The Mare’s Nest

(notes edited by John McGivering)

Publication history

This poem was first published as “The Legend of the Lilly” in the Pioneer on 22 August and in the Pioneer Mail on 30 August 1885. See ORG Volume 8, page 5080, (listed as Verse No. 486). For further details of publication see David Alan Richards, page 12. See also our Notes on “L’Envoi” to Departmental Ditties“.

It is collected, without two lines, as “The Mare’s Nest”, in:

  • Early Verse (1900)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition Volume 32, p. 81
  • Burwash Edition, Volume 25
  • The Works of Rudyard Kipling, Wordsworth Poetry Library

The missing lines run:

This is a simple legend (quite as truthful as the rest),
Of some marvellous disclosures in a female horse’s nest.

The theme

This amusing little piece – perhaps inspired by gossip heard at the Club – concerns a very innocent woman, with an unlikely name, married to a ’fast’ man with an equally unlikely name. She is unaware that he keeps a mare called Lilly (sic) and, believing her to be his mistress, begins divorce proceedings. All comes right in the end however; she rides Lilly for the rest of the season and goes racing with her husband.

The combination of legendary names and writers of fiction may well lead the reader to wonder if there is any truth in the entire composition.

For more on racing see our notes on
“Sleipner – late Thurinda” in Abaft the Funnel, “The Broken-Link Handicap” in Plain Tales from the Hills, and “An Almanac of Twelve Sports”.

See also John Welcome, Kipling on Horses and Horsemen (Marlborough Books, Punchestown Books, 1992) which also includes the text of the poem.

Background and critical opinions

Cornell (p. 83) explains how, in the summer of 1885 at Simla:

Kipling hit upon the notion of writing a series of comic verses for the Pioneer, the journal which had published most of his miscellaneous poetry of the previous winter and spring …The six poems have little merit – only two achieved even the small dignity of republication in Departmental Ditties – but they represent Kipling’s first attempt at writing a group of pieces bound together by simialarities of length or style.

Charles Carrington (p. 78.) explains how Departmental Ditties came to be published, and quotes from “My First Book” which contained his “Bungalow Ballads”, some of which were later published as Departmental Ditties:

There is always an undercurrent of song, a little bitter for the most part, running through the Indian papers. Sometimes a man in Bangalore would be moved to song, and a man on the Bombay side would answer him, and a man in Bengal would echo back, till we would all be crowing together like cocks before daybreak.

Notes on the Text

[Title] A play on words. The verses refer to a mare, and to find a ‘Mare’s Nest’ is to make a great discovery only to find, on investigation, that it is nonsense.

[Verse 1]

Jane Austen: (1775-1817): The celebrated English novelist, much revered by Kipling. See his tale “The Janeites”, and the poems “Jane’s Marriage”, and “The Survival”. A woman of high principles. Kipling read her exquisitely crafted novels to his family.

Beecher Stowe: Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) was an American author. Her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) described the life of slaves in America and was influential in promoting the movement against slavery. Another woman of high principles.

de Rouse: not traced, but perhaps an echo – that would scan – of Louis de Rougemont (1847-1921), writer of incredible travel stories. He is mentioned by Pyecroft in “Their Lawful Occasions” in Traffics and Discoveries, page 121, line 10.

[Verse 2]

Belial: in the Old Testament, the spirit of evil personified.

Machiavelli: Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli
(1469-1527) Italian philosopher, humanist, and writer in Florence during the Renaissance. A byword for ruthless cunning. His The Art of War encourages powerful men to act immorally if this will serve their ends.

thirteen-two: The height of a horse is measured at the shoulder in ‘hands’ of four inches – she is 4 feet 10 inches (1·4 metres) tall.

bay: in this context a horse of dark to light brown colour, usually with black mane and tail.

[Verse 3]

taught her parrot how to curse: Many parrots (Psittaciformes) can imitate human speech.

Assam monkey: The Assam Macaque (Macaca assamensis) is a macaque of the Old World monkey family native to South and Southeast Asia. See “Bertran and Bimi” in Life’s Handicap for an orang-utang who smoked and drank.

She went up: from the Plains to a hill-station.

he went down hill: here, a play on words, to ‘go downhill’ is to deteriorate morally and physically.

[Verse 4]

a better: another play on words – she acquired the habit of betting on horses.

telegraphic peon: the Indian equivalent of a telegraph-boy, who carried messages to and fro. ‘peon’ is Spanish for a labourer, of low status. See “An Habitation Enforced” in Actions and Reactions, page 7, line 22.

[Verse 5]

a cough: as for people, the cause of a persistent cough should be investigated, as it may be a sign of something serious.

[Verse 6]

wire: in this context slang for a telegram

Shaitanpore: An imaginary place;Shaitan is Arabic for ‘Satan’, the devil or evil one, thus ‘The Devil’s Town’. See Hobson-Jobson, p. 818.

thin foreign sheets: light-weight writing-paper as used for air-mail today.

[Verse 7]

wired to the minion of the law: sent a telegram to the solicitor.

horse-box: in this context a railway wagon specially built for the transport of horses.

[J McG.]

©John McGivering 2010 All rights reserved