This poem was first published in 1923 in Land and Sea Tales for Scouts and Guides (as Land and Sea Tales for Boys and Girls in the U.S.A.) following the story “Stalky”, which tells how Rudyard’s great school friend Lionel Dunsterville earned his reputation for wiliness and ingenuity. It is listed in ORG as no. 1116.
It is collected in:
- Inclusive Verse (1927)
- Definitive Verse (1940)
- The Sussex Edition vols xix and xxxiv (1939)
- The Burwash Edition vols xiv and xxvii (1941)
- Cambridge Edition (2013) Ed. Thomas Pinney, p. 985.
The poem, an elegantly turned sonnet, is a meditation upon the judgement that all must face at the end of life. At that moment, says the poet, whatever we may have done to guard our reputation, all of our past will be assessed, and may be found unworthy.
As Kipling explains in a footnote:
Ithuriel was the Archangel whose spear had the magic property of showing everyone exactly and truthfully what he was.
Daniel Hadas comments: I do not think that ‘the end of life’ is right, but rather that the test / Of our sole unbacked competence and power (ll. 3-4) is the moment of truth each man and woman will face, where he or she has to make hard decisions. And in Kipling’s view, there will be many such moments: if the test will come for the first time (l. 3), then it will come again. The sort of moment Kipling has in mind is similar to what he describes in “If—”
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss
But of course, the testing of mettle is a major theme throughout Kipling. To be sure, the moment of truth may also be the moment of death, and arguably death is always one such moment. But I don’t think that’s exclusively what’s meant. [D.H.]
Jan Montefiore writes:
This sonnet is clearly written after reading Milton.
The image of Ithuriel’s spear comes straight from Paradise Lost. Gabriel is warned that a spirit behaving oddly has been spotted and sends two angels Ithuriel and Zephon, posted to protect Adam and Eve.
They find Satan ‘squat like a toad close by the ear of Eve’, whispering to her in her sleep.
When Ithuriel pricks Satan with his spear, Satan changes back in into his own likeness because
Touched lightly, `no falsehood can endure
Touch of Celestial temper, but returns
Of force to his own likeness: up he starts,
Discovered and surpriz’d…
and like a heap of gunpowder being ignited
So started up in his own shape the Fiend.
[Paradise Lost Book 4, lines 797-819]
Kipling’s sonnet also echoes an early sonnet of Milton, ‘How soon hath Time the subtle thief of youth’, in which the poet is twenty-three and thinking about what he’s done with his life so far, which is not much because he doesn’t even look grown up. Kipling’s ‘be it more or less’ closely echoes Milton’s sestet.
However, unlike Milton, Kipling is not using the Petrarchan sonnet form. [J.M.]
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