The Ballad of
the King’s Daughter

(notes by Simon Machin)


First published in August 1884 in Lahore, in Echoes by Two Writers, with the sub-heading (Old Ballad). Andrew Rutherford notes that there is a version of this poem in Kipling’s hand in Notebook 3 dated August 9th 1881. It is also included in his notebook Sundry Phansies dated February 1882, and presented to ‘Flo’ Garrard, the beautiful art student with whom he was in love. (See Rutherford p. 27 for details of the notebooks.) It is listed in ORG as No. 68.

Collected in:

  • 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) Ed. Andrew Rutherford, p. 68
  • Cambridge Edition (2013) Ed. Thomas Pinney, p. 235.

The poem

The subtitle of this schoolboy poem, ‘Old Ballad’ sets out Kipling’s intention to ‘echo’ a medieval narrative form comprised of short rhymed stanzas. The subject chosen is common to the folklore of many countries – the romantic travails arising when many suitors pursue the hand of the king’s daughter in marriage.

In his introduction to A Choice of Kipling’s Verse. T S Eliot argues that Kipling’s ‘juvenilia which, having been published in its time and had a success in its time, is essential reading for a full understanding of Kipling’s progress’ (p.7). The ballad is a form to which Kipling returned repeatedly, and was able to successfully modernise, as in the popular “The Ballad of East and West”. Eliot goes on to suggest that the success of Barrack Room Ballads partly resulted from ‘the inspiration and refreshment of the living music-hall’ (p. 10).

In the Cambridge edition of Kipling’s verse (2013) Thomas Pinney lists 22 poems entitled ‘ballads’. There are also many other poems which draw on the various English and Scottish ballad traditions, including
“A Legend of Devonshire”, also written in 1881, “Tarrant Moss”, “The Last Rhyme of TrueThomas”, and “Heriot’s Ford”.


Unlike several of the poems in Echoes, which derive from the literary games, including parodies, that Rudyard and his sister, Trix, enjoyed in the home of their parents in Lahore, “The Ballad of The King’s Daughter” is of earlier provenance, when Kipling was still a schoolboy at the United Services College, where, as Angus Wilson notes, Kipling, read ‘all the major poets down to and especially Swinburne’ (p.70).

This “Old Ballad” is not strictly a parody, but rather an exercise in the mastery of an ancient and time-honoured literary form. Kipling’s wide reading would have made him aware of the revival of interest in the Middle Ages, particularly amongst pre-Raphaelite writers, artists, and designers as a source of artistic expression. Swinburne had included his own “The King’s Daughter” in his Poems and Ballads, published in 1866 and dedicated to Kipling’s uncle, Edward Burne-Jones.

Kipling’s “Old Ballad” is very different in content from Swinburne’s poem, demonstrating that an individual slant could be put on a common form. Indeed, Kipling was not the only young, aspiring writer wanting to demonstrate his ability to put a personal stamp on the ballad. Oscar Wilde initially published his “Dole of the King’s Daughter” in the Dublin University Magazine in June 1876, before revising and republishing it in his Poems of 1881.

Notes on the Text

[Title] The Ballad of the King’s Daughter announces the readitional subject of the poem, familiar in folklore; the sad predicament of the unsuccessful suitors who have bound their hearts to a beautiful but unattainable princess.

[line 2] lowly-born this question, posed by the King’s daughter, anticipates the denouement of several folktales whereby a humbly-born suitor gains the favour of the princess, where rank, riches and gallantry have failed.

[line 20] And lo! she fell on his neck the King’s daughter abandons cold and haughty responses as she falls in love with a lowly-born suitor. For the first time the repeated fourth line of the preceding verses is abandoned too, as if mirroring her new-found spontaneity.

©Simon Machin2017 All rights reserved