The King’s Job

Notes on the text

(by Peter Keating)


[Line 7] People leave lepers alone: Leprosy was a disease feared for both its infectious nature and the moral and religious contempt with which it was often regarded. Lepers in public were expected to draw attention to themselves by sounding a rattle or a bell, calling out that they were ‘unclean,’ and wearing a distinctive cloak which, in England, was made of a very cheap russet with a black hood. Kipling was perfectly familiar with the horrors of leprosy from his years in India, and although in this poem the subject is treated humorously, it is an extraordinary decision by the king to adopt this particular disguise.

[line 10] His own Policeman: a relatively rare instance in this series of poems of Kipling using a deliberate anachronism for historical purposes. ‘His own’ seems to have two possible meanings. It is ironic, in that the king is being ordered about by policemen who are ‘his own’ even though they are not aware of the fact. And, it is also, presumably, a deliberately casual way of saying that the king was warned by ‘whoever were the equivalent of our modern policemen’ in the reign of Henry VII. They would have been ‘constables’ appointed by local sheriffs or justices of the peace.

[line 12] A philosopher-man: The word ‘philosopher’ is sometimes combined with another noun in this way, though this particular instance may be Kipling’s own coinage. It is meant to indicate that the children’s teacher is an especially wise, reasonable or rational person.

[lines 19-20] The wisest thing … under his hand: If there is a specific allusion, it is probably to the Scottish philosopher and political commentator Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881). The meaning and the manner of the children’s exhortation are both very Carlylean. ‘Do the Duty which lies nearest thee … The thing thou seekest is already with thee, “here or nowhere,” couldst thou only see!’ Sartor Resartus (first published 1833-4), book II, chapter 9.

[line 22] Ex ore parvulorum: literally, out of the mouths of the young. Kipling’s slightly expanded gloss in the next line allows the king to accept the very mature, unchildlike advice he has been given.

Daniel Hadas adds:   This is based on Psalm 8.2 (ex ore infantium et lactentium perfecisti laudem / out of the mouths of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength [but the Latin laudem means “praise”, not “strength”, as does the Greek ainon, which the Latin translates, since the standard Latin psalm text is translated from the Greek Septuagint, not the Hebrew original]), quoted by Jesus in Matthew 21.16 (Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise, with praise translating the Greek ainon, since Matthew here quotes the Septuagint). [D.H.]

[line 26] Let every living man: In line with the austere view of life that Kipling himself largely shared with Carlyle, the king’s proclamation makes it clear that he is not to be regarded as the only person who has been taught an essential lesson. ‘Every living man’ should concentrate on doing the work ‘that lies under his nose, with the tools that lie under his hand.’