Mary’s Son

(notes by Philip Holberton)


First published in Nash’s Magazine in the Autumn of 1914, untitled, as a heading to the article “Egypt of the Magicians”, the seventh of Kipling’s articles from his visit to Egypt in 1913. ORG No. 1009.

Collected in:

  • The Years Between (1919)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition vol. 33 p. 404
  • Burwash Edition vol. 26
  • Cambridge Edition (2013 Ed. Pinney) p. 1109

The poem is dated 1911 in Inclusive Verse, Definitive Verse, and the Cambridge Edition, though it is undated in The Years Between.

The poem

This little poem is the reverse side of “The Sons of Martha”, which was published in 1907. Both are based on the biblical story of Jesus’ visit to the home of the sisters Mary and Martha (Luke 10,38-42). Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to His word, while Martha did all the work. When she asked Jesus to tell Mary to help her, He just said that Mary had chosen that good part and it wouldn’t be taken away from her.

The earlier poem is full of praise for Martha’s sons who still do all the work and look after the needs of Mary’s sons. This one tells a particular Son of Mary that if he is to be any use, on Sea or Land or anywhere on Earth, he must get on with the job in front of him without worrying about wages or questioning orders or boasting about what he has done.

The theme of the importance of work is found throughout Kipling’s writings, including – of course – The Day’s Work (1898). In “A School Song”, the prelude to Stalky and Co., he says he was taught it by his schoolmasters:

This we learned from famous men,
Knowing not its uses,
When they showed, in daily work,
Man must finish off his work –
Right or wrong, his daily work –
And without excuses.

Daniel Hadas notes of Stanza 3. ‘stop to consider the work you have done…”  ‘

I think Kipling is thinking here of Martha’s words at Luke 10.40:

“Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me.”

So perhaps, in contrast to ‘The Sons of Martha‘, Kipling is here praising the sons of Mary for not seeking earthly reward for labour. [D.H.]

Toni and Valmai Holt, in My Boy Jack? (p.49) say that John was occasionally addressed as “William” by his father. One wonders if this poem, addressed to ‘Willie, my son’ was a coded message to John, who in 1911 had been uncertain about whether to pursue a naval or army career.


© Philip Holberton 2016 All rights reserved