This poem, written six years before, was first published in the collection The Years Between in 1919. It is listed in ORG as no. 1099. It was written in 1913, and Kipling tried to get it published in that year but editors would not take it because of the likelihood of an action for libel by Sir Rufus Isaacs, the newly appointed Lord Chief Justice. In the Sussex Edition Kipling dated it 1915.
It is collected in:
- Inclusive Verse (1919)
- Definitive Verse (1940)
- The Sussex Edition vol xxxiii (1939)
- The Burwash Edition vol xxvi (1941)
- Cambridge Edition (2013) Ed. Thomas Pinney, p. 1127
This is a ‘hate poem’, a piece of violent uncompromising rhetoric denouncing Britain’s highest judge for corruption, by identifying him with the figure of Gehazi, in the Old Testament. In the story (II Kings, chapters 4 and 5), Elisha the prophet cures Naaman of leprosy, and refuses Naaman’s reward. Soon after, Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, asks Naaman privately for “a talent of silver, and two changes of garment”, to be given separately, on Elisha’s behalf, to “two young men of the sons of prophets”. In gratitude, Naaman offers two talents. When Gehazi returns, and conceals his gains, Elisha says to him, “Whence comest thou, Gehazi?” (II Kings, 5 verse 25). His punishment is to suffer the leprosy of Naaman: “And he went out from his presence, a leper white as snow.” (verse 27).
As David Gilmour writes (pp. 230-233):
In March 1912, Godfrey Isaacs, the Managing Director of the Marconi Company in Britain, negotiated a contract with Herbert Samuel, the Government’s Postmaster-General, to erect a series of wireless stations round the Empire. The following month shares in the American Marconi Company were secretly bought by three Liberal ministers, Lloyd George, Alexander Murray (the Chief Whip) and Rufus Isaacs (the brother of Godfrey), who was the Attorney General. Soon rumours were rumbling about insider trading and corruption over the Government contract, and scurrilous articles appeared
with exaggerated charges, fuelled in certain cases by anti-semitism.
But the ministers were not entirely innocent. In the Commons debate in October Isaacs successfully economized with the truth by denying he owned shares in ‘that company’ (that is, the British one), thereby giving the impression that he had no Marconi shares at all. He later refused to tell the Select Committee, appointed to investigate the matter, about his shares in the American company; and he only revealed them in the course of a libel action against a French newspaper. The Select Committee overruled its own chairman and produced a highly partisan report that acquitted the ministers of any wrongdoing.
Until then, the summer of 1913, Kipling had been silent, despite an overpowering belief in the men’s
guilt…it was rumoured in July l9l3 that Isaacs would become the next Lord Chief Justice. This insensitive appointment, made in October, duly inspired ‘Gehazi’, one of the greatest of all hymns of
This was a time of great political unrest in Britain. A Liberal government had been in power since 1906. They had given the Boer republics in South Africa de facto independence; they had raised taxes on the wealthy to pay for greater social security for the working classes, facing down the heavily Conservative House of Lords to do so; they had introduced a Home Rule Bill for Ireland, triggering off serious threats of violent resistance by the Protestants in Ulster and the danger of mutiny in the army. There were major strikes in several industries, and agitation by the Suffragettes for votes for women. And there was the looming threat of war with Germany.
It seemed to right-wingers, like Kipling, that everything of value to the British was under threat from liberals and socialists, and there were those who believed that the Jews were conspiring behind the scenes against the established order. Such beliefs, however misguided, were not uncommon in Britain, France and Germany at that time.
Kipling had mixed feelings about Jewish people, respecting their beliefs and mutual loyalty, witness “Jews in Shushan” (1888), the poem “The Mother Lodge” (1894), and “The Treasure and the Law” (1906). However, like many middle and upper class Britons he shared a degree of conventional anti-semitism, fuelled by suspicions that somehow ‘the Jews’ had their own agenda, and that a Jew was not ‘One of Us’.
He could not persuade the Morning Post to publish “Gehazi”, and when he tried it on Max Aitken (later Lord Beaverbrook) he was asked to ‘garble it’ to make it less libellous. Kipling replied on 14 November 1913:
‘ I can’t “garble” my “Gehazi”, it’s meant for that Jew Boy on the bench and one day – please the Lord – I may get it in.’ [Thomas Pinney (Ed.) Letters vol 4, pp. 208-209]
Despite its nastiness, David Gilmour (p. 233) does not see the poem itself as anti-semitic:
The poem has often been condemned as evil and anti-semitic. It is neither. The Old Testament frequently inspired Kipling’s moral teachings, and its characters were evoked not because they were Jewish but because, as in the case of Elisha and Gehazi, they could be used to illustrate Good and Evil.
There seems no doubt, however, that the poem, if published at that time, would have inflamed anti-Jewish prejudice. Harry Ricketts(p. 311) sees it as the most extreme of Kipling’s outbursts against the troubles of the years before the war. Quoting the final stanza, he writes:
As nasty as the nastiest of Pope, this vision of Gehazi’s punishment could only have been written by a deeply troubled man.
See also Christopher Ricks in T S Eliot and Prejudice (Faber and Faber 1994); “Kipling and the Jews” by Brian Cheyette in In Time’s Eye (Manchester University Press 2016); and George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England. Also three other entries in this guide, “Ulster”; “The Waster”; and “Lollius”.
See also a paper by Julian Moore.
Notes on the Text
[line 3] In scarlet and in ermines The Lord Chief Justice of England has ceremonial robes of scarlet, with ermine trimming.
[line 4] In chain of England’s gold This is the “collar of esses” worn by the Lord Chief Justice. [D.H.]
[line 40] A leper white as snow ! Elisha’s curse on Gehazi included, “and unto thy seed for ever”.
©John Walker and John Radcliffe 2018 All rights reserved