First published in The Seven Seas. September1896. Collected in later editions of The Seven Seas, Inclusive Verse, Definitive Verse, the Sussex and Burwash Editions, and the Cambridge Edition (2013) Ed. Pinney (p. 459).
The speaker of the eight-line stanzas is a woman who has found out she is pregnant and is being deserted by her lover. The verses in italics comment, like a Greek chorus, on the situation.
Kipling describes the origin of this poem in Something of Myself” (p. 79) when he was living in Villiers Street, London, in the autumn of 1889:
For Greek chorus, I had the comments of my barmaid – deeply and dispassionately versed in all knowledge of evil as she had watched it across the zinc she was always swabbing off. (Hence, some years later, verses called ‘Mary, pity Women,’ based on what she told me about “a friend o’ mine ‘oo was mistook in ‘er man.”)
Some critical comments
Angus Wilson (p.149) writes:
“Mary, Pity Women!” has also a sentimental touch, yet in its mixture of crude sexual passion and pathetic desire for respectability it seems to me to have greater truth than the long series of proudly amoral “My Man” popular songs from Brecht to “Can’t help loving that man’ and “He’s my Bill” to which it has given birth.
(p.131) notes the poem’s relation to music-hall songs:
“Mary, Pity Women!” is justly famous but still underrated. Some still believe it actually to be an old music-hall song. The feeling in it is entirely vicarious, but all the purer for that. Here for once we see Kipling as lyrical poet, improving on the music-hall songs that so inspired him.
In the same passage of Something of Myself quoted above Kipling says:
From my desk I could look out of my window thought the fanlight of Gatti’s Music-Hall entrance, across the street, almost onto its stage.
Fourpence, which included a pewter of beer or porter, was the price of admission to Gatti’s.
Notes on the Text
[Title] Mary: the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus
It aren’t no false alarm: she is now certain that she is pregnant.
The Wrath: the anger of God.
–it?: the unborn baby
pore: Cockney spelling of ‘poor’.
shore: Cockney spelling of ‘sure’.
I want the name: she wants to marry and change her name to his.
lines to show: ‘marriage lines’, a marriage certificate.
not to be an ‘ore: whore, prostitute. As an unmarried mother, she would be called a whore, and might well be forced into prostitution to keep herself and the baby. See Verse 5 “What’s left for us to do?”.
we sail tomorrow!: Her lover has enlisted as a soldier and is leaving for foreign service
© Philip Holberton 2014 All rights reserved