The Man who could Write

(notes by Roberta Baldi and Alastair Wilson)


Published in the Civil and Military Gazette, March 23rd, 1886.

Collected in:

  • Departmental Ditties and Other Verses
  • Early Verse, 1900
  • Inclusive Verse, 1919
  • Definitive Verse, 1940
  • Sussex Edition, Vol. 32, p. 29
  • Burwash Edition, Vol. 25

The poem is listed in ORG (p. 5112) as no. 173.


We do not know whether this poem refers to an actual case of an official who dabbled in journalism with disastrous results for his career, or whether Kipling was simply offering an Awful Warning from one young journalist to any other young aspirant who might be contemplating finding fame and fortune through his pen. At the time Kipling was twenty, and had been a newspaperman for some three and a half years.

In the opening verse (line 10 of the poem) he suggests that a journalist might ‘rise to high position through a ready pen.’ Although undoubtedly some editors of national newspapers and journals had substantial influence in national politics (men whom Kipling himself came to know later, such as W T Stead, and G G Dawson and H W Steed. both Editors of The Times), none could be said to have risen “to high position”, other than in their own field. [A.W.]

Kipling wrote in a letter to E. K. Robinson, on 30 April 1886, the month after the poem was first published. :

Would you be astonished if I told you that I look forward to nothing but an Indian journalist’s career? … My home’s out here; my people are out here … all the interests I have are out here. … London journalism … is a great and grand thing but it seems to me … that out here one lives and writes more in the centre of history with one’s hands on everything than in a land where by reason of its hugeness every one is on the outskirts of everything; watching ministers, policies and financiers from afar.
(Letters, Ed. Pinney , vol 1. pp.126-127).

Notes on the text

The line numbers refer to the whole poem, heading lines included.

[Line 1] drink Kipling here does not overtly state his subject yet: ‘bowl’ and ‘drink’ lead one to expect a commentary on drinking rather than writing, although the latter term already punningly contains the word ‘ink’.

[Line 2] many geese who dipped their quills in ‘t The topic of the poem becomes now a bit clearer, though Kipling still sustains his pun, in so far as ‘geese’ and ‘dipped’ may still refer to both drinking and writing.
A ‘goose’, amongst its many meanings, is a foolish person, and the quill pen which was still in use in the 1880s was made from goose feathers. [A.W.]

[Line 5] there may be silver in the “blue-black” Blue-black is a very dark blue ink. Silver seems to be used here not only for its chromatic implications but as a reference to the wealth which might derive from writing.

[Line 6] the iron and the gall This expression probably reflects the writer’s actual working experience, the hardness of iron and the bitterness of gall. (Gall is linked to bile, the bitter secretion of the liver, stored in the gall-bladder)

Kipling may also here be referring to “iron-gall nut ink” which was the standard writing ink in Europe for over 700 years. Its use (as Wikipedia tells us) only started to decline in the 20th century, when other water-proof formulas (better suited for writing on paper) became available.

See the later story “Dayspring Mishandled” in Limits and Renewals in which the protagonist makes an old fashioned ink out of, among other ingredients, oak-galls. And in Robert Browning’s “Soliloquy in a Spanish Cloister”, a monk complains that: ‘scarcely dare we hope oak-galls, I doubt’ – essential for the inks they used for copying devotional works. {A.W.]

[Line 7] Boanerges Blitzen Boanerges was the name given by Jesus to his disciples James and John, and Mark 3.17 tells us that this means “the sons of Thunder”. Blitzen is German for ‘lightning, so ‘Boanerges Blitzen’ may be said to imply ‘thunder and lightning’. At this time, The Times newspaper (arguably the most influential newpaper in the world) was known as ‘The Thunderer’, a nickname dating back to the 1840s. [A.W.]

[Line 7] servant of the Queen as will be seen later on, Blitzen was a ‘servant of the Queen’, by virtue of being a member of the Indian Civil Service (ICS). [A.W.]

