First published in Debits and Credits (1926), as introduction to the story “A Madonna of the Trenches”.
The poem is usually read as a comment on the story that follows it. There is no known evidence that Kipling had personal knowledge of gipsy culture, though there is an encounter with a gipsy encampment in “A Priest in Spite of Himself” in Rewards and Fairies. He seems to have got his ideas from literary sources such as George Borrow’s Lavengro, of which there is a copy in his study. One might compare the poem “The Gipsy Trail” (1892), collected in the Inclusive Edition and subsequently.
Nora Crook wrote that the poem:
ironically praises the law-abiding citizen. The trap is sprung in the last verse: the gipsies tell the conformist that after death “your God and your wife / And the Gipsies’ll laugh at you! / And then you can rot in your burying-place.” The poem praises lawlessness and seems at first to be endorsing Godsoe’s [the tragic lover in “A Madonna of the Trenches”] brand of profane love. But, as readers of Lavengro’s famous dialogue with Jasper Petulengro learn, the gipsy creed is a materialist one which does not admit of transcendent love or the resurrection of the body. “Life is sweet, brother”, and the only gipsy life is that of the physical body on earth.
Kipling’s gipsies have nothing but contempt for the doctrine that self-denial and self-sacrifice are the gates to a superior plane of existence. They do not recommend that you should “Lose your life for to live your life.” Godsoe would be the target of their scorn for being too timid to flout convention while Bella was alive, and for imagining that his voluntary death could be an open sesame to “carryin’ on for all Eternity” [1989, p. 161].
Notes on the Text
[Page 237, line 12] Gorgio Romany term for non-gipsies.
[Page 238, line 11] ryes peoples.