As Andrew Rutherford notes (p. 151) this poem was first published in the United Services College Chronicle no. 9, on June 3rd 1882, with the title “The Worst of it”, and the subheading ‘R***** B******’ (Robert Browning). “The Worst of it” is the title of a poem by Browning (1812-1889).
When collected it was included in the Schoolboy Lyrics section of the editions listed below, but it was not among the Schoolboy Lyrics published in Lahore, in the edition for private circulation arranged by Kipling’s mother in 1881, the year before his arrival in the city to work as a journalist. It is listed in ORG as No 39A
- The Outward Bound Edition vol xvii (1900)
- Edition de Luxe vol xviii (1900)
- The Sussex Edition vol xxxv (1939)
- The Burwash Edition vol xxviii (1941)
- Early Verse by Rudyard Kipling (1986) pp. 151-2 Ed. Rutherford
- Cambridge Edition (2013 Ed. Pinney) p. 1199.
Kipling did not include the poem in Inclusive Verse (1919) or Definitive Verse (1940), although he clearly agreed to its inclusion in the Sussex and Burwash editions.
The poem celebrates a struggle between two schoolboys, probably close friends and study-mates, for control of the jam-pot, which crashes to the ground and smashes.
Kipling was sent to United Services College at Westward Ho! in Devon at the age of twelve, in 1878. It had been recently established to provide education for the sons of army officers. Because of his poor eyesight he was no good at rugby or cricket. The Head, Cormell Price, who was a friend of his father, gave him the run of his library, where he read voraciously, including a great deal of poetry,
As Kipling recounts in Stalky & Co. (1899) it was a hard life for a small boy, with a good deal of bullying, and beatings as punishment. However, Rudyard made a close alliance with two other boys, Dunsterville, nicknamed ‘Stalky’ and Beresford, called ‘Turkey’ in the ‘Stalky’ stories. The three of them stood together against adversity, shared Number Five study when they were old enough, and remained friends long afterwards.
The portraits above, drawn by Beresford, show the boys at the age of fifteen or sixteen.
See Stalky & Co. p. 46 for an account of the three eating pilchards in their study, while ‘Beetle’ (young Kipling) reads a copy of Men and Women by Robert Browning – ‘a fat brown-backed volume of the later sixties’, which had been thrown at his head by his literature teacher – until told to stop and pay attention to the business in hand. Ann Weygandt (pp. 103-106) writes:
It is not difficult to understand Kipling’s devotion to Browning. He shares with him a tremendous interest in people, and a liking for reconstructing the life of a former day. He enjoys the flashes of description—“On the neck the small face buoyant, like a bell-flower on its bed”—and the brief aphorismic passages, such as “If you get simple beauty and naught else You get about the best thing God invents.”
Admiration soon led to imitation. At least two of the poems in Schoolboy Lyrics are deliberate parody, and many more show unmistakable signs of Browning’s influence. “Overheard” and “The Jam-Pot” have both caught Browning’s jerky, exclamatory style. The first copies his tendency to employ widely separated rhymewords—the scheme of the opening stanza is abccdbda—as well as his decided leaning toward the introduction of foreign phrases, here exemplified in “Voilà tout” and “Entre nous.” The second is shorter and depends for its effect on on broken bits of conversation forced into the stanza of
“By the Fireside”.
See the notes on Stalky & Co. by Lancelyn Green and Isabel Quigly. . Also “An English School” , and the poem “A School Song” . See also Stalky’s
Reminiscences by Dunsterville, and Schooldays with Kipling by Beresford.
Notes on the Text
shivers in this context small pieces – ‘smithereens’.
grappled strictly ‘wrestled with’, fighting without weapons but here meaning ’both grabbed with the hands’.
sold here meaning ‘defeated by cunning’ in the slang of the era.
©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2017 All rights reserved