The Lesson

(notes by John McGivering and John Radcliffe)


Its first publication was in Schoolboy Lyrics in Lahore in 1881, in an edition of around fifty arranged by his mother the year before Rudyard’s arrival in the city at the age of sixteen, to work as a journalist. It is listed in ORG as No 23. It should not be confused with the later poem of the same name, of 1901, reflecting on the lesson the British had learned from the South African War.

Collected in:

  • The Outward Bound Edition vol xvii (1900)
  • Edition de Luxe vol xviii (1900)
  • The Sussex Edition vol xxxv (1939)
  • The Burwash Edition vol xxviii (1941)
  • Early Verse by Rudyard Kipling (1986) Ed. Rutherford, p. 55
  • Cambridge Edition (2013 Ed. Pinney) p. 1169.

The poem

Another elegiac poem, in which the young poet laments his inadequacy in relating to his love. It clearly refers to Rudyard’s relationship with the beautiful Florence Garrard, with whom he had fallen in love after meeting her in the summer of 1880, aged fourteen.


Andrew Lycett comments (p.74):

This poem speaks of a love-affair between a naïve young ‘boy-lover’ and his more mature and knowing paramour. He wonders if a meeting that had been so exciting to him was actually so ‘utterly novel’ to her. For she is ‘so womanly-wise’, and, he implies,. blasé about his romancing. Although Rudyard liked to flirt with older women (perhaps Oedipally hoping to supplant his father in pretty Edith Plowden’s affections) the verses were certainly directed to Flo, whose nomadic existence (including time in Rudyard’s favourite country of France) imbued her with a heady exoticism. From now, for the next couple of years, Flo Garrard’s hazy image hangs tantalisingly over all Rudyard’s poetic output.

And as Andrew Rutherford (p.55) recounts:

In a letter of 5 October 1880 John Lockwood Kipling wrote to Edith Plowden from Lahore, saying of Ruddy that ‘it would be affectation to ignore his very decided talents and powers. He sends me, or rather Mrs Kipling sends, a copy of verses “The Lesson” which might be to the address of Miss Flora Garrard or possibly to you. In any case they are prettily turned’.

Rudyard still regarded himself as engaged to Florence Garrard in the autumn of 1882, when he sailed to India to start work as a journalist. He must have continued to write to her from Lahore, until, some time before July 1884, she evidently wrote to break off any understanding they might have had. [Angus Wilson p. 153] It seemed that he could not give her what she wanted.

See also our notes on “Blue Roses”. Also the relationship between Dick Heldar and Maisie in “The Light that Failed”.

[J McG/J.R.]

©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2017 All rights reserved