The Love-song of Har Dyal

(notes by Philip Holberton, edited by John Radcliffe)



The poem figures in the story “Beyond the Pale“, which appeared in the first Indian edition of Plain Tales from the Hills in 1888, and in the many subsequent editions of that collection. It was also published in Papyrus in 1909 under the title of “Bisesa”. The poem is also collected in Songs from Books (1913), Inclusive Verse, Definitive Verse, and the Sussex and Burwash editions.

A recording of Percy Grainger’s setting here;  a recording of Charles Ives’s setting is to be found here.

The Poem

This poem comes in the heart of the story, when Bisesa, the little widow, sings it to welcome her lover. In Kipling’s words:

…the little voice behind the grating took up ‘The Love Song of Har Dyal’ at the verse where the Panthan girl calls upon Har Dyal to return. The song is really pretty in the Vernacular. In English you miss the wail of it.
It runs something like this…

Earlier in the story, Kipling provides two other extracts, not versified and presumably closer to the original. They must be spoken by Har Dyal himself:

Can a man stand upright in the face of the naked Sun; or a Lover in the Presence of the Beloved?
If my feet fail me, O Heart of my Heart, am I to blame, being blinded by the glimpse of your beauty?


Alas! Alas! Can the Moon tell the Lotus of her love when the Gate of Heaven is shut and the clouds gather for the rains?
They have taken my Beloved, and driven her with the pack-horses to the north.
There are iron chains on the feet that were set on my heart.
Call to the bowmen to make ready –

We do not know whether these words were taken from a song in the vernacular (how good it would be to have it, if it exists) or whether Kipling simply wrote them himself; but see the comments by Jan Montefiore below.

Daniel Hadas adds: This Har Dyal was born too late to be relevant, but stands as proof that Kipling has chosen a genuine Hindi or Urdu name. [D.H.]

T.S. Eliot included the poem in his 1941 collection A Choice of Kipling’s Verse. In an address to the Kipling Society (reprinted in the Kipling Journal for March 1959), he said:

Traces of Kipling appear in my own mature verse where no diligent scholarly sleuth has yet observed them, but which I am myself prepared to disclose. I once wrote a poem called ” The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” : I am convinced that it would never have been called “Love Song” but for a title of Kipling’s that stuck obstinately in my head : ” The Love Song of Har Dyal.”


In her article in KJ 377 on Singing magic. Women and Song in Kipling’s fiction, Jan Montefiore writes:

The first and perhaps finest of the songs in Kipling’s stories is ‘The Love Song of Har Dyal’ in ‘Beyond the Pale’ (1888), in which the teenage Hindu widow Bisesa, unobtrusively reversing gender convention, serenades an unknown lover standing in the alley below at their first assignation.

Her lyric is apparently part of a much longer Indian song with the same title which is common knowledge in Lahore, for the pair have already exchanged verses from it when the Englishman Trejago, entering a dark ‘gully’ in the native quarter of Lahore the previous day, stumbles and hears a ‘pretty little laugh’ from a grating above him. Recalling the Arabian Nights, he whispers a verse from ‘The Love Song of Har Dyal’ beginning ‘Can a man stand upright in the face of the naked Sun?’, to which a woman’s voice answers ‘Alas, alas! Can the Moon tell  he Lotus of her love when the Gate of Heaven is shut ?’

He is intrigued by the unseen woman who ‘capped his verse so neatly,’ and when she invites him by means of a coded anonymous ‘object-letter’ to visit her that night, Trejago arrives punctually, disguised.

There is a much longer discussion of the poem in Kipling in India: India in Kipling [Routledge India, 2020], edited by Harish Trivedi and Jan Montefiore. In her chapter ‘Kipling’s Indian Love Lyrics’ which is mostly about ‘Beyond the Pale’, she relates that tale to other stories of interracial love/.

I describe there how I tried and failed to hunt down the original of ‘Har Dyal’ on RK’s bookshelves in Bateman’s (he owned quite a lot of relevant material) until it dawned on me that I’d been looking in the wrong place. The poem (‘In English, you miss the wail of it’ ) is almost certainly based on some Punjabi Romeo-and-Juliet ballad lime in the ‘Heers’ cycle, which he heard while socialising with one of ‘my native friends’ with whom he spent the hot weather nights of Lahore, when his family weren’t around to police his comings and goings. [J.M.]



© Philip Holberton and John Radcliffe 2012 All rights reserved