This poem (ORG no. 1043) was first published in 1917 in A Diversity of Creatures with the story “Friendly Brook”. It is collected in:
- Inclusive Verse (1919)
- Definitive Verse (1940)
- Sussex Edition vol. ix p. 65 & vol. xxiv p. 322
- Burwash Edition, vols. ix and xxvii
- The Works of Rudyard Kipling Wordsworth Poetry Library, 1994
Peter Bellamy’s rendition can be found here.
Over the centuries from Roman times to the present day, a Sussex field has changed hands many times. But all the while the local people, who work the land, are its true masters:
For whoever pays the taxes old Mus’ Hobden owns the land.
In 1902 the Kiplings had settled at Bateman’s in Burwash, in the once densely forested Sussex Weald, which became his home for the rest of his life. As Donald Mackenzie notes, in his Introduction to the ‘Puck’ stories, he swiftly became fascinated by the long and ancient history of his valley, and the evidence everywhere of the people who had lived and worked there over the years.
As Andrew Lycett (p. 436) explains, ‘Hobden’ was not a figure of Kipling’s imagination:
The surname was a local one and the fictional character was based on William Isted,
Rudyard’s main local source about country lore. In his seventies when the Kiplings first came to Bateman’s, he not only was an excellent hedger (when not the worse for drink) but also knew all about poaching, from the days when it was possible to pick up a fallow deer in Lord Ashburnham’s woods towards Battle. After ten years his wife began to open up and tell Rudyard her recollections of magic in Sussex in the mid-ninteenth century, when a black cock would be killed and the local `wise woman’ divined the future.
Some critical comments
Angus Wilson (p. 285), writes in 1977 of Kipling’s response to the world he found in Sussex:
I think, perhaps, that Kipling has found some equivalent of the Indian peasants who formed so vital a background to his early stories, with the additional advantage that he is nearer in sympathy and understanding to the Sussex peasantry. If only he could have treated the gentry as fiercely and as tenderly as he treated the white sahibs of India, he might have made a Sussex world
akin to the world he created out of India.
But, if we know now that his Punjab was a threatened world, bound to disappear, its guise for him in the eighties was that of an advanced outpost, not a disappearing relict. His Sussex was so evidently disappearing rapidly under his eyes with the invasion of commuterdom and growing towns. It simply could not function even in his imagination as a world on its own:
Farewell to the Downs and the Marshes
And the Weald and the forest known
Before there were Very Many People
And the Old Gods had gone!
[from “Very Many People” – 1926]
The historical approach that Kipling adopts stops at his own day, or soon after.
See also “An Habitation Enforced”, in which a wealthy young American couple, the Chapins, settle on a Sussex estate. They adapt themselves happily to a new way of life, but when a bridge is to be built across a stream, soon after their first child is born, George Chapin is surprised to find his foreman has brought down some massive oak timbers. In America half a dozen two-inch by four bits of softwood would be ample (Chapin has ordered larch). But when he protests he is firmly put in his place:
‘All I say is that you can put up larch and make a temp’ry job of it; and by the time the
young master’s married it’ll have to be done again. Now, I’ve brought down a couple of as sweet six-by-eight oak timbers as we’ve ever drawed. You put ’em in an’ it’s off your mind for good an’ all. T’other way—I don’t say it ain’t right, I’m only just sayin’ what I think—but t’other way, he’ll no
sooner be married than we’ll ‘ave it all to do again. You’ve no call to regard my words, but
you can’t get out of that.’
‘No,’ said George after a pause. ‘I’ve been realising that for some time. Make it oak then;
we can’t get out of it.’
Notes on the Text
Julius Fabricius, Sub-Prefect of the Weald: We have been unable to trace the position of Sub-Prefect of the Weald, much less a particular holder of the office. Roman Prefects were usually military officers, and by AD 300 the south of England had long been pacified. However, the Romans did have a special interest in the Weald because of the iron mines there.