[Lines 10, 12] high the heights to which Blitzen aspired were political, inside the ICS – with which would go social postion. As we have already seen in “Delilah” (line 13) writing for ‘certain papers’ was not an occupation to be admired, and for an ICS man to publish articles attacking the Government was scarcely likely to endear him to his superiors.

The Indian Civil Service, like the British Army and the Royal Navy, was an extremely hierarchical institution, in which the young were expected to respect their seniors. In a poem entitled ‘The Laws of the Navy’, first published in 1896, Rear-Admiral Ronald Hopwood wrote:

Dost think, in a moment of anger,
‘Tis well with thy seniors to fight?
They prosper, who burn in the morning,
The letters they wrote overnight;

For some there be, shelved and forgotten,
With nothing to thank for their fate,
Save “That” (on a half-sheet of foolscap),
Which a fool “had the honour to state—.”

A maxim which Blitzen would have been well advised to heed. [A.W.]

[Line 14] Wicked wit of C-lv-n Sir Auckland Colvin was the Financial Member of the Viceroy’s Council from 1883-1887 who imposed an Income Tax, the burden of which fell almost entirely on Anglo-Indians. [any indications from readers of this Guide of his ‘wicked wit’ will be most welcome; Ed.]

[Line 14] irony of L—–l. Sir Alfred Comyn Lyall was Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal, 1882-1887” His Verses Written in India was published in 1889. He also wrote a number of books on Indian history. His writings about the Indian Mutiny showed a sympathy to the native cause which would have been unthinkable to Europeans during the time of the uprising. Both he and Colvin (above) would have been familiar names to Kipling’s readers.

[Lines 16; 18, 22; passim] journalistic prose; Indian paper; write. Again, as in other poems, this can be read as a reference to Kipling’s own writings. He was well used to the risks of sparring with Government.

[Lines 17-20] Professor T. J. Connell writes: in KJ 305 (p. 30)

One poem, concerning Boanerges Blitzen, shows that Kipling knew he was running some risk…Curiously enough Lord Dufferin, Viceroy during Kipling’s time in India liked Departmental Ditties. He commented to Kipling’s father John that they combined ‘satire with grace and delicacy’, so he must have seen the truth behind at least some of the laughter. [‘Roger and Francis Bacon and Some Comparisons with Rudyard Kipling’]

[Lines 17, 19] Never young Civilian’s prospects were so … the capital C for Civilian indicates that Blitzen was a member of the ICS, as opposed to a ‘civilian’ who might have been any box-wallah (businessman), or someone else outside official circles like Kipling himself. [A.W.]

[Line 21] scored it, bold, and black, and firm In the Oxford English Dictionary ‘firm’ is onr of the many meanings of ‘score’, ‘to mark with a line or lines’. In other words he made his points with emphasis.

Today, Blitzen might be described as a ‘whistleblower’; one who reveals matters that those in authority would prefer not to be known.[A.W.]

[Line 22] squirm. To feel or show humiliation or embarrassment.

[Line 25] Rag Derogatory slang for a newspaper.

[Line 25] plucky Courageous.

[Line 29] Posed as young Ithuriel, resolute and grim

Ithuriel is an angel, the touch of whose spear exposes deceit. When Satan contrived to get into Paradise, Gabriel sent Ithuriel to find where he had hidden himself. Satan was disguised, but the touch of Ithuriel’s spear compelled him to reveal himself. [Ralph Durand p. 8].

[passim] Till he found This repetition marks the climax of the story, as Blitzen realises that he is out of favour.

[Line 32] curiously hot not to be taken literally – Blitzen would seem to have been a district officer, or judge, and the districts over which he had jurisdiction seemed to be inexplicably restless.

[Line 33] furlough Leave

[Line 37] languished in a District desolate and dry as a form of unofficial punishment, he was transferred to a less (much less) salubrious area. [A.W.]

[Line 39] hitch> An impediment or delay

©Roberta Baldi and Alastair Wilson 2012 All rights reserved