  (pp.47-8) writes:

However involved and concerned non-combatants may be, they are still unable to comprehend the horrific events and incidents experienced daily by soldiers at the Front. Even the soldier himself
would often be aware only of what was taking place in his own small area of the war: anything could have been happening somewhere else ….. The difficulty of writing about a war from which it seemed impossible to retrieve ‘any sure fact whatever’
haunted Kipling’s imagination.

In “The Fabulists”, one of the finest of his wartime poems, he explored the related issue of his own attempts to tell people the “Truth” that they did not want to hear, and suggested an alternative approach…Kipling had always been interested in communicating by means of fable and allegory. Now in the special conditions created by war. it had become an unavoidable necessity.
[See The Irish Guards in the Great War Vol I p. vi]

Notes on the Text


A Fabulist: someone who creates fables – stories, particularly those intended for instruction. Bonamy Dobrée actually used the term for Kipling in the title of one of his studies: Rudyard Kipling: Realist and Fabulist (1967).

[Verse 1]

old Aesop: the world’s most famous Fabulist. A Greek writer, who may have lived about 620-550 BCE, was known for his fables – stories, often about animals, with a hidden meaning or moral. Among the best-known are “The Hare and the Tortoise” and “The Fox and the Grapes”. Daniel Hadas notes that the fables we know are much later than the seventh century BC, and that it is not certain whether he actually existed.

Truth is seldom friend to any crowd:  See Terence:Andria 40-41: hoc tempore / obsequium amicos, veritas odium parit (“These days, flattery produces friends, truth [produces] hatred”). [D.H.]

jesting: using a joke to disguise a serious meaning.

fall fall flat [D.H.]

[Verse 2]

that certain hour before the fall: the years just before the War when Kipling and others pointed out the growing threat but were not believed.

[Verse 3] Some people toiled, hoping that if they gave pleasure others might take their advice and (line 4) avoid later pain. It didn’t work: they were not heard at all (line 6).

[Verse 4] this verse lists the things that the speaker and those like him have given up for the sake of Truth.

[line 1] Open speech They have a lock upon their lips.

[line 2] Freedom The yoke is a symbol of slavery.

[line 3] Free choice of friends and pleasant fellowships.

[line 5] The pleasures they gave up have grown so old that they cannot now be enjoyed.

[line 6] In spite of all their efforts they are still not heard.

[Verse 5] This verse is set on the front line of battle. No one can hear anything but gunfire. Death is so close that each man lives only for the present instant. The conditions of life are beyond imagination, so no man can take pleasure in any imaginary story or fable. And the fabulists who wrote such stories are still not heard at all.



©Philip Holberton 2018 All rights reserved