Diocletian: Roman Emperor AD 285-305
Hobdenius: giving his name a Latin termination
A Briton of the Clay: a native inhabitant of the Weald, which has clay soil. Kipling may also mean indigenous, sprung from the local soil.
dreenin’: Sussex pronunciation of ‘draining’. See Verse 3 line 1:
“So they drained it”.
neglect: Sussex pronunciation of ‘neglect’.
jest: Sussex pronunciation of ‘just’.
Have it jest as you’ve a mind to: ‘Do as you like (but I wouldn’t recommend it)’. See Hal o’ the Draft (Puck of Pook’s Hill p. 250 line 10):
They could hear old Hobden’s deep tones. “Have it as you’ve a mind to,” he was saying.
when the bones of meadows show: an interesting early reference to the
use of crop markings to reveal buried archaeology.
Ogier the Dane: A historical Ogier was a vassal of Charlemagne, King of the Franks AD 771-814, but there is no evidence that he ever came to England.
wains: heavy waggons, carts.
Lewes: town below the Sussex Downs, the nearest source of chalk.
we find a flint: nodules of flint occur in chalk, though not in the local clay. The flints had come with the chalk that they spread on the land.
another pirate: William the Conqueror, who defeated Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, a few miles from the site of Bateman’s. The local Saxons may well have seen William as a pirate, but – unlike earlier Viking raiders – he did not come to burn and destroy, but to conquer a kingdom that he had a claim to.
William of Warenne: (also spelt ‘Warrenne’) A Norman lord who fought for William the Conqueror at Hastings and was rewarded with lands around Lewes. See “Below the Mill Dam” (Traffics and Discoveries p. 372 line 25): ‘They tried the case at Lewes, but he got no change out of William de Warrenne on the bench.’
sodden flitches of the bank a metaphoical use, meaning ‘meaty chunks of earth.’ . A ‘flitch’ is strictly a side of meat. [D.H.]
sile: Sussex pronunciation of ‘soil’.
spile: Sussex dialect for ‘pile’: protect the bank by driving heavy posts vertically into the bed of the Brook.
oaken knees: timber cut to the natural bend where a branch springs from the trunk. Usually a shipbuilding term. See Something of Myself” chapter VIII, where Kipling talks of his ambition to write a major novel:
…Yet I dreamed for many years of building a veritable three-decker out of chosen and long-stored timber – teak, green-heart, and ten-year-old oak knees.
Georgii Quinti Anno Sexto: Legal Latin: ‘In the sixth year of (the reign of) George the Fifth’ (who came to the throne in May 1910).
title-deeds: documents proving ownership of the land
assigns: appointed agents
executors: persons appointed to see that his Will is carried out after hus death.
heirs: those who will inherit the property.
chase and warren: the right to fish and to hunt game, such as rabbits and (verse 14 line 2) pheasants.
tickles: catches fish (particularly trout) with his bare hands, tickling them gently with moving fingers until he can scoop them out of the water.
wires: catches rabbits in wire snares. See “Hal o’ the Draft” (Puck of Pook’s Hill p. 250 line 10), where Una recalls how Hobden had advised the children’s father not to fell an oak:
“Why, the oak is the regular bridge for all the rabbits between the Three Acre and our meadow. The best place for wires on the farm, Hobden says.”
swapped: Sussex dialect: ‘trimmed’. A highly skilled task. See the opening passage of “Friendly Brook” in A Diversity of Creatures.
his evening faggot under which my conies ran.: See “The Tree of Justice” (Rewards and Fairies) p. 312 line 25: “He [Hobden] puts his rabbits into the faggots he’s allowed to take home.” cony is an old word for ‘rabbit’.
summons him to judgement: Taking fish, rabbits and pheasants without permission is poaching and punishable by law.
Pan: The Greek god of woods and pastures
flagrantly a poacher: see note on verse 14 above
tain’t for me to interfere: Quoting the second Hobden in the first line of verse 6.
“Hev it jest as you’ve a mind to”: “Have it just as you like” Quoting the original Hobdenius in the second line of verse 2.
©Philip Holberton and John Radcliffe 2011 All rights reserved