The Flight


(notes by John Radcliffe and John McGivering)


This poem first appeared in Definitive Verse in 1940, though Kipling dated it to 1930. It is listed in ORG as No 1169. It should not be confused with an unpublished poem of June 1880, with the same title, as a sub-title. See Rutherford, p. 50

It is collected in:

  • The Sussex Edition vol xxxv (1939)
  • The Burwash Edition vol xxviii (1941)
  • Cambridge Edition (2013) Ed. Thomas Pinney, p. 1433.

The poem

A company of grey geese, disturbed by a fool’s tread, take wing and fly away to find a safer home. Men are aghast that they are gone, but it is too late.

Since the poem was evidently written in 1930, but not published during Kipling’s lifetime, it does not seem to be one of his alarm calls to the nation. Perhaps it expresses his general unease at the temper of the times, and Britain’s unpreparedness in the face of dangers abroad, in a year when he and Carrie were often ill, and he was weary of chronic pain.
Jan Montefiore writes:

I see this poem as an imaginative tour de force. The geese depart because they’re frightened and wary. Once they’ve heard that footstep coming too close they leave, too quietly to be noticed. I take their very condensed speech to mean something like this:

‘No, we won’t come back, it’s not safe for us here any more. That trespasser may be only a harmless fool, but others who mean harm (‘knaves’) will certainly come after him’.

By ‘knaves’ they presumably mean sportsmen with guns; at least on the level of story.

I don’t think this poem is directly political, but it does seem like a parable. The realization of the scene is wonderfully exact and vivid – the rushes , the ‘drowned marsh’, the geese gathering on the beach and then taking off with a roar – but the aphorism in quotation marks clearly carries a moral: ‘don’t take chances’.

It reminds me a bit of Alan Furst’s novels (The World at Night, Mission to Paris, Midnight in Europe and others) about Resistance agents in occupied France in World War II who can’t risk being noticed, even by someone apparently harmless, because it’s so good on how it feels to be endangered, how if you have no defence but flight, all your senses must be on the alert.

“The Flight” perhaps alludes in part to Kipling’s famously defensive feelings about his own privacy and suspicion of intruders, but I wouldn’t want to push that too far because it’s so good on the wild creatures. It is fascinating that he could still write so well about wild creatures, all those years after the Jungle Books ! [J.M.]


Harry Ricketts wonders if, at the back of his mind, Kipling had a memory of two Yeats poems: “The Wild Swans at Coole” (1919) and “September 1913”:

Kipling’s lines contain various half-echoes of the former, and the phrase “grey geese” does seem to recall, from “September 1913”:

Was it for this the wild geese spread
The grey wing upon every tide

However, how far this helps to read Kipling’s poem, I’m not sure. Yeats’s “grey geese” were 17th and 18th Century Irish Catholic mercenary soldiers, who fought against England, and for Yeats emblematic of a lost, more heroic, romantic Ireland. I suppose it’s possible that they are the ones saying ‘Nay, fools foretell what knaves will do’ at the end of “The Flight”, but it seems rather far fetched.

Or does it ? He might be picking up more generally on the image of something ‘native’ leaving, which would make this poem about emigration, some essential ‘Englishness’ taking flight for the Colonies – certainly a motif in Kipling’s post-1900 work. Emigration was a big 1920s issue. In that case, ‘the Fool’ would be post-war Britain. The poem is certainly elegiac, mourning something lost but approving of it too – very different from “The Wild Swans at Coole”.[H.R.]

Jan Montefiore agrees about a possible echo of Yeats, though she sees it as very indirect:

Kipling’s ‘The Irish Guards’ (1918) with its refrain <‘Old Days! The Wild Geese are flighting’, does sound like

the wild geese spread
Their grey wing upon every tide’

in “September 1913”. There may be a direct influence at work here, but maybe not. Kipling could be riffing independently on the old name for the Irish regiments who historically fought in Europe.

Yeats always makes birds heavily symbolic, often of desire, whereas ‘The Flight’ focuses vividly on the birds themselves, the marsh, the beach, and gives little hint of what all this ‘means’ or ‘represents’, though we all feel there is a meaning. My feeling remains that its implied parable is about Kipling’s own fear of intruders, which makes it one of his very rare ‘personal’ poems. If the geese represent anything, it’s himself — and perhaps Carrie, who also had a difficult year in 1930. One might read it as a darker pendant to “The Long Trail”—a flight from a threat, instead of a flight to romance and love ? [J.M.]


Notes on the Text

[Verse 2]

pinion: in this context the wing of a bird.

[Verse 3]

osiers: one of various willow trees, Salix viminalis, whose flexible branches are used for making baskets.

[Verse 4]

myriads: very many.

[Verse 6]

wedge: the V formation in which geese fly. Kipling may be influenced by the Latin cuneus, which means both a wedge, and troops drawn up in a wedge-like formation. [D.H.]


©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2017 All rights reserved