The Light that Failed

Notes on Chapter IX

These notes by Geoffrey Annis are based on those prepared for Vol. V of the ORG, published in 1970. The page and line numbers below refer to the Macmillan Uniform Edition of The Light that Failed, first published in 1899 and frequently reprinted since.

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[Page 147 Heading] This verse contrasts honest creative endeavour with tainted or corrupted work. It expresses real artistic conflict, beginning with the “Melancolias”, and Dick’s anger at what he perceives as Maisie’s unwillingness to do proper work. In its use of two opposed ‘voices’ to express contrasted ideas, and in tone and style, the poem owes something, I believe, to William Blake’s “The Clod and the Pebble” which is one of his Songs of Experience (1794):

Love seeketh not itself to please.
Nor for itself hath any care
But for another gives its ease
And builds a heaven in hell’s despair


So sung a little clod of clay,
Trodden with the cattle’s feet;
But a pebble of the brook
Warbled out these meters meet.

Love seeketh only Self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another’s loss of ease,
And builds a hell in heaven’s despair.

ORG (no. 449) refers to these verses as from a poem “The Two Potters”, but notes them as ‘not K’. We have not traced this as a poem by another hand. They are most probably by Kipling himself; see Pinney (pp. 875 and 1489) .

[Page 147 line 18] gone off at score an outdated English phrase meaning to start off vigorously with insufficient preparation or thought. ‘Score’ meant a starting point in a race or a standing place at a shooting match.

[Page 148 line 9] his Queen who could do no wrong see Chapter V Notes for page 70 line 13 for variations on this expression as a powerful theme of the novel.

[Page 148 line 24] The City of Dreadful Night poem by James Thompson, quoted throughout this chapter. See the Introduction for a detailed study of the poem, its centrality to the novel, and the links between the novel and the passages about Calcutta with the same title in From Sea to Sea Vol 2.

[Page 148 line 28 & Page 149 line 8] the Melancolia one of the most famous copper engravings of the great German artist Albrecht Durer (1471-1528). It is also a central symbol in the novel (see the Introduction). The image is of a brooding winged genius sitting dejectedly amongst a litter of scientific instruments and symbols.

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[Page 152 line 9] the curse of Reuben When Jacob was on his deathbed he called his sons to him to tell them what would befall them. To Reuben, his first born, his message was chilling: ‘Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel…’ (Genesis 49,4) Reuben had angered his father by having relations with Jacob’s concubine Bilhah, and he was not forgiven.

The phrase is used here in a complex sense of alienation, isolation, and betrayal of trust. Maisie is acting out of self-interest rather than out of artistic integrity. As Kipling was both outside the literary establishment, and a lionised leading writer, the artistic conflict between Dick and Maisie would have had a special resonance for him. [Kipling also uses the expression in “Gentleman Rankers” in Barrack-Room Ballads The curse of Reuben holds us till an alien turf enfolds us…’]

[Page 152 line 29] ‘hermaphroditic futilities’ ‘hermaphroditic’ means having the characteristic of both sexes; an indirect reference to the growing complexity of the relationship between them. A phrase that seems a clumsy juxtaposition, yet is apposite in context.

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[Page 155 line 32] on Torpenhow’s sofa a girl lay asleep this is Bessie Broke, who is to be both servant and artist’s model. Roger Lancelyn Green in his Kipling and the Children (1965) suggests she is based on the housemain of Kipling’s ‘Aunt Georgie’ (Georgina Burne-Jones.)

[Page 156 line 3] dabbled with mud refers to the muddy London streets of the time.

[Page 156 line 4] imitation astrakhan simulated Astrakhan fur or Persian lamb. The fur-bearing sheep is native to Central Asia, and the name derives from the town of that name on the River Volga.

[Page 157 line 13] General servant a vanished species, often called,with some justification a ‘slavey’ or ‘maid of all work’, as opposed to a ‘chambermaid’ or ‘kitchen-maid’.

[Page 157 line 22]The eyes have it a pun on the phrase ‘the ayes have it’, announced after a division in a debate in Parliament.

[Page 158 line 21] in red and black ink on the pop-shop labels ‘pop-shop’ is an old term for ‘pawn shop’, where one could borrow money against the security of an object of value. Unredeemed pledges were displayed for sale with price labels and descriptions written in glossy red and black inks.

[Page 158 line 24] Academicians Members of the Royal Academy of Arts.

[Page 158 line 30] Three quid a week Three pounds sterling, a very large wage for unskilled labour in those days.

[Page 159 line 2] bilking cheating, or obtaining money dishonestly.

[Page 159 line 7] Stone-broke ‘Stony-broke’ is slang for being utterly penniless. [Not, perhaps, a very effective pun, as the normal English pronunciation of ‘Broke’ as a name is ‘Brook’.]

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[Page 160 line 6] gutter-snippet a diminutive of the more familiar ‘gutter-snipe’; a gatherer of gutter refuse (1869). [See the Introduction].

[Page 161 line 6] proud as a turkey usually ‘proud as a peacock’ or, less familiarly ‘red as a turkey-cock’.

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[Page 163 line 12] trampling ORG has this as an error or misprint. Bearing in mind Kipling’s usual precision of usage and observation, the word seems to this Editor to effectively convey the idea of walking over the debris or litter that one would encounter underfoot in many London streets.

[Page 164 line 32] St Anthony St Anthony (c 250-359 AD) was one of the first Christian monks. He led an ascetic life, withdrawing to a mountain to escape from evil and combat the temptations of the flesh. In a novel which is heavily concerned with the unresolved sexuality of Dick and Maisie’s relationship, this reference movingly expresses the fact that the loyal and long-suffering Torpenhow also has needs and desires.

[Page 165 line 12] Prawle Point a promontory on the south Devon coast, on the other side of the bay where Salcombe stands

[Page 165 line 27] Jezebel still a popular name to describe a faithless or immoral woman; so called from the wife of Ahab, King of Israel. The story is to be found in 2 Kings 9,30-37.


©Geoffrey Annis 2006 All rights reserved