First published in The Strand Magazine (1933). Collected in:
- Inclusive Verse (1933)
- Definitive Verse (1940)
- Sussex Edition vol. xxxv p. 291
- Burwash Edition vol. xxviii
- Cambridge Edition (2013 Ed. Pinney) p. 1440
This poem is modelled on the eighteenth-century song “The Vicar of Bray” that tells the story of a vicar who was a great survivor. through the reigns of several sovereigns of England, with the chorus:
And this is law, I will maintain
Unto my Dying Day, Sir.
That whatsoever King may reign,
I will be the Vicar of Bray, Sir!
The fox too, was a great survivor. The poem uses the same verse form, including the recurring “Sir” as a line ending, and traces the history of fox-hunting from Old Testament times down to 1933, when it was written.
Kipling and fox-huntng
Living in the country, as he did. Kipling was very aware of the mystique of fox-hunting in the English countryside, though he did not hunt himself. In “Below the Mill Dam” (1902) he writes approviungly – if unhistorically – of an eleventh century Abbot who ‘kept the best pack in the country’ and the Lady Philippa, who ‘ rode devilish straight to hounds, They were a bit throatier than we breed now …’ (Traffics and Discoveries pp. 372/3).In “Little Foxes” (1909), he writes of a pack brought out to the Sudan by the British Governor, where the hunt becomes a light-hearted instrument of governance. In “My Son’s Wife” (1913), he writes of a wealthy aesthete whose life is changed by inheriting a country property, where he becomes an enthusiastic rider to hounds; and in “The Great Play Hunt” (1930), he writes of a hunting game between dogs and a wise old fox on a country estate.
In the Kipling Journal for December 2001, Alan Underwood writes the second of two articles on “Foxhunting with Kipling.” He tells how he had tracked down “Letters from Rudyard Kipling to Guy Paget, 1919-1936” from the copy sent to Mrs Kipling, now with the Kipling Papers at the University of Sussex. Major Paget was a fox-hunting man and a writer on the sport, and some of the letters throw light on the origins of this poem.
The first reference is in a letter to Paget dated 29 September 1932:
You might let me know precisely (for purposes of my own) where
Rankesboro’ Gorse lies. In the Cottesmore country – or how? And
nearest to what north-going road? Failing that, give me the most
notorious cover in the Quorn country. This is urgent. I want to do a
meditation, from the days of Samson and his ‘little foxes’, by C.J.
Fox: reviewing the centuries.
It is not clear why such exact locations were required for the verses, because the geography as eventually used is not very detailed; but Kipling was a glutton for precise information, often of a technical nature. Incidentally, the notoriety of the Whig politician, Charles James Fox (1749-1806), led to his name being associated with the animal, so that ‘Charlie’ is even now a slang term for a fox. Kipling’s next letter relating to the poem (undated, but noted by Paget as October 1932) has an early version of the first verse. Note, by the way, the instruction to return the draft with marginal comments:
Please vet: verse as under, for accuracy (It is the opening to “The Meditation of C.J. Fox”) and return with marginal remarks:
When Samson set my brush on fire
To spoil the Timnites’ barley,
I set my mask for Leicestershire,
And left Philistia early.
Through Gaul and Rankesboro’ Gorse I fled
And took the Coplow Road, Sir;
And was a Gentleman in Red
When all the Quorn wore woad, Sir.
Is that geographically correct? I notice in your splendid book you talk
of “The Coplow”, and I specially like the idea of the Quorn in woad.
In his reply, Paget suggested “made my point” for “set my mask”, commenting that ‘the latter smacks rather of the local journal’, and line 3 was altered accordingly. The other change, from “Gaul” to “Gath” in line 5, was felt to be a decided improvement, for some reason that is not clear. In connection with the joke about woad, Paget asked Kipling if he knew that the facing on the evening dress for members of the Quorn was blue. Kipling replied that he did – and I wonder how he acquired that obscure piece of information: I understand that not even the Quorn know the reason for the choice of colour.
Paget kept the letter with the autograph draft verse, in spite of the instruction to return it, but escaped with a rebuke as ‘an impenitent burglar’ for this breach of the well-known rules of the Kipling establishment, to prevent anything written in the hand of the author from getting into circularion.
Andrew Lycett (p. 750) adds some details of this exchange, giving Kipling’s actual words and the date of his letter:
Kipling also discussed hunting with Guy Paget, a Northamptonshire landowner whom he had met by chance at the Carlton Club at the start of the war.
In 1932 Rudyard asked him to comment on “Fox-Hunting”, a rollicking, Surteesian social history of hunting in verse. Paget pointed out – apropos the lines, “a Gentleman in Red/ When all the Quorn wore woad, sir!” – that the Quorn’s evening colours were indeed blue. Slightly put out, Kipling commented, “I did know that Quorn facings were blue – I don’t spend all my time indoors.” (R.K. to Guy Paget, 30 October 1932.)
Kipling may not have spent all his time indoors, but when Paget invited him to come out with the Pytchley Hunt the offer was turned down very firmly. In his letter of December 1930 he says: “All the same, you don’t catch me outside a hot hysterical piece of catsmeat with leather trimmings ! It’s vulgar.”
