The Files

(Notes by Mary Hamer)

Publication history

First published in The Five Nations (1903) and collected in I.V. 1919, D.V. 1940, the Sussex Edition vol 33, and the Burwash Edition vol 26. Reprinted in Printer’s Pie (1934).


This poem was already close to completion in June 1900, according to a letter of 20 June
addressed to the journalist and editor John St Loe Strachey [Letters Vol 3, Ed. Pinney.]. Kipling was finishing Kim and planning when that was out of the way that he would; ‘see if the Files can be cut and polished: but on revision, I don’t think it’s poetry of any sort’. This was a disappointment, for earlier that year on January 15 he had written confidently to the Harvard professor Charles Eliot Norton ‘I am poetizing at intervals – have got three or four on the stocks which should turn out well.’ [Letters Vol 3, Ed. Pinney.]

Most readers would probably agree with Kipling’s assessment of “The Files’. Its principal interest may now lie in the way its restless fevered movement, its reminiscence of agitated fruitless search, mimics the delirium from which the poet had suffered during his near-fatal pneumonia of early 1899. On his recovery, almost before he was allowed to sit up in bed, Kipling insisted on dictating an account of this delirium to a stenographer. A copy of this text is kept in the Kipling Archive at the University of Sussex.

With its questioning, its warnings against self-importance on the basis of print and report, its intimations of the grave, the work might be seen as offering a window into Kipling’s inner world. At the time of composition, he was struggling to rebuild an identity that had been profoundly disturbed by the events of spring 1899, when he himself had nearly died from pneumonia and his six-year-old daughter, Josephine, had actually succumbed.

Notes on the Text

(by Mary Hamer, drawing on various sources, in particular
A Handbook to the Poetry of Rudyard Kipling by Ralph Durand 1914)

[Title] At the time when Kipling himself worked on a newspaper and right up to the age of digitised archives, any journalist wishing to check information about some past event was obliged to hunt through hard copy dusty files of old newspapers. In the process items once considered of great importance but now forgotten might catch the eye.

[line 11] Mammon: biblical term for worldly wealth and success, one adopted and made contemporary by the Scots writer Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) in his critique of rapacious captains of industry.

[line 12] Faenza: an Italian town that has known many masters. In Browning’s play, “A Soul’s Tragedy”, which is set in Faenza, the Papal Legate says: ‘I have known five and twenty leaders of revolts’. Thus Kipling is invoking a hidden pun, since the word ‘leader’ is also used of the leading article in a newspaper. The punning contributes to the effect of agitation which is built into the poem.

[line 14] Brownings: Robert Browning (1812-1889) was one of the most famous of nineteenth-century poets. As a poet, Kipling was sometimes compared to Browning, with his powerful dramatic monologues. He had read Browning since his ‘teens, and compared himself not with the poet but with one of Browning’s characters, Fra Lippo Lippi, an extraordinarily prolific artist who lacked all respect for authority.

[lines 18-19] Kensall-Green (sic) and newspaPère-La-Chaise (sic): evokes the names of two huge nineteenth-century cemeteries, Kensal Green in London, and Père Lachaise in Paris. Note again the slightly febrile tone that is struck by this punning, with its playful yet sinister overtones.

[line 27] Evangel: gospel.

[line 28] Reform: the nineteenth-century movement which led to reforms in parliamentary elections and eventually to the extension of the franchise. Calls for reform of the way Members were selected for Parliament had already been long heard before the first Reform Act was passed in 1832.

[lines 32-34] long primer, brevier, minion: the names of three different sizes of type used in printing a newspaper. At the height of his career, the doings of a public man might be reported in long primer, the type used in the most important pages of the paper but as his own importance waned, they would be banished successively to the less prominent pages, where brevier, a somewhat smaller type is used. Finally, he would receive notice only in the form of a para minion-solid-bottom that is a short paragraph, closely spaced at the foot of the page in the smallest type in general use.

