Giffen’s Debt

(notes by Philip Holberton)


This poem (ORG no. 222) was first published in the first edition of Departmental Ditties in 1886. It is collected in:

  • Subsequent editions of Departmental Ditties
  • Early Verse (1900)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition Volume 32, page 158
  • Burwash Edition, Volume 25


Giffen is an officer who had become catastrophically in debt. He left the service and “went fantee”, living as a native in a remote valley. A dam is built there of defective materials, and when it bursts twenty-five villagers are drowned. Giffen is found dead beneath an old horse, six miles down the valley. But a legend arises among the villagers of a man on a monstrous horse raising the alarm and driving them to safety. In a curious foreshadowing of “The Miracle of Purun Bhagat” in The Jungle Book, he has saved a great many of them. Giffen’s debt is paid.

See also “To be Filed for Reference” in Plain Tales from the Hills, about MacIntosh Jellalludin who also ‘goes fantee’, living as a poor native Indian.

Critical comments

This poem has not captured the attention of many of the critics. However, Andrew Lang (1844-1912), the poet, scholar, and critic, who wrote an early review of Departmental Ditties in Longman’s Magazine in October 1886, commented:

The story of Giffen, who was broken and disgraced, and saved a whole countryside at the expense of his own life, and who is now worshipped by the natives (in Bengal) is worthy of Bret Harte.

This delighted Kipling, who as Harry Ricketts points out (p. 94) was ‘a great admirer of Harte’s humorous-pathetic verse and tales of Californian mining life.’

Bonamy Dobrée (p.209) quotes lines from the poem as an example of how: ‘verse is rescued from becoming poetry by the introduction of some incongruous word’:

…They raised a temple to the local God,
And burnt all manner of unsavoury things
Upon his altar, and created priests,
And blew into a conch and banged a bell…

One assumes that he is referring to ‘unsavoury’ and ‘banged’. But Dobree concedes that ‘there is an idea within the piece which might have been made into a poem.’

And in 1890 W.E.Henley, who became a great admirer of Kipling, called this ‘a strange and moving story.’

Notes on the Text

[Title] There is no indication why Kipling chose the name, and in fact it is not used in the poem: the protagonist is always referred to just as ‘he.’

[Line 1] Imprimis: Latin for ‘In the first place’

he was “broke”:I n this context, cashiered, deprived of his commission as an officer.
Alastair Wilson writes: The use of the word ‘broke’ in this context derives from the old usage, in the early 18th century, of the disgraced officer’s sword being broken, by an armourer – not, as a rule, his fighting sword, but his ‘dress sword’, a thin rapier. [AJW]

[Line 5] Mussulman: Muslim.

[Line 6] the Gauri villagers: the Gauri may well be the Gauri Ganga River in the area of Kumaon, NW Provinces close to the Nepal border. It runs from the East of Nanda Devi to its confluence with the Kali River which is the border with Nepal at this point. We have been unable to trace a dam disaster during Kipling’s time in India.

[Line 8] sahib: Englishman.

[Line 14] they dammed the Gauri: see line 6 above.

[Line 22] lakh: a hundred thousand rupees.

[Line 32] that little loss of life: Kipling is not being heartless about the deaths of five-and-twenty villagers. In a heavily-populated Indian valley, many more deaths would be expected from a flood that caused so much damage

[Line 65] Tutelary Deity: the God specially protecting the valley. Kipling later used the same expression of young John Chinn in “The Tomb of his Ancestors” in The Day’s Work, p, 121 line 20:

Each one of the six hundred quick-footed, beady-eyed rank-and-file, at attention beside their rifles, believed serenely and unshakenly that the subaltern on the left flank of the line was a demi-god twice born – tutelary deity of their land and people.

[Line 67] Solar Myth: In the 1880s, there was ongoing academic debate among mythographers. Some held that the gods of myth were memories of actual tribal heroes, while others said that they were personifications of forces of nature, especially the sun – hence “solar myths”.

Compare the first two lines of “Pagett, M.P.”:

Pagett, M.P. was a liar, and a fluent liar therewith, –
He spoke of the heat of India as “The Asian Solar Myth.




©Philip Holberton 2010 All rights reserved