Gow’s Watch


(notes edited by John Radcliffe)


Some time before 1901 Kipling wrote part or all of a play or plays in Jacobean style, of which the central character is “Gow”, a powerful soldierly figure in a fictitious kingdom. He becomes a king-maker after hard battles and devious plots, and dies by his own hand at the moment of triumph. We do not have the full play, if it was ever completed, but some scenes attributed to it were published by Kipling in association with various of his tales:

An earlier fragment, “Gow’s Watch, Act II, Scene 2,” was published in Songs from Books (1912). It incorporated the epigraph to chapter X of Kim and the last seven lines of “From Lyden’s Irenius”, introduction to the story “Mrs Bathurst” in Traffics and Discoveries, into a narrative about a mythical kingdom. The present scene follows “The Prophet and the Country” in Debits and Credits, where it was first published. It and “Act V, Scene 3” (with “A Madonna of the Trenches” in the same collection) would be added to “Act II, Scene 2” in Rudyard Kipling’s Verse: Inclusive Edition (1927) and later in the Definitive Edition. The three scenes are fragments of a pseudo-Jacobean play or plays that Kipling experimented with but never finished.

The Act and Scene numbers give the impression of an existing dramatic structure, but they may simply have been invented to give verisimilitude to an otherwise unconvincing attribution, by a writer who was a master of parody and subterfuge.

Of these only Act II Scene 2 is included in Songs from Books (1912) and in Inclusive Verse (1919). In Definitive Verse (1940) the scenes from Acts IV and V were added, and all three figured in the Sussex and Burwash editions as “Songs from Books”. Act III Scene 2 is also included in Sussex and Burwash as a heading to “Mrs Bathurst”. We have included all four scenes, in due order, in this Guide.

The scenes

‘Act II Scene 2’

Here we first encounter the dramatis personae: a King, soon to lose his son and perish shortly after; an ambitious, and perhaps murderous, young Queen; Ferdinand, a crafty courtier; and his close friend Gow, the central figure, a powerful soldier and leader of men, strong, quick witted and fast with a deft deception or a dagger. In true Jacobean tradition, the drama abounds in murderous plots and sudden deaths

The King is in the garden with Ferdinand. They talk about a young hawk, which Ferdinand feels is ready for the hunt, like the young Prince, or the young Kim. The King, like Colonel Creighton, is less sure. Then Gow comes in with a gardener, bearing the body of the Prince. He had fallen from the window of the Queen’s chamber. Perhaps he has been murdered, certainly they had been lovers. Gow’s story, to keep the guilty secret from the King, is that the Prince has died picking nectarines from a high wall. He stabs the gardener, lest he reveal the truth.

Soon after, the Queen comes in, and the grieving King dies, perhaps poisoned. Gow gets away swiftly, fearing the Queen’s enmity, and seeking the Duke.

‘Act III Scene 2’

The city has been sacked, There has been a love affair revealed, a mysterious death, and a hanging, on the authority of the self-righteous Duke. As in “Mrs Bathurst”, we are uncertain about precisely what has happened. Apart from the presence of Gow there is no clear relationship with the preceding and later scenes, indeed this could have been written for a different play, though with the same central character.

‘Act IV Scene 4’

Gow is commanding an army, facing the forces of the Queen, high on a snowy mountain pass. However, he is prevented from reaching the head of the pass by the local priests of the Mountain Men, who have settled in this remote area, lack any traditional ties, and are immune to reason, like the American people in “The Prophet and the Country”. ‘There are none beside ourselves’, they declare, ‘to lead the world’. In the end Gow triumphs through a stratagem which takes his forces round by a lower road, and forces the enemy to retreat.

‘Act V Scene 3’

There has been a battle in the snow, and Gow has been victorious. The Queen has fled and Gow has brought the crown of the kingdom to the young Princess. She wishes to honour Gow, who has protected her throughout the campaign, and is now making her the monarch. But he rejects her for Lady Frances, who has always been his true love, and who – as she tells him in a letter – is dying. Gow sees her ghost in a vision, and to join her, kills himself, like Sergeant Godsoe in “A Madonna of the Trenches”.

