Gipsy Vans

(notes by Lisa Lewis)

Publication history


First published in Debits and Credits (1926), as introduction to the story “A Madonna of the Trenches”.

The poem is usually read as a comment on the story that follows it. There is no known evidence that Kipling had personal knowledge of gipsy culture, though there is an encounter with a gipsy encampment in “A Priest in Spite of Himself” (Rewards and Fairies). He seems to have got his ideas from literary sources such as George Borrow’s Lavengro, of which there is a copy in his study. One might compare “The Gipsy Trail” (1892), collected in the Inclusive Edition and subsequently.

Critical Opinions

Nora Crook wrote that the poem:

ironically praises the law-abiding citizen. The trap is sprung in the last verse: the gipsies tell the conformist that after death “your God and your wife / And the Gipsies’ll laugh at you! / And then you can rot in your burying-place.” The poem praises lawlessness and seems at first to be endorsing Godsoe’s [the tragic lover in “A Madonna of the Trenches”] brand of profane love. But, as readers of Lavengro’s famous dialogue with Jasper Petulengro learn, the gipsy creed is a materialist one which does not admit of transcendent love or the resurrection of the body. “Life is sweet, brother”, and the only gipsy life is that of the physical body on earth. Kipling’s gipsies have nothing but contempt for the doctrine that self-denial and self-sacrifice are the gates to a superior plane of existence. They do not recommend that you should “Lose your life for to live your life.” Godsoe would be the target of their scorn for being too timid to flout convention while Bella was alive, and for imagining that his voluntary death could be an open sesame to “carryin’ on for all Eternity” [1989, p. 161].

Notes on the Text

[Page 237, line 12] Gorgio: Romany term for non-gipsies.

[Page 238, line 11] ryes: peoples.


Notes on the Text

[Page 175, lines 4-5] Good Sir Walter … stair Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832). In the first edition these lines read: “Good Sir Walter met her first / And led her up the stair.” When it was pointed out to Kipling that Scott outlived Austen by 15 years, he joked that she must have been in Purgatory in the meantime: but altered all subsequent editions to “followed her, / And armed her up the stair.”

[Page 175, line 6] Henry and Tobias Henry Fielding (1707-54) and Tobias Smollett (1721-71).

[Page 175, line 7] Miguel of Spain Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616).

[Page 176, lines 3-8] a Hampshire gentleman … Him and Jane Kipling is perhaps thinking of Tom Lefroy, a young law student from Ireland who met the 20-year-old Jane Austen while he was staying with relatives in Hampshire. He was not yet earning and neither of them had private means, so the relationship was discouraged by his family. He later married an heiress. Kipling may not have known, or have forgotten, that he outlived Austen by many years. The other, less well documented, romance in her life was a man she is said to met five years later at a seaside resort in Devonshire. He is supposed to have died suddenly, bringing this relationship too to an abrupt end.