General Summary

(notes by Roberta Baldi. We have been grateful for critical comments and suggestions from Alastair Wilson)


Collected in:

  • Departmental Ditties and Other Verses, 1st Edition 1886, and many later editions
  • Early Verse, 1900
  • Inclusive Verse, 1919
  • Definitive Verse, 1940
  • Sussex Edition, Vol. 32, p. 3
  • Burwash Edition, Vol. 25

The poem is listed in ORG (p. 5148) as no. 221.

The poem

The Departmental Ditties had been published as a series in the Civil and Military Gazette between February and April 1886. Peter Keating (pp. 19-20) writes:

The grandiloquent names, catchy rhythms, and facetious
rhymes of the “ditties”, barely conceal the serious view of life
that informs them. For the first edition, Kipling wrote an
introductory poem that he called, pointedly, “General

There is no progress, no change of any significant moral or
social value. Mankind has always been motivated by greed,
selfishness, and self-seeking. Any individual revealing some
special talent or ability has always placed himself at the mercy
of other, less talented, but more powerful people who will
thieve, murder, steal, or do anything else that is necessary to
help them get on in life: “As it was in the beginning/Is to-day
official sinning/And shall be for evermore.”

The trouble with this cheerless philosophy was that it couldn’t just be accepted as part of the overall joke. The first readers of Departmental
laughed at the poems, but there was an element of unease
in their laughter … The ditties brought Kipling praise and admiration,
but not, one suspects, many friends. The young poet journalist
who not only knew all the local gossip, but was capable of
exposing the unpleasant motives that lay behind it in catchy
poems that everyone wanted to read, was a man to be wary of.

Departmental Ditties was the first collection of Kipling’s verse offered to the general public. The first edition, published in June 1886 in India, was produced in the form of a Government docket or file, in an edition of 500 copies, priced at 1 rupee. As Charles Carrington notes (p. 78):

The book did not look like a book; it was part of the joke that he printed and bound it in the style and shape of a Government office file, tied up with a bow of the pink tape that is called ‘red tape’. The first edition was immensely popular in India, soon sold out, and is now a rarity.


For more details of the book and the successive editions see David Alan Richards p. A7.

Background to the poem

“General Summary” opened Departmental Ditties and Other Verses from its very first Indian edition (1886), until the 1st English edition (1890) in which “Prelude” became the opening poem.

This original choice, considering the content, the structure and, above all, the title of the poem, supports the picture of a young Kipling “quite knowing in his conduct of publishing arrangements” (Thomas Pinney and David Allan Richards (eds), Kipling and his first publisher, Rivendale Press, 2001: 5) and well aware of the reception his work was likely to have.

Notes on the Text

[Lines 2-3] semi-apes …/ India’s prehistoric clay: Life sciences in the nineteenth century were largely dominated by pioneering theories on the evolution of species, which suggested a common ancestry for man and apes, contradicting the biblical concept of Creation. Charles Darwin (1809-1882), with his The Origin of Species (1859), and Alfred Wallace (1823-1913) were perhaps the most prominent scientists in this field.

The German biologist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) postulated the existence of an ape-man (Pithecanthropus) on a now sunken continent in the Indian Ocean which the English zoologist Philip Sclater (1829-1913) had termed “Lemuria”, from the primates (“semi-apes”) inhabiting it.

The following quotation of ‘mammoth’ indicates that the period the poet is referring to in the first stanza is the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) rather than the more recent Neolithic Age (New Stone Age). See the poem “In the Neolithic Age” for parallelisms.

[Lines 4-5] Whoso drew the longest bow / Ran his brother down: Much evidence is to be found in literature of the connection between the skill of the best and strongest archer and the power he would inherit by applying it – see ancient Native American fables or Homer’s Odyssey (ch. 21 and others on the bow of Odysseus), to quote only two examples.

To ‘draw the long bow’ is also an English idiom, meaning ‘to tell a lie’ To ‘run down’, which would mean, in prehistoric times, to hunt to destruction, also means, in Kipling’s 19th century vernacular, to denigrate, or to destroy the character of, a person. [A.W.]

[Line 7] Dowb:  Such a name recalls the Hebrew root ‘dowb’ meaning ‘bear’.

[Line 13] reindeer: It is interesting to note how quickly Kipling leads the reader from Indian territory (l.3) to some northern Eurasian land which is the traditional homeland for (domesticated) reindeer.

[Lines 13-18] The analogy for Kipling’s own day would be the young Assistant Engineer, preparing the drawings from which a great bridge is built, while it is the Chief Engineer who receives the CIE from the Viceroy. [A.W.]

[Line 19] the Sphinx: Studies of the building of the Sphinx, in Egypt, date it during the reign of King Khafre (2558-2532 BC, 4th Dynasty).

This strange massive statue, with its inscrutable smile, has become a symbol of the mystery and potency of ancient Egypt.

The Sphinx is the first of the two direct references to the Egyptian archaeological site of Giza which also includes the three pyramids of Khufu (Cheops in Greek), Khafre (Chephren in Greek), and Menkaure (Mycernus in Latin).

[Lines 22-29] The message in this stanza is simple: Government contractors have always been in their business to make as much profit as they can. [A.W.]

[Line 23] Cheops’ pyramid: Cheops’ pyramid is thought to date to around 2500 BC.

[Lines 26-27] Joseph:  Pharaoh’s Israelite Comptroller (Controller) of Supplies. See Genesis 47 for an account of Joseph’s rise to this responsible office, and what followed.

[Line 29] swart: in this context, dark or dusky.

[Line 33-35] a rather irreverent misquotation of the ‘doxology’ (formula of praise) – “As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, World without end, Amen” – which is found throughout the liturgy of the Church of England, and of many other forms of Christian worship.[A.W.]


[R. B.]

©Roberta Baldi 2003 All rights reserved