Certain Maxims of Hafiz

(notes edited by John McGivering)

Publication history

Thirteen of these nineteen stanzas were first published in the first edition of Departmental Ditties and Other Verses in 1888. This is the famous “facsimile” of a government document – see “My First Book” (Uncollected No. 210). In later editions of that collection, further Maxims were added:

  • The Second Edition (1888) with thirteen stanzas
  • The Third Edition (1888) with seventeen
  • The Fourth Edition (1890) with nineteen
  • Early Verse (1900) with twenty-three
  • Inclusive Verse (1919) with nineteen
  • Definitive Verse (1940) with nineteen
  • Sussex Edition, Volume 32 with nineteen
  • Burwash Edition, Volume 25, with nineteen


We have used the Definitive Verse text, with nineteen stanzas of varying length. This was evidently what Kipling saw as his final version.

See David Alan Richards, (p. 12) and ORG Volime 8, page 5148. Also Something of Myself, Chapter 3 “Seven Years Hard”.

The Theme

This is a collection of aphorisms, advising a young man on how to manage his relations with women. They are knowing and cynical, and might have been written by an experienced elderly man of the world, instead of a young man of twenty-two.

This is the Kipling of Mrs Hauksbee and the Gadsbys, of flirtations and secret affairs, of bored wives and adventurous young men, the small enclosed world of Anglo-Indians in Simla on furlough and at work on small stations up and down the Punjab. It sits well within Departmental Ditties, and alongside Plain Tales from the Hills and Wee Willie Winkie, the ironies of “A Wayside Comedy” or “Three – and an Extra” , the frivolities of “Watches of the Night” or
“Cupid’s Arrows”
, the barren manoeuvres of “The Lamentable Comedy of Willow Wood”.

Kipling’s readers in Lahore or Allahabad would have readily recognised the ideas he expresses here. They may have irritated those who found him too knowing, but they displayed his enviable skill with words to a fault.

Some critical comments

In his Chapter IV (“Verse”) Bonamy Dobrée considers Departmental Ditties:

One could say that these verses are experimental. Certainly in these ditties as Kipling very properly called them, he would seem to have been trying his hand at many forms: the ballad … the ballade … He comes also close to the epigram in “Certain Maxims of Hafiz”.

Dobrée quotes Maxim VIII as an example and continues (p. 211)

… but more especially he sought for metres that would suit him, often recklessly giving way to his predilection for rhyme, including internal rhyme, which even in his later years tended to be a little intrusive….

Notes on the Text


We have traced at least three possibilities for the origin of the name ‘Hafiz’. In Arabic it means ‘guardian’, a term used by Muslims today for someone who has completely memorised the Koran.
‘Hafez’ or ‘Khwajeh Shams al-Din Muhammad Hafez-e Shirazi’—who flourished in the fourteenth Century—was an Iranian mystic and poet also known as “Hafiz” or “Hafiz of Shiraz”. And al-Hafiz (d. 1149), was the eleventh Caliph of the Fatimids. But whatever the origin of the name, Hafiz is clearly a wise and authoritative figure.

‘Maxims’ in this context are general truths drawn from experience, rules of conduct. See “The Law of the Jungle” and KJ 311/04 and 322/32 for Kipling’s “Kopje-Book Maxims”.
Don Marquis, the Amerrican humourist, who has enjoyed parodying Kipling, has borrowed the title for “certain maxims of archy” in his archy and mehitabel.

[Stanza I]

Serai an enclosure with buildings around a central yard for the accommodation of men, animals and goods – see Kim, page 24, and “The Man who would be King”, Wee Wilie Winkie, page 214, line 27.

Lo ‘Look’, ‘behold’, archaic and poetic, often used in the Bible.

[Stanza II]

Kafir An inhabitant of Kafiristan, in the remote Hindu Kush region of Afghanistan. The word was also used for an ‘unbeliever’, one who was not a follower of Mohammed. The latter is probably the meaning here.

Jehannum Also known as Gehenna (the spelling varies) the site outside Jerusalem where rubbish was burned – signifying ‘Hell’.

sixty per cent per annum an extortinate rate of interest on a loan.

