This poem was first published as an introduction to the story “A Friend of the Family” in Debits and Credits (1926).
Over 30 years earlier, Kipling had published the story “A Matter of Fact” (Many Inventions), in which three journalists on a boat see a pair of sea-serpents. No editor will believe or publish their reports, so the narrator decides to “Tell it as a lie” – that is, as fiction:
for Truth is a naked lady, and if by accident she is drawn up from the bottom of the sea, it behoves a gentleman either to give her a print petticoat or to turn his face the wall and vow he did not see.
On 7th July 1926, Kipling delivered a speech called “Fiction” to the Centenary Banquet of the Royal Society of Literature [collected in A Book of Words]. He asserted that:
Fiction is Truth’s elder sister. Obviously. No one in the world knew what truth was until some one had told a story. So it is the oldest of the arts, the mother of history, biography, philosophy … and, of course, of politics.
In the present poem, he seems to claim that fiction is the only possible vehicle for some of the tales he has heard from his soldier-informants for The Irish Guards in the Great War. It may also be relevant that he was never able to discover how his son John, a newly-joined officer in that regiment, had been killed, or where (if anywhere) the body was buried.
Judith van Heerswynghels, editor and translator of Debits and Credits in the Pléiade edition of Rudyard Kipling, Oeuvres, vol. IV [Gallimard, Liège: 2001], commented that this poem “est une variation sur le thème du mensonge et de l’injustice qui sous-entend le récit de Bevin” (is a variation on the theme of lying and injustice that underlies Bevin’s narrative [in “A Friend of the Family”) [p. 1241].
Notes on the text
[Line 7] Pilate’s Question See John, 18, 38: “Pilate saith unto him, ‘What is truth?’”
[Line 8] Galileo Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), famous Italian scientist whose inventions helped to prove the theories of Copernicus that the earth revolved round the sun, not the sun round the earth. In 1632 he was compelled by the religious authorities to abjure his teachings on the subject, because they were contrary to the doctrines of the church. He is supposed to have said, after doing so: “Eppur si muove!” (But it [the earth] does move!).
[Line 21] semaphoring A system of signalling in which the arms are held at different angles to the body. It could also be done by holding out flags for greater visibility, or by an apparatus with wooden arms.