to Departmental Ditties

(notes by John Radcliffe and John McGivering)

Publication history

This poem was first published in Departmental Ditties and Other Verses in 1886, with the alternative titles  “To Whom It May Concern” and “The Smoke Upon Your Altar Dies”. For details of the various editions see David Alan Richards; also ORG Volume 8, page 5155 (Verse No. 229). It is one of a dozen or so poems called “L’Envoi”. See ORG pp. 5042/3 .

It is collected in

  • Later editions of Departmental Ditties
  • Early Verse (1900)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • A Kipling Pageant (1939)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition Volume 32, p. 163
  • Burwash Edition, Volume 25
  • The Works of Rudyard Kipling (Wordsworth Poetry Library)
  • A Choice of Kipling’s Verse Ed. T S Eliot (1941)

See also David Alan Richards (p. 631) for collection in Kipling Stories and Poems Every Child Should Know, as “The Smoke Upon Your Altar Dies”.

The theme

An exquisite poem by the young Kipling, describing devotees who worship at an empty shrine, in the hope that some other deity may come to them if they continue their service and their sacrifices. It is an elegy for lost gods and lost beliefs and a reminder that all things may pass with time. It also affirms the need to keep faith, and also, perhaps, the poet’s role as the bard of his people in word and song. It has some of the chiseled disciplined quality of the Odes of the great Roman poet, Horace, which he had first read as a schoolboy.

For Kipling, Departmenal Ditties was the first major verse collection that he published, at a time when he was still finding his voice as a poet. It brought together some new poems with many first published in the Civil and Military Gazette, some frivolous and light-hearted, others more serious and ambitious.

This piece suggests some large ideas that he pursued in a number of later works, including “The Sacrifice of Er Heb”, “Recessional”, “Cities and Thrones and Powers”, and perhaps “The Last Rhyme of True Thomas”. There is also a suggestion of the need to keep faith expressed in—for instance—“The Conversion of St Wilfrid” in Rewards and Fairies. or “The Manner of Men” in Limits and Renewals.

Some critical comments

Bonamy Dobrée (p. 210) looking at Departmental Ditties and Other Verses, observes:

… that real poem “L’Envoi” … which demands a response quite different from the verses, though some of them are imbued with somewhat grim notions, as in “The Undertaker’s Horse”, but are, clearly, designed to go no further than verse.

In his Preface to A Choice of Kipling’s Verse—In which this poem is included—T. S. Eliot (p. 36) also considers whether Kipling was a poet or a versifier: concluding:

I can think of a number of poets who have written great poetry, only of a very few whom I should call great verse writers. And unless I am mistaken, Kipling’s position in this class is not only high, but unique.

Notes on the Text

[Title] Envoi (or Envoy): in this context, an author’s parting words at the end of a book or poem. See our notes to “A Ballade of Jakko Hill”, and “Envoi” to Life’s Handicap (collected as “My New-Cut Ashlar”). Also “A Ballade of Burial.”

[Verse 1]

sacrifice: the custom, found in many religions, of worshippers offering some highly prized animal or possession at the shrine of a deity – whether cooked food – hence the smoke – or other fruits of husbandry. In ancient times people were also sacrificed. See “The Sacrifice of Er-Heb”.

[Verse 2]

Altar Stone: a stone on which a sacrifice is offered to the god; in Christian churches a stone blessed by a Bishop, used nowadays to celebrate Holy Communion or other rites.

[J McG./J.R.]

©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2010 All rights reserved