The Four Angels

(notes edited by Daniel Hadas  and John Radcliffe)


This poem follows “With the Night Mail” in Actions and Reactions in 1909.

It is collected in:

  • Songs from Books
  • Inclusive Verse
  • Definitive Verse
  • Sussex Edition vol 8 p. 165 and vol 34 p.205
  • Burwash Edition vols 8 and 27
  • Cambridge Edition, Ed. Pinney p. 856.

Pinney notes that the poem did not appear in the original periodical publication of “With the Night Mail” in McClure’s Magazine and Windsor Magazine.

Martin Simpson‘s rendition can be found here.

The poem

The poem echoes the first three chapters of the “Book of Genesis”, the first book in the Old Testament.

Ann Weygandt
notes (pp.120-121) that it reflects the early influence on Kipling of the pre-Raphaelite poets, notably Rossetti. She points out (p. 177) that the phrase ‘Adam lay ybounden’ is to be found in Ancient English Carols edited by Edith Rickert (Chatto and Windus, 1925).
Joyce Tompkins in her chapter on ‘Man and the Abyss’, comments (p. 193):

‘The Four Angels’, attached to ‘With the Night Mail’, presents Adam’s sin in Eden as laziness, the refusal, even when the tutelary angels of the elements suggest it, to exploit his circumstances. Therefore the Angel of the Fire sets the flame of desire in his heart. The desire is for ever unattainable, but outside Eden-Wall it drives him to the mastery of the elements. It is thus through ‘black disaster’ that he fulfils his nature.

John Lee in KJ 335 writes of the relationship between this poem and “With the Night Mail”:

“The Four Angels” seems both to summarize and
amplify. It places “With the Night Mail” as part of the Fall narrative,
and at the same time adds resonance to the function of fire within the
story. The final stanza makes it clear that Adam, for all his mastery
of the four elements, has ‘never reached his heart’s desire’ and never
will, for ‘The Apple Tree’s cut down!’ This Adam is caught in an
endless and restless pursuit of certain, god-like knowledge, and is
driven to that pursuit of mastery by a mysterious fire in his breast.
This has led him to master the Earth, with ploughs, the Sea, with
ships, and finally, as we have seen in this story, the Air, with dirigibles.

To that extent, Adam’s conquest of the air is on a par with his
conquests of the sea and land; a consequence of the Fall and, while
admirable, also to an extent a display of the weakness of nature that
led him to Fall and be subject to desire in the first place – though, in
Kipling’s recasting of the Fall narrative, it is not at all clear whether
Kipling sees the Fall in terms of moral failure. Kipling’s rewriting of
the Fall narrative naturalizes the eternal restlessness of men. The
nature of that restlessness, and its effects, is amplified by the way in
which the dirigibles, the particular tool in Adam’s quest for mastery
in this story, seem to stand in an analogous relationship to Adam
himself; like Adam, they are driven by a mysterious fire —’the
restless little imp shuddering’, ‘the very heart of the machine—a mystery
to this day.’

Daniel Hadas adds: The poem echoes ‘Adam lay y-bounden‘ not only in the refrain but in the ending. That song ends with lines on the felix culpa” –

Another influence on the poem is book 6 of Milton’s Paradise Lost, whence Kipling probably got the idea of angels (in Milton’s case, Raphael) conversing with Adam in the Garden of Eden  [D.H.]

Notes on the text

[Stanza 1]

in fee: to hold as his own property, having the absolute right to it.  [D.H.]

the plough he would not speed it:  See here for the expression “speed the plough”. [D,H.]

[Stamza 4]

The Angel of the Fire:  Of Kipling’s four angels, this is the only one identifiable from the Genesis account. See Genesis 3.24:

So he drove out the man, and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.

But Kipling’s angel is in the Garden before the Fall, and takes the role of the Serpent in prompting it. This fits with both the felix culpa theme (see above) and Kipling’s insertion of fire into the pre-lapsarian world (see below). Kipling leaves it ambiguous whether his Angel of the Fire is in fact the Devil, who was after all a fallen angel (as Milton narrates at great length). Certainly, the Angel of the Fire’s silence (“not a word said he”) is quite different from the serpent/devil’s manipulative words in Genesis.

The Angel of the Fire’s intervention is also reminiscent of that of the Fury Allecto in book 7 of Virgil’s Aeneid. Allecto is sent by Juno to provoke the Italian hero Turnus to war against Aeneas. Allecto disguises herself as the priestess Calybe and tries to cajole Turnus into action. When this fails, she takes on her true appearance and literally sets Turnus’ breast on fire. See  Dryden’s translation of Aeneid 7.445-57: [D.H.]



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