[line 36] leaded: spaced out, the opposite of ‘solid’ in the preceding note.

[line 37] triple-headed: recorded in a column prefaced by three headlines. At the same time, the phrase evokes monsters of myth, such as Cerberus, the three-headed dog that in Greek mythology was the guardian of Hades, the world of the dead.

[line 39] blazes: marks cut into the bark of trees to mark a trail so that it can be followed.

[line 43] Bomba: The nickname given to Ferdinand II, King of the Two Sicilies, after he authorised the bombardment of his own people at Messina in 1849. Ferdinand had been the first sovereign to encounter revolt in 1848, the year of revolutions; he was also the first to initiate counter-revolutionary measures. The poem asks ironically whether Ferdinand was obliged to flee; in fact, it was the liberal reforming revolutionaries, such as Saffi, mentioned in the following line, and Garibaldi, who became fugitives.

[line 44] Saffi once of Oxford: Count Aurelio Saffi’s Oxford career was a result of the collapse of the short-lived Roman Republic of 1848, in which he had acted alongside Giuseppe Mazzini as one of the Triumvirs. Arriving in England as a penniless exile in 1851, he was the first person to be appointed to Oxford University’s new post of Teacher of Italian in 1856. The poet Swinburne was one of his few pupils. [Sir Charles Firth, Modern Languages at Oxford (1724-1929), 1929.]

Saffi went back to Italy in 1860 to take up his part once more in political life but after 1862 he lost heart and withdrew to devote himself to writing. In the context of this poem, the story of his life strikes another rather ominous note.

[line 46, 47] Garibaldi … Septembers: Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-82) is perhaps the most prominent Italian hero. He personally led the military campaigns which resulted in the unification of Italy. It was in September 1860 that he first captured the city of Naples and then defeated the Neapolitan army at the end of the month. His grandson fought on the British side in the Anglo-Boer War.

[line 48] sexton: church officer appointed to look after the church and its contents, and to dig graves; it is this duty to which the poem refers here.

[line 59] ‘O King live for ever’: cf Daniel 2,4: 3, 9. A challenging reference, evoking not only the easy and deluding flattery offered to rulers but also a precise Biblical context concerning visions and their interpretation.

[line 67] Samuel Smiles: author of the extremely popular Self-Help and other books designed to teach the reader how to get on in the world.

[lines 73-4] According to Durand, these two lines are taken bodily from the works of Dr Thomas Holley Chivers (1808-58) of Georgia, author of The Lost Pleiad and other poems. (1845). A Georgia planter, physician, poet, and playwright he was known to students of American literature for his collaboration with Edgar Allen Poe, and the subsequent plagiarism controversy over Poe’s poem, “The Raven.” The reference may be a silent witness to the way his life in America had extended the range of Kipling’s reading.

Conchimarian horns: conches, large seashells which can be used as trumpets.

reboantic: bellowing.

Norns: in Norse mythology, these female figures would foretell the destiny of the newborn.

[line 79] Brocken-spectres: an optical illusion, by which human figures are presented in magnified form. These appear when a low sun is behind a climber who is looking downwards into mist from a ridge or peak. It is no more than the shadow of the climber projected forward through the mist but the spectre sometimes appears to be huge. The phenomenon was first noticed on the Brocken, the highest peak of the Harz mountains in Germany.

[lines 84, 85] Quod ubique … Quod ab omnibus means semper!:  These Latin words refer to a formula known as the motto of St Vincent (of Lérins), an ecclesiastical writer of the fifth century. He described the Roman Catholic faith as quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est. (That which everywhere, that which always and that which by all persons had been believed).

Kipling was particularly sceptical in regard to the Roman church. He adapts the Latin motto so that it demonstrates the lesson taught by looking into the records of past fame; even if everyone everywhere, i.e. a wide readership, believed something once, that belief did not endure forever.


©Mary Hamer 2008 All rights reserved