Song of the Fifth River

(notes by John Radcliffe and Daniel Hadas)


Published in Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906) with the last story, “The Treasure and the Law”.

The poem

The poem takes as its starting point this passage from Genesis Chapter 2, verses 10-15, in the Old Testament. :

10 And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads.

11 The name of the first is Pison: that is it which compasseth the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold;

12 And the gold of that land is good: there is bdellium and the onyx stone.

13 And the name of the second river is Gihon: the same is it that compasseth the whole land of Ethiopia.

14 And the name of the third river is Hiddekel: that is it which goeth toward the east of Assyria. And the fourth river is Euphrates.

15 And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.

The Fifth River is the secret river of gold, which all men seek. In the story Kadmiel, the Jewish financier, throws a great treasure into the sea, lest it fall into the hands of King John. In consequence the King is forced to yield to the demand of the Barons for arbitrary royal powers to be curbed. See also
“The Runes on Weland’s Sword”.

Daniel Hadas suggests that this poem, like the accompanying story, is a remarkable reaction to anti-Semitism. Rather than rejecting the trope of Jews who manipulate the world through their control of the money supply, Kipling celebrates this putative Jewish role, as a special one assigned to them by God.

Notes on the text

[Stanza 5]

And Israel … River bank: echoing parts of Psalm 137.1-2:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof

I also can’t help thinking of these lines from ‘T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land’: [D.H.]

While I was fishing in the dull canal
On a winter evening round behind the gashouse
Musing upon the king my brother’s wreck
And on the king my father’s death before him.

 [Stanza 8]

Israel follows his quest: Israel as a symbolic entity here becomes strongly reminiscent of the wandering Jew, who is of course one of the models for Kadmiel in ‘The Treasure and the Law’. Indeed Kadmiel says that he is mistaken for the wandering Jew (Ahasuerus). [D.H.]



©John Radcliffe and Daniel Hadas2022 All rights reserved