However, as Lisa Lewis points out:

Gow dies with his mission completed, the decisive battle won and the rightful queen on the throne. There is no conflict between love and duty. Godsoe deserts the fighting to join his “immortal” love with the outcome (of the war) still hanging in the balance. The disparity opens up the possibility that “Gow’s Watch” is a counter-statement to a prose story about “How a Man may go to see Life and meet Death there” [quoted from the heading to chapter 8 of “From Sea to Sea” (p. 278).]

Some critical comments

“Gow’s Watch” has attracted little attention from Kipling’s critics and biographers, apart from Angus Wilson, who writes (p. 331):

He was probably much influenced by his friendship with George Saintsbury, the literary historian, whom he saw in his retirement at Bath each year of the war when he took Carrie there for spa treatment …

Apart from Kipling’s poems after translations of Horace, which have a decided feeling of old-fashioned dons at play, there are a number ef aspects of his post-war work that reveal this academic influence. Not least the ambiguous juxtaposition of many of his poems and stories, and the use of literary parody. The two can be found together in three extracts from a pastiche of late Elizabethan-Jacobean drama with which he prefaces three separate stories. These extracts concerning the fortunes of a soldier-courtier called Gow are excellent parodies and always very pertinent to the story they accompany; they also make me hungry to read the whole play from which they purport to come, although, no doubt, it was never written .

Here I think literary play does go beyond scholars’ fun and dons’ delight to add an extra dimension to the work, cutting across time and forcing the reader to merge the language and violence and concerns of the world of Webster and Walter Raleigh with the language and concerns and violence of the Great War and the twenties and the American Prohibition. It shows Kipling happy in the literary age of Joyce and Eliot.

It is clear from a letter he wrote to Herbert Stephen about Songs from Books in October 1913, before the genesis of “The Madonna of the Trenches” and “The Prophet and the Country”, that Kipling had worked on various dramatised scenes based on the character of “Gow”:

If you’d tell me the whole tangle of “Gow’s Watch,” I’d be your debtor. It’s an ungodly hash of (a) a play that I began (b) another play that I began under another name (c) two extracts from a third play that I didn’t begin at all and (d) a lying ascription to Lyden his Irenius which has already brought me much woe. But to save myself I can’t disentangle it.
[Thomas Pinney (Ed.) Letters vol 4 p. 207]

And in the notes to his magisterial 2013 Cambridge Edition of the Poems of Rudyard Kipling Thomas Pinney is sceptical about the origins of the ‘scenes’ of “Gows Watch” linked to post-war stories:

The aptness with which the various parts used to preface different stories fit those stories indicates that they were written in the first place for those differing functions, and not as parts of a single inspiration.
(p. 1476)

But, leaving aside the ‘tangle’ Kipling referred to in 1913, Susan Treggiari writes in KJ 306:

The more I look at these ‘fragments’, the cleverer (as parodies) and
more moving (as commentary on the human condition and especially
in their relation to the stories of the Great War) they seem to be.


Nora Crook writes of Act V scene 3 that it:

seems at first less equivocal than “Gipsy Vans”. It contains a story which parallels “The Madonna of the Trenches” in situation … and theme … But there is an important difference. Gow dies with his mission completed, the decisive battle won and the rightful queen on the throne. There is no conflict between love and duty. Godsoe deserts the fighting to join his “immortal” love with the outcome still hanging in the balance. The disparity opens up the possibility that “Gow’s Watch” is a counter-statement to a prose story about “How a Man may go to see Life and meet Death there” [quoted from the heading to chapter 8 of “From Sea to Sea”]. [1989, page 161 and 200n.]

The final quotation can be found in From Sea to Sea vol. I, p. 278.


©JLisa Lewis and John Radcliffe 2017 All rights reserved