ORG Volume 8, page 5148 lists this poem as Verse No.1101. It was first published in The Years Between in 1919. See also David Alan Richards, p. 252 for further details of publication. It is collected in:
- Inclusive Verse 1919
- Definitive Verse 1940
- The Sussex Edition Volume 33, page 395
- The Burwash Edition, Volume 26
- The Works of Rudyard Kipling Wordsworth Poetry Library, 1994
Kipling is using the gruesome image, remembered from the South African War, of hyaenas digging up corpses on the battlefield after the fighting was done, as—in his own words in a letter to his American publisher, Frank Doubleday in March 1918—
A parable of newspaper attacks on dead men who cannot defend themselves. Useful also in America.
[Letters, (Ed. Thomas Pinney) vol 5. p. 543]
As Kipling would have remembered, in South Africa the corpses were buried in shallow graves as they fell, without coffins. Birds of prey would eat them until driven away by the burial parties. Animals would dig them up after dark. Unlike mankind, however, the creatures would just eat the bodies without making derogatory remarks about them.
There have been reports over the years of dealers in militaria digging up the bodies of dead soldiers for buttons, badges, belt buckles, and helmet-plates, etc..
Peter Keating, writing of the savage poems Kipling offered towards the end of the Great War and after, comments (p. 203):
Most of these poems … are concerned with people who are either hindering the work at hand or denying its worth. These are “The Hyaenas” whose natural proclivities are transferred to the politicians now carving up Europe and portrayed by Kipling in measured, simple language that just contains his personal fury…
One such “hyaena” was Pope Benedict XV who several times
during the war had tried to initiate peace negotiations and is
savaged by Kipling, who believed that any such action was
really pro-German, in “A Song at Cock-Crow”.
“How he hates politicians,” wrote Rider Haggard after one of their regular war-time meetings,
“Worse than I do even…”
[Quoted by Peter Keating p. 201.]
Notes on the Text
Hyaenas: animals of the family Hyaenidae Carnivora. Although in some ways close to cats anatomically, they are similar to wild dogs and wolves in habits. They also eat carrion.
kites: in this context, birds of prey of the family Accipitridae, scavengers and hunters.
eve: poetic and archaic, evening.
whit: the least possible amount.
worm may sting: it might be a snake with a venomous bite
tushes: long sharp teeth.
©John McGivering 2011 All rights reserved