The Lesson

(Notes by Mary Hamer)

Publication history

The Times July 29, 1901; Literature, August 3 1901; also published separately 1901.

Collected in The Five Nations, I.V. 1919, D.V. 1940 and in the Sussex Edition vol. 33 and the Burwash Edition, vol.26.


According to Caroline Kipling’s diary, on February 13 1901 Kipling was already at work on this. He had spent the early months of 1900 and 1901 in South Africa while the Anglo-Boer War was going on; he was scandalised by what he had seen of British military planning and preparedness. The tone he adopts here, one communicated by means of heavy rhythm and outrageous rhymes, is probably intended to convey criticism without giving offence.

Notes on the Text

(by Mary Hamer drawing on various sources, in particular Ralph Durand, “A Handbook to the Poetry of Rudyard Kipling” 1914.)

A manuscript copy dated September 6 1901 and signed by Kipling has an extra stanza, printed only in the Grolier Club catalogue.

We were one piece – we were all one piece – from the kitchen maid to the throne-
We expected to sow where we had not ploughed and reap where we had not sown,
We relied on convictions that did not convict and impressions that did not impress,
And so we got our licking-we did not deserve much less!

The dates 1899-1902 were added when the poem was collected in The Five Nations.

[Stanza 1]

as a business people should: originally read ‘now we are out of the wood’ but before it was printed Kipling asked Moberly Bell, the editor of The Times to make this change, in a letter of 14 July 1901. See Pinney ed., Letters vol 3.

Gilderoy’s kite: Gilderoy had no kite but was a lawbreaker hanged in Glasgow on a gallows that was built exceptionally high, to mark the exceptional nature of his crimes. Thus he himself looked like a kite. ‘To be hanged higher than Gilderoy’s kite’ has come to mean to be punished with exceptional severity. Durand quotes a ballad describing this death.

[Stanza 2]

eleven degrees, Lamberts, Delgoa Bay, Pietersburg, Sutherland: These South African place-names mark the boundaries of the war area, which reached right up to Pietersburg in the northern Transvaal. The eleven degrees of which the poem speaks may refer to the degrees of longitude, from west to east, ie from Lamberts to Delgoa Bay, over which this area extended: it seems rather a generous estimate.

[Stanza 4]

It took a long time for those running the war to realise that infantry could never be effective in that huge landscape against the mounted Boer horsemen.

[Stanza 5]

Council and Creed and College-/All the obese unchallenged old things: If we seek an explanation for Kipling’s loss of popularity, this outspoken contempt for politicians with their councils, churchmen with their creeds or beliefs, and pundits from the universities may help to provide one.

astonied:  An archaic form of ‘astonished’ [OED]

[Stanza 6]

the Rand: a pun; the name of the gold-mining area by Johannesburg and also the unit of currency in South Africa.



©Mary Hamer 2008 All rights reserved