Follow me ‘ome

(Notes by Roger Ayers)

Publication History

According to the Stewart/Yates Bibliography, this poem was filed for U.S. copyright, No 39336, on 28 August 1893. It was first published in the Pall Mall Magazine for June 1894, with three illustrations by Enoch Ward. It was collected in The Seven Seas, 1896; I.V. 1919 and 1933; D.V. 1940; Sussex Edition, Vol 33, page 155; Burwash Edition, Vol 26. In the ORG it is numbered 606.

Subject matter and verse form.

The form and rhythm of the poem are so closely linked to the subject matter that it helps if they are looked at together.   The poem reflects the grief of a soldier mourning a comrade who is not just a friend, but the close companion with whom he has got through the hardships and loneliness of army life.

The first four-line stanza sets the scene; there was no one like him, and now he is gone. This is followed by a four-line refrain, in italics, with the dead soldier calling to his mates in the canteen to knock out their pipes, drink up, and follow him to his final home – the grave.

The next two stanzas show the response of the dead soldier’s mare and his girl to his loss – and the horse obviously misses him most. The fourth and fifth stanzas show the narrator’s sorrow over a recent quarrel and just how much he misses his friend, followed once more by the call to ‘follow me ’ome’ in the refrain.

Then comes a complete change of pace with a four-line stanza in italics, echoing the rhythm of the slow march of military funerals, the ‘Dead March’ from  Handel’s oratorio, ‘Saul’, as do also the final lines of each refrain, ‘Follow me, follow me ‘ome.’ In the final refrain, the firing party fires three volleys over the grave and the poem closes with a reference to male comradeship, as between David and Jonathan in the Bible, as ‘passing the love o’ women’.

The references to the music of the band, to the beat of the drum, and the ‘crawling’ of the fifes, enhances the effect of the mourners’ slow march behind the slowly turning wheels of the gun carriage, on which the coffin moves to the grave.

The setting.

There was a laid down ceremonial for the military funeral of a soldier who died on service, even if only a private, and the form would be basically the same regardless of where the soldier’s unit was stationed. The fact that the dead soldier had a girl, who was apparently keen to marry a soldier, makes it improbable that it was India or one of the more isolated stations, but not impossible. That the dead soldier had a horse means that he could have been either a cavalry trooper or a Horse Artilleryman, the latter being most likely since his girl was going with a ‘bombardier’ – an artillery rank equivalent to lance-corporal.

The procedure for a private soldier’s military funeral at the end of the 19th century was that the mourners would assemble at the hospital or place where the coffined soldier lay and the garrison would provide pall-bearers, a gun-carriage, a band, and a firing party of a corporal and 12 men, commanded by a sergeant. Such funerals were not infrequent; in the 1890s the death rate from disease in India was approximately 1.5% per year, which meant that over the normal 5-year tour of a short service soldier, a regiment of 1000 men would have held about seventy-five, which is more than one a month.

Once the coffin was placed on the gun-carriage, the funeral cortege would move off to the cemetery in the following order: the firing party, the band with muffled drums, the coffin flanked by the pallbearers, then chief mourners and mourners, who would normally include a contingent from the dead man’s unit. The orders then laid down that ‘The band will play the “Dead March” when about 300 yards from the hospital and continue for such a distance as the officer in charge may have stipulated before moving off’. The 300 yards was presumably so that the Dead March did not have an adverse effect on the other hospital inmates.

When the band stopped playing, the cortege broke into the quick march until an appropriate distance from the cemetery when the band resumed the slow march. At the cemetery, the coffin was lowered into the grave before the service over the grave, with the firing party at one side, resting with arms reversed. At the end of the service, the sergeant gave orders for the thirteen-man party to fire three volleys with blank cartridges.

The band then marched off in quick time, followed by the firing party, the pallbearers, and any units that had attended the ceremony. Once this party was clear of the burial ground, the band would strike up a rousing tune.

Two internet references

The original, illustrated publication in the Pall Mall Magazine is here. I note that the illustrator apparently concurs with Mr Ayers that the poem is not best taken as set in India: this looks like England.

Peter Bellamy’s recording is here.

Critical reception.

No early individual reviews of the poem have been traced but a typical contemporary review of the Barrack-Room Ballads section of The Seven Seas is:

…there is, to be sure, nothing with the peculiar thrill of ‘Danny Deever’, nothing with the peculiar homesick, heartsick touch of ‘Mandalay’, but there are other things as moving and as true, with a plunge of tragedy into depths not sounded before, however the surface was troubled.
[WD Howells, review of The Seven Seas, in McClure’s Magazine. March 1897]

The poem is also a prime example of T.S. Eliot’s much later comment that:

…the variety of form which Kipling manages to devise for his ballads is remarkable: each is distinct and perfectly fitted to the content and the mood which the poem has to convey.
[Introduction to A Choice of Kipling’s Verse, Faber & Faber, London, 1941]

George Orwell wrote a review of Eliot’s selection which was published in the literary journal Horizon in February 1942. In it he ranged well beyond Eliot’s comments and selection to give his own analysis of Kipling as a poet. One aspect of this analysis was to assert that in putting the words of the ordinary soldiers into dialect form, mainly Cockney, Rudyard Kipling was patronising them and treating them as comic characters.

Orwell’s views in this frequently reprinted essay were roundly and effectively rejected by Professor Christie Davis in his ‘Kipling’s Comic and Serious Verse’ in the Kipling Journal (No. 308) of December 2003, in which he takes “Follow me ‘ome” as a major example of serious verse in support of his argument.
Charles Carrington (p. 353) mentions “Follow me ’ome” as being selected by the poet, Hilaire Belloc, as ‘one of Kipling’s two best poems’ (he does not say what the other was) and adds his own opinion that:

… it is singularly effective in the variety of time and tone, which is achieved in a few lines, …concluding with a sudden break into the rhythm of a slow march.”

Angus Wilson (pp. 84-5) discusses the lot of the private soldiers of the Victorian era and identified their essential need for both comradeship and companionship to get them through the ‘intolerable future on foreign service’. He concludes that, of all poets, only Kipling ‘really caught it in the soldier’s lament at the death of his friend.’

This theme is taken up by John Whitehead (Hardy to Larkin – Seven English Poets, Hearthstone, Munslow, 1995) who points out that the penultimate line of the final refrain, in the voice of the dead comrade, makes a comparison with Jonathan of the Bible, whose death in battle is mourned by David in Samuel II, 1,26: ‘I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan; very pleasant hast thou been unto me; thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.’

It is interesting to note from an early draft of this poem that the penultimate line ‘Oh, passin’ the love o’ woman’ was an afterthought and replaced ‘Oh, ’ark to the fifes a’crawlin’ as in the second refrain. (Columbia University Library)

But Kipling had anticipated the point – he had already written that the girl had gone with the bombardier.


©Roger Ayers 2009 All rights reserved