Heriot’s Ford

(notes by Philip Holberton)


The first two stanzas were first published as a heading to chapter X of The Light that Failed (1891). It was enlarged to the full eight stanzas and first collected in Songs from Books (1912) and in later collections, under the title above, with some variations in wording (see Pinney). ORG (No. 550 p. 5300) refers also to the use of “The Fight at Heriot’s Ford”.

Collected in

  • Songs from Books (1912)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition Vol. 32 p. 219
  • Burwash Edition Vol. 25
  • Cambridge Edition (2013 Ed. Pinney) p. 841

Peter Bellamy’s rendition can be found here.

The poem

A version of the first eight lines is used as the epigraph to Chapter X of The Light that Failed (p. 167) with the title “The Fight of Heriot’s Ford”.

What’s yon that follows at my side? –
The foe that ye must fight, my lord –
That hirples swift as I can ride? –
The shadow of the night, my lord –
Then wheel my horse against the foe! –
He’s down and overpast, my lord,
Ye war against the sunset glow:
The darkness gathers fast, my lord.

The poem is a grim tale of retribution and impending death, with clear references to the artist Dick Heldar’s encroaching blindness described in chapter X of The Light that Failed: ‘ …at that moment there unrolled itself from one corner of the studio a veil, as it were, of the filmiest gauze…’; this harks back to ‘the shadow’ in line 4. And on p. 178 Dick tells his friend Torpenhow: ‘So I went to an oculist. He said, “Scar on the head, – sword-cut and optic nerve.” So I am going blind’, which echoes line 8: ‘The darkness gathers fast’.

The enlarged version is almost a short story in itself. There are two speakers. The first has been captured in the fight at Heriot’s Ford and is bound and tied onto his horse. He is always addressed mockingly as ‘my lord’. His words are given in plain type.
His captors are brothers, though only one speaks; his words are in italics. They accuse ‘my lord’ of murdering their sister and they are taking him to a place of execution where they will kill him in revenge.

Four lines spoken by the brothers indicate the crime for which ‘my lord’ must die:

Verse 3 line 4] ‘Tis what our sister said.
Verse 6 line 2] Our sister needed none (no cords)
Verse 7 line 2] ‘Twas so our sister cried
Verse 7 line 4] But so our sister died, my lord.

And four express my lord’s dread of dying without the opportunity to confess and receive absolution:

Verse 3 line 3] “I need an hour to repent!”
Verse 4 line 1] “Oh, do not slay me in my sins!”
Verse 7 line 1] “You would not kill the soul alive?”
Verse 7 line 3] “I dare not die with none to shrive.”

“None to shrive” means with no priest to forgive his sins. A soul that died in a state of mortal sin would go to hell. See Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Act I. scene v) where his father’s ghost laments that he was unaneled [without absolution]:

…sent to my account.
With all my imperfections on my head:
O, horrible! O, horrible! Most horrible!

Critical comments

This poem, with its singing cadences, and echoes of the ancient savagery in the Middle Ages between rival chieftains on the borders between England and Scotland, is reminiscent of the old Border Ballads which sang of those times and were well known to Kipling. Other examples are “Tarrant Moss”, and “The Last Rhyme of TrueThomas”.
Ann Weygandt (p. 120) points to the influence on Kipling of writers in the Pre-Raphaelite tradition, like Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris, also well-known to him, with their interest in the mediaeval past.

Daniel Hadas adds:  For the theme of being killed unshriven see Shakespeare’s Hamlet, III.3:

Up, sword, and know thou a more horrid hent.
When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
Or in th’ incestuous pleasure of his bed,
At game, swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in’t.
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,
And that his soul may be as damned and black
As hell, whereto it goes. My mother stays.
This physic but prolongs thy sickly days.

Hamlet is speaking after having overheard Claudius’ monologue of tentative repentancefor the murder of the King, Hamlet’s father.  So Kipling echoes Shakespeare’s idea that a murder of one unshriven or unrepentant is to be revenged by the murder of the murderer when in the same condition. [D.H.]

Notes on the Text


[Verse 1]

hirples: walks lamely, hobbles

The shadow of your might: “my lord” used to be an influential man; now he is a helpless captive.

[Verse 2]

The judgement follows fast: “my lord” has been condemned and is on his way to execution.

[Verse 3]

King Joshua he is dead, my lord: ‘And Joshua said in the sight of Israel, “Sun stand thou still upon Gibeon”. And the sun stood still until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies.’ Joshua 10, 12-13.

[Verse 5]

league: an old measure of 3 miles.

laggard: slow.

[Verse 6]

“Next day – next day!”: “my lord” realises that the next day means nothing to him as he will be dead by then.

You had no mind to face our swords: he did not put up much of a fight at Heriot’s Ford.

[Verse 8]

runnels forth: pours out.

the flesh is weak: ‘The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’; Matthew 26,41.


© Philip Holberton 2017 All rights reserved