In the “Almanac of Twelve Sports”, from which the picture above comes, Kipling wrote of hunting:
Certes it is a noble sport
And men have quitted selle and swum for’t.
But I am of a weaker sort
And I prefer Surtees in comfort.
Reach down my “Handley Cross” again,
My run, where never danger lurks, is
With Jorrocks and his deathless train—
Pigg, Binjamin and Artaxerxes!
In his “Sporting Lector” (KJ 239, September1986, p.11), Frank Brightman sheds light on the origin of the last verse of the poem:
In his Christmas letter the same year— – he seemed to choose this season for making provocative remarks—Paget suggested that the only sports in Sussex were shooting tame pheasants and running down pedestrians with motor cars. Kipling replied: …I could have incorporated your views in “our” poem. Imagine the fox watching one battue in the coverts behind him and another on the open road! And he did write a final verse to this effect, ending:
And so began, in skid and stink,
The real blood-sport of Britain.
In KJ 069, April 1944 p. 7, Colonel F. S. Kennedy-Shaw writes on “Horse and Hound in Kipling’s Works”. He points out an anachronism in Puck of Pook’s Hill that also applies to verses 2, 3,and 4 of this poem:
In “Old Men at Pevensey” Sir Richard kept Fulke’s impish son through the otter-hunting, and the boy “stayed on for the fox-hunting.” But the Norman regarded the fox as vermin and not as a beast of the chase. It was only in the XVIIth century that the fox began to be hunted with hounds as a definite sport.
The earliest records of orthodox foxhunting are when the Duke of Buckingham, exiled from Court, hunted the Bilsdale country in 1670, and Lord Arundell of Wardour what is now the South and West Wilts about 1690. Until then, as Shakespeare tells us in Henry VI, when a fox was to be killed no one
“stood on quillets how to slay him, be it by gins, by snares or subtlety.”
Jan Montefiore comments:
I recall from undergraduate days the long 14th century alliterative poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, in which Sir Gawain is the guest of a great lord who on three days leaves Gawain resting while the lady of the castle tries to seduce him. Meanwhile the Lord goes hunting three different beasts: first a boar, then a stag and last of all a fox. “Sir Gawain” is the work of a 14th Century poet, name unknown, who wrote in the West Midlands dialect and probably lived somewhere near Worcester. So Kipling may have been right about fox-hunting in medieval England.
Kennedy-Shaw ended with an excellent appreciation of the poem:
As children do, I have kept the bonne bouche for the end. To me, nothing exemplifies what Mr. Jorrocks called foxhuntativeness in Kipling’s writings more than that jewel of a poem “The Fox Meditates” – the sub-title. In this Kipling shows his knowledge of High Leicestershire, the foxhunter’s Mecca. Are not Rankesborough Gorse (though I think it should be spelt Ranksborough) and Coplow known—if only by name —to all of us? The third verse might well refer to the Duke and the Bilsdale country, and the fourth testifies to the birth of fences for us to jump when the Enclosure Acts came into being. And one is grateful to the author for the satire upon motor cars, which we know he loved but was human enough to ridicule.
Notes on the Text
Samson A hero of the Israelites in their fight against the Philistines. See Judges Chapters 14 – 16
brush the tail of a fox
set my brush afire ‘And Samson went and caught 300 foxes, and took firebrands, and turned tail to tail, and put a firebrand in the midst between two tails. And when he had set the brands on fire, he let them go into the standing corn of the Philistines, and burnt up both the shocks and also the standing corn.’ Judges 15, 4-5
Timnites inhabitants of the Philistine town of Timnath
Leicestershire English county famous for fox-hunting
made my point in fox-hunting, made a straight run between two places. Kipling originally wrote “set my mask”. Guy Paget suggested the change: see Introduction
Gath a Philistine town. Kipling originally wrote “Gaul”: see Introduction.
Rankesborough Gorse a well-known covert where foxes could hide, in Leicestershire
Coplow a village in Leicestershire
Gentleman in Red a play on words. Foxes are red (though more precisely rusty brown or russet), and Masters and Hunt Servants wear red coats. Although these are scarlet, they are always referred to as ‘hunting pink’, a typical piece of British illogicality.
the Quorn the Quorn Hunt, usually called the Quorn, established in 1696, is one of the world’s oldest fox hunting packs. Its country is mostly in Leicestershire. The village of Quorn lies mid-way between Leicester and Loughborough.
wore woad the Ancient Britons painted their bodies with the blue dye woad. The facing on the evening dress for members of the Quorn is blue: see Introduction.
Hadrian’s Wall the Roman wall from coast to coast between Newcastle and Solway Firth, for many years the northern boundary of the Roman Empire. See Kipling’s three stories in Puck of Pook’s Hill: “A Centurion of the Thirtieth”, “On the Great Wall” and “The Winged Hats.”
Centurions officers in the Roman army.
pack a company of hounds kept for hunting (OED).
