The Juggler’s Song

(notes by Philip Holberton)


Fifteen lines of the poem were first used as a heading to Kim Chapter XI. It is listed as no. 772 in ORG.

The complete poem is collected in :

  • Songs from Books (1912)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition Vol. 21 p. 250 and Vol. 34 p. 195
  • Burwash Edition Vols 16 and 27
  • Cambridge Edition (2013 Ed. Pinney) p. 845

The poem

Kipling used the second half of the poem as the heading to Chapter XI of Kim. In that chapter, Kim succeeds in rescuing a fellow agent. by disguising him as a holy man. This is his first active participation in the Great Game, and his success proves that he is a “juggler born.”

As a chapter heading it is titled “But a man who, etc., Op.15.” This is a non-existent work, like many of the titles Kipling gives to his chapter headings. It only gained the title “The Juggler’s Song” when collected.

Notes on the Text

[Verse 1]

[last line] Tell me how the mango grows!: This refers to an Indian juggler’s trick, well-known, though less famous than the Rope Trick. The juggler plants a mango seed in a little earth, and during the course of his display, it grows into a tree bearing fruit. The Montreal Daily Witness for Monday 11 January 1892, in its Children’s Corner, carried a detailed description of the trick, with an explanation of how it was done. This was only three years after Kipling left India, so he could well have seen it performed.

Tricks of Indian Jugglers: Tree Growing

As commonly described in travellers’ tales, the tree-growing trick might well seem impossible of explanation. But if the spectator expects to see a seed planted in the ground, the leaves starting up above the soil, the growth increasing, the shrub spreading and the fruit growing and ripening directly under his eyes, he will be grievously disappointed.

The juggler makes a little heap of moist earth, perhaps 6 or 8 inches high, on the stone step or the hard carriage drive in front of the hotel where the traveller is staying. The juggler himself, dressed in a loin-cloth only, squats on the ground behind the heap, places in it a nut, usually that of the mango-tree, and spreads a cloth over the whole.

After a short time, during which he waves his hand in the air or assumes to call upon a pagan divinity to help him, he snatches away the cloth, and 2 or 3 tender leaves are seen appearing above the soil.
He spreads the cloth over it once more. The plant appears to be growing rapidly and pushing the cloth up. The juggler again snatches the cloth away, and a large and wide-spreading shrub is seen, its leaves covered with dew. Sometimes a tripod frame is used, over which the cloth is thrown, so that the plant may ‘grow’ freely beneath the small tent thus formed. When the leaves are just visible above the ground, the juggler lifts the plant from the earth and shows the spectators how the nut has apparently swollen and germinated, pointing out the roots that extend from the nut through the moist earth.

If when it is fully grown, there is no fruit on the tree, the juggler covers the plant once more with the cloth, and after another short interval of waiting, again removes it. Two or three mangoes are seen which the juggler breaks off and presents to the spectator.

The best performance of it I have ever seen was in Madras, and I learnt from the juggler exactly how it was done. When the juggler apparently places the new mango nut in the earth he really places an old split nut there, which he has held concealed in the palm of his hand. The new nut he conceals in the place previously occupied by the old nut: in other words he ‘palms’ it.

After spreading the cloth, he drops a new nut from his palm into a fold of his loincloth, whence he takes and ‘palms’ a small plant, 2 or 3 inches long – sometimes a little twig of mango with the root of another plant fastened to the end of it.

This he does while the attention of the spectators is given to the waving of his other hand in the air or to his gestures upwards for the help of a god. He then removes the cloth for the first time. No leaves appear. While replacing the cloth, he inserts the root of the twig in the old nut, and arranges the soil so that the top of the stem and one or 2 small leaves appear above the surface.
This done, and the cloth being fully spread, he waves his hands again in the air and after a short time removes the cloth for the second time, and reveals the plant in its first stage.

While with one hand showing the plant with its roots, etc, to the spectators he takes with his other hand from his loincloth a piece of branch, half an inch or more in diameter, which is provided with twigs and leaves. All these are pressed close to the branch, and the whole wrapped round tightly with a piece of wet cloth. I have seen this branch as much as a foot and a half long.
The juggler conceals this behind his bare arm, and with a swift movement slides it under the cloth while he is apparently replacing the small plant. While spreading the cloth he unwraps the branch, sticks it in the soil, expands the twigs and leaves, and squeezes over them the water from the wet cloth. Then, ‘palming’ and withdrawing the small plant, he proceeds as before with his gesticulations, removes the covering and shows the spreading shrub.
In the same manner slips the fruit, provided with stalks, under the cloth in the next stage, and twists the end of each stalk round one of the twigs. When he pulls the fruit afterwards, he takes care to break this stalk close to the fruit.

The cleverness lies in the wonderful dexterity which the juggler displays in making his important movements without being observed. Scarcely one of my readers, even with this knowledge of the way in which the trick is done, would actually see the juggler make any of the movements which he desires to be concealed.
Richard Hodgson in Youth’s Companion.

[Verse 3]

bewrayed: revealed, divulged.  wray is from Old English, signifying the disclosure of something meant to be hidden.  [D.H.]

[Verse 4]

shore: prop up, support.


© Philip Holberton 2017 All rights reserved