One of the suite of sixteen ‘Service Songs’ which close The Five Nations. According to Carrington written in 1901 see Background for “M.I.” Collected in I.V. 1919, D.V. 1940, the Sussex Edition vol. 33 and the Burwash Edition, vol. 26. When it was collected for the Sussex Edition, Kipling expanded the subscript to read (New South Wales Contingent).
According to Durand (see below), some years after the war a group of men in New Zealand were arguing about this poem; one of them confirmed that he had identified a small wattle-bush in Lichtenberg, after being attracted to it by the fragrance. It is said that the haunting refrain of the poem was directly derived from words uttered by an Australian soldier and overheard by Kipling.
Philip Holberton has drawn our attention to a passage in The Common Asphodel by Robert Graves (Hamish Hamilton, 1949):
Once during the South African campaign at a bar in Cape Town (or so I was informed by a man who swore he was there) Kipling was sitting with two New South Wales troopers. Kipling asked: ‘What’ll you drink?’ The surly trooper did not answer him but, turning to his chum, remarked: ‘Talking of wattles, Sam, do you remember the smell of the wattles at Lichtenburg when we rode in, in the rain?’ Kipling noted the phrase and made a ballad of it. Afterwards, said my informant, a friend of his who ‘knew his Kipling,’ a resident at this same Lichtenburg, looked round for the wattles and found none. They are an Australian variety of mimosa, apparently. But that the scripture might be fulfilled, he sent to the Cape Town botanical gardens for a wattle or wattles, and reported his action to Kipling, who wrote to say that he was gratified. However, I recently met another Kiplingite at Port Said, where they abound, who told me that two miles from Lichtenburg is a grove of—well, some South African tree—which is a cousin of the wattles and does emit a wattle–ish smell in wet weather; he had always intended to write to Kipling and reassure him about it. (p. 220)
Notes on the Text
(by Mary Hamer drawing on various sources, in particular
Ralph Durand, “A Handbook to the Poetry of Rudyard Kipling” 1914.)
[Title and subscript] Lichtenberg: a pretty little village in the western Transvaal, built around a market square. The trees which shaded its houses were cut down in 1901 when Boer General de la Rey (1847-1914) wanted to make it easier to defend.
N.S.W. contingent: Australian soldiers from New South Wales in southeast Australia. When the Anglo-Boer War broke out in 1899, it was seen as an opportunity for Australia, at that time made up of six colonies on the brink of federation, to show its commitment to Britain. Over 16,000 Australian troops, all volunteers, served in it, mostly in mounted troops sent out by each individual colony. See also notes to “The Young Queen”.
[Stanza 1] wattle: a plant of the mimosa family, native to Australia, introduced to South Africa in 1871 for its bark, used in tanning. [D.H.]
[Stanza 2] small wet: fine rain. In writing this poem, Kipling appears to have been echoing the intense late medieval poem:
O westron wind, when wilt thou blow
that the small rain down can rain?
Christ that my love were in my arms
and I in my bed again.
sold-out shops: because the railway was being used exclusively for military purposes, shops could not replenish their stocks.
[Stanza 4] Hunter River … vines: a major river of New South Wales. Today grapes continue to be grown by small producers for the famous wine industry of Hunter Valley.
[Stanza 5] my sights: the sights of his rifle. [D.H.]
©Mary Hamer 2008 All rights reserved