Aesica a Roman fort on the Wall, now Great Chesters
Carter Fell one of the Cheviot Hills, north of the Wall
North Tyne one of the main tributaries of the River Tyne which flows into the North Sea at Newcastle
Hunnum another Roman fort on the Wall, now Halton Chesters
William William the Conqueror, Duke of Normany and King of England,
Harold King Harold, defeated by William at the Battle of Hastings, 1066. See “The Tree of Justice” in Rewards and Fairies.
earth a fox’s den
Battle Wood William built an abbey on the battlefield to commemorate his victory. Its partially ruined remains still stand in the small town of Battle in East Sussex.
Domesday Book a survey ordered by William in 1086 of all landholdings in England, for taxation
Game Protection William set aside large tracts of land, notably the New Forest in Hampshire, for the exclusive use of his Royal Hunt. This was mainly for deer; fox-hunting did not develop until the 17th Century (see Introduction).
Charles, my namesake ‘Charlie’ is a slang term for a fox: see Introduction
lost his mask mask is the fox-hunting term for a fox’s head, particularly as a hunting trophy. King Charles I was beheaded.
Oliver dropped his’n dropped his mask: ‘his’n’ is an obsolete abbreviation for “his one”. Here mask means “disguise.” Oliver Cromwell was the leading Parliamentarian general in the English Civil War. Although he fought against King Charles and signed his death warrant, he was appointed Protector and became more and more like a king himself.
In boots as big as milking-pails Kipling must have got this delightful simile from the folksong “Our Goodman” (Child’s English and Scottish Popular Ballads Vol 5 p.93 No. 274)
I went into the dairy to see what I could see
And there I saw three pairs of boots
Where no boots ought to be.
I called to my loving wife:
“ Coming, Sir” said she.
“What are these boots doing here
Without the leave of me?”
“Blind booby, black buzzard, canst thou not see?
These are six milking-pails my mammy sent to me.”
“Odds bobs! Here’s fun! Milking pails with spurs on!
The likes I never see!”
pommel the front of a saddle
chevied chased – often written ‘chivvied’.
the Dales open valleys in North Yorkshire
thrifty Walpole Sir Robert Walpole, Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1721 to 1742, restored financial stability after the rampant speculation of the South Sea Bubble. He was the first English politician to be called Prime Minister.
Enclosure For hundreds of years land in England had been farmed under the open-field system, where each village had two or three large fields, which were divided into many narrow strips of land cultivated by individuals or families. The land one person owned was thus split into many small scattered portions. Enclosure allowed each person’s holdings to be gathered into one plot, which he could then “enclose” with hedges. Enclosure favoured the larger land-holders, who often also managed to enclose “commons” – pasture areas previously available for all villagers to graze their animals.
Plantation woodland previously common to all villagers could now be enclosed as one person’s private plantation.
pounded in fox-hunting: of a rider, confined in an enclosed space so as to be unable to follow the chase (OED). An example of how Kipling absorbed a technical vocabulary and used it with precision. The hunt has been used to riding over the large unfenced open fields. Now it is shut in by the hedges of the new, much smaller, enclosures.
Master the owner of a pack of hounds and leader of a Hunt.
the Commons the House of Commons. Every enclosure had to be authorised by Act of Parliament. Alastair Wilson asks: ‘I wonder if there isn’t a double meaning – “However fast the Commons went” could be a reference to the rate of disappearance of common land, as the commons were enclosed for use by landowners.’ [A.W.]
Pigg and Jorrocks characters in Robert Surtees’s novels about fox-hunting, particularly Handley Cross. Kipling loved these stories. “Stalky” quotes them frequently, and in “My Son’s Wife” the protagonist Midmore uses them as guides to his strange new life in the country (A Diversity of Creatures,1917)
posts, and rails, and wires new forms of fencing. Barbed wire, put in to reinforce a hedge and fill up gaps, is dangerous to jump on a horse. The horse won’t know about the barbed wire and if he attempts to brush through the top of a fence is his usual way, he will tear his belly open on the barbs, hence the cry in the hunting field of ‘Ware Wire’. Underwood (see Introduction) points out how in “My Son’s Wife” ‘Midmore acquired merit by persuading his awkward tenant-farmer, Sidney, to take down barbed wire so that hedges might be jumped safely.’
cover thick undergrowth where a fox could hide, such as Rankesborough Gorse in verse 1.
sutler a person who followed an army and sold provisions etc. to the soldiers (OED). Perhaps Kipling was looking at the word’s derivation, from the Dutch “to follow a mean trade”.
pupped produced, like a dog giving birth to a puppy
For fear the law might try ‘em stag-hunting remained legal in England until the Hunting Act of 2004, which also banned fox-hunting.
bag the number of animals killed in a day’s hunting
per diem Latin for ‘each day”
twenty dead in 1930, there were 7,305 road deaths in Britain, very close to Kipling’s 20 a day, with 2.3 million vehicles on the roads. This figure was not surpassed (in peacetime) until 1965 with 7,952 deaths but 12.9 million registered vehicles. In 2013 road deaths, at 1,713, were the lowest since statistics were first kept in 1926.
Coroners legal officers who hold enquiries into violent or accidental deaths. They are said to ‘sit on’ such cases.
blood-sport a sport such as hunting which involves killing animals.
© Philip Holberton 2015 All rights reserved