The Letter of Halim the Potter


(notes by Philip Holberton, drawing on the researches of Andrew Rutherford and Thomas Pinney)


A handwritten verse letter from Kipling to his father, for Lockwood’s birthday on 6 July, in the Kipling Papers at the University of Sussex Special Collections; undated. Rutherford dates the poem to 1885, but Pinney (p. 2263) judges that internal and external evidence make 1888 nearly certain:

RK, with his mother and sister was in Simla in July 1888; his mother was then suffering from a heavy cold (“the old distemper of the hills”); on July 4-6 there was heavy rain in Simla (Letters 1, p. 231) and the poem refers to his soldier stories (“red armies from the coarser clay”) which did not exist in 1885.

The poem was never collected by Kipling but is to be found in Rutherford (p. 269) and Pinney (p. 1891).

The Poem

Kipling writes in the person of a Muslim apprentice potter to his father as the Master Craftsman who is teaching him his trade.The first sections are family news: an apology for not sending a birthday present, a description of the family in Simla missing their absent father, the Mother sick with the old distemper.
Jan Montefiore notes that the choice of this metaphor is very much a compliment to his father, who was a skilled craftsman in clay:

An architectural sculptor, Lockwood had trained in ceramics, and had met his wife while working in Burslem, in Staffordshire, in the heart of England’s ‘Potteries’ district. For the Lahore Museum he had made half- size painted clay models of Indian craftsmen and artisans, and blue and white dinner plates painted with pictures of incompetent servants and facetious poetry quotes. Later, for Kim he was to make ceramic reliefs as illustrations.

Through the simile of making pots, Kipling describes how his father would help him with his writing. He took all the credit – I held my skill was mine – with just one touch from his father. But now on his own he admits that the one touch made the bad thing good. He has now made a vase (to his father’s noble design) which is a failure. But he will keep it till his father comes to see it, hoping that he can provide the Remedy. It would be fascinating to know which of Kipling’s works is the Vase referred to. Kipling certainly saw his father as a master-craftsman in words as well as in the arts, and often talked over his work with him.

Notes on the Text

the fifth day of the month of the Scales. This is Libra, the seventh sign of the Zodiac, which Kipling seems to associate here with July, the seventh month of the year. However, astrologically Libra rules from September 23rd to October 22nd, and Lockwood’s birthday on July 6th comes under Cancer, the Crab.

Fit weapons of the Craft as a Master Craftsman his father already has all the necessary tools.


chillam hookah, water-pipe.

Sage Councillor tobacco. Kipling had been a dedicated smoker since his teens. See “Tobacco” and “The Maid of the Meerschaum”, both published in Echoes in 1884.



Phoenix fashion the Phoenix was a fabulous bird which burnt and was reborn from its ashes. Tobacco can be relit in the hookah and the smoke provide fresh inspiration.

unholpen an old-fashioned form of ‘unhelped’; cf. the last verse of “The Winners” (1888):

The more ye be holpen and stayed.

Purdah a curtain screening women from the sight of strangers.

Munshi strictly ‘language teacher’. Here meaning ‘clerk’.

My thumb and first two fingers he is writing the letter himself.

the Child Kipling’s sister Trix, the youngest of the family.

Weaving a mighty empire out of ghosts Trix at her work, writing. She had published a story “The Haunted Cabin” in Quartette in December 1885.

As I [weave] red armies By early July 1888 Kipling had published four of the seven stories in Soldiers Three.

the silver thread mercury in a thermometer.

Gehenna A Biblical name for Hell, the destination of the wicked. In the Hebrew Bible, Gehenna, a small valley near Jerusalem, was where some of the kings of Judah sacrificed their children by fire. Thereafter, it was deemed to be cursed. Kipling also uses the expression in “The Winners” (1888):

Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne,
He travels the fastest who travels alone.

all three sides / of our small square the four Kiplings called themselves “the family square”.

chirags lamps made of clay.

Afrits, Shaitans, Djinns … ghouls demons in Islamic mythology.


©Philip Holberton 2020 All rights reserved