[Stanza III]

Blister we not for bursati ? Bursati is defined in a footnote as ‘a skin-disease of horses.’
Dr. Gilliam Sheehan writes: Possibly the treatment for Bursati (swamp cancer) in horses was to blister the affected area. According to Gould’s Medical Dictionary ( H K Lewis, London, 1935) ‘a bursa is a small sac interposed between parts that move upon one another’.

‘Blistering’, applying heat which caused the skin to come up in blisters, was used to provide a counter-irritant to a pain in a particular part of the body. According to The Dictionary of Medical and Surgical Knowledge (Houlston and Wright, London, 1869):

Blisters are among the most valuable of the remedial agents which the physician possesses, and have this great advantage, that without exhausting the patient, they deplete the system, frequently doing away with the necessity for bleeding, while as an adjunct to that operation they are invaluable.

‘Corrigan’s Button’ was a steel button-shaped cautery iron invented by Sir J C Corrigan that was used for blistering. Neither blistering nor bleeding is used today, for people or horses. [G.S.]

An Indian June the last month of the Hot Weather in India, when tempers are more frayed than usual

[Stanza V]

Ind a ;poetic form of ‘India’.

L. G. ‘Lieutenant Governor’, an important figure in provincial government in India, a senior appointment.

[Stanza VI]

woodpecker a bird of the family Picadae which drills holes in trees to obtain incects.

ferash a footnote defines this as ‘tamarisk’ which is a shrub of the genus Tamarix.

[Stanza VII]

Blackbuck Antilope cervicapra, a species of antelope found mainly in India, Nepal and Pakistan.

[Stanza VIII]

boar the wild boar, a species of feral pig which used to be hunted by mounted men armed with spears. ‘Pig-sticking’ was a familiar and rather dangerous sport in British India.

weed in this context slang for a cigar or cheroot

[Stanza IX]

play in this context gambling for money at cards, billiards etc.

shekels (the spelling varies) ancient units of weight or currency found in the Bible, but here used as slang for money of any kind.

Allah the Islamic Name for God.

[Stanza X]

“weed” in this context a puny or generally unsatisfactory man or horse; not to be confused with the definition in Maxim VIII above.

dog-cart a two-wheeled vehicle drawn by a horse or pony mentioned in many of the Indian stories. It has a compartment for dogs to ride in.

[Stanza XI]

snaffle a fairly comfortable bit for controlling a horse. (illustrated on p. 34 of Guide to the Horses of the World by Caroline Silver, Treasure Press, 1976.)

thorn-bit an uncomfortable bit, illustrated on p. 192 of some editions of Beast and Man in India by Lockwood Kipling. .

[Stanza XII]

babul (the spelling varies) a type of thorny acacia tree found in many parts of

Derby Sweep a form of gambling where one pays for a ticket entitling one to draw the name of a horse in a particular race. The proceeds are shared between those who have drawn the winning horses, less a percentage to the promoter; a fruitful source of swindles.

the horse that we buy from a friend likely to be a bad bargain.

[Stanza XIII]

The ways of man with a maid an echo of Proverbs 30,18. Also see “The Long Trail” Verse 6.

[Stanza XIV]

El-Gidar not traced. Tony Tame in Kingston Jamaica has suggested this may refer to Jeddah Rock (5 October 2017).

[Stanza XV]

the Brand of the Dog tbe dog is regarded as unclean by many religions – so, the lowest of the low.

tear it in pieces See “His Majesty the King” in Wee Willie Winkie, page 313, lines 19–20.

[Stanza XVI]

give o’er a poetic version of ‘give over’, meaning stop it !

They are pecked on the ear See “The Courting of Dinah Shadd” in Life’s Handicap, page 57, line 14.

[Stanza XVII]

the net of the Fowler an echo of Psalms124,6: ‘Our soul is escaped even as a bird out of the snare of the fowler: the snare is broken and we are delivered.’

[Stanza XIX]

thy name on stamped paper do not guarantee another man’s loan because if he fails in his payments, you are responsible for the debt.

[J McG.]

©John McGivering 2010 All rights reserved