The Masque of Plenty

(Notes by John McGivering and John Radcliffe, with advice from a number of colleagues, including Peter Havholm, Roger Ayers, David Page, Yan Shapiro, and Brian Mattinson)

Publication history

This poem was first published in the Pioneer on 26 October 1888, and in the Pioneer Mail on 31 October. Kipling had moved from the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore to the Pioneer in November 1887. It was the larger sister paper of the CMG, and the main journal published in English in British India. ORG (Volume 8, page 5231) lists the poem as Verse No. 338. A number of lines (shown in blue) from the original version of the poem in the Pioneer were deleted before publication in the 4th Edition of Departmental Ditties.

It is collected in:

  • Departmental Ditties and Other Verses (4th Edition, 1890)
  • Early Verse (1900)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition Volume 32, p. 69
  • Burwash Edition, Volume 25
  • The Works of Rudyard Kipling, Wordsworth Poetry Library

See David Richards (p. 39) for further details of publication.

Title and Theme

A masque is a form of entertainment with music, singing and dancing, and the poem is set out as the libretto for such a piece, replete with stage directions. However, it is also the French for a mask, which conceals the face, a play on words in that the plight of the Indian peasants described in the poem is hidden by the Commission’s report of ‘plenty’. Charles Allen (p. 283) notes that the poem is:

…. an attack on a Government Commission which had delivered a report on the conditions of the Indian peasantry and found no cause for concern, despite the fact that several regions of India were experiencing drought and famine. This last allowed Ruddy to expound his view that the Pax Britannica, for all its proclaimed achievements, had done nothing for the ordinary Indian.


The ‘Dufferin Enquiry’ into the condition of the Indian farmers was launched in August 1887 and reported in October 1888. It was not, as suggested in Kipling’s poem, conducted by a team of senior figures sallying forth from Simla, but consisted of a series of separate reports from officials in the various provinces. It is a long document, giving an account of the state of things in many different parts of India, some prosperous, some in dire straits.

The conclusions of the Report were summarised in a Resolution of the Government of India published in the Gazette on October 20th 1888, (for the BL reference see the attached note), as reported in the Pioneer of that date. There was a detailed supplement supporting the Resolution which included quotations from the various local officers consulted, with comments from the official of the central government who drafted the Resolution. It gave a generally favourable account of the condition of the Indian farmers.

In the British Library (IOR L/E/7/185 in File 1624 of 1888) there is a note in manuscript, over the name-stamp of the Secretary of State for India, Viscount Cross (possibly a draft for a report to the Cabinet in London), which indicates the drift of British official thinking following the Report:

‘…it says the condition of the lower classes of the agricultural population need not cause any great anxiety at present. That the people get ordinarily enough food to keep them in strength, and in tracts of light rainfall the most indigent classes are always at risk of distress when the rains fail or partially fail, and that in all parts of India there is a numerous population which always live from hand to mouth…’

The Pioneer’s response

The Pioneer was scathing about the Resolution, summarising it on October 22nd, and criticising it without fear or favour on October 25th, calling it ‘feeble’, and suggesting that it had taken care to give prominence to favourable reports, and cast doubt on comments from more pessimistic officers.

Kipling would not have seen the full report, which was a long and confidential document, but he would have read the Resolution in the Gazette on October 20th, and clearly fully agreed with the critical conclusions of his Editors.

In the past, the Pioneer had evidently been reluctant to criticise the Government of India too strongly, because part of its income was derived from official printing contracts. See Charles Carrington (p. 51), and Harry Ricketts (p. 57), describing the paper’s dilemma in 1883 over the Ilbert Bill, a government measure for increasing the role of Indians in the judiciary. The Civil and Military Gazette (sister paper of the Pioneer) held back criticism of the Bill despite its extreme unpopularity with its readers, and young Kipling, the Assistant Editor, was hissed in the Club. As he noted in Something of Myself (pp. 51-2):

A few months later one of my chief proprietors received the decoration that made him a Knight … I followed under shrewd guidance, often native, the many pretty ways in which a Government can put veiled pressure on its employees…

However, on this occasion, the Pioneer did not hold back.

After the publication of the report, Lord Dufferin recommended the establishment of provincial and central councils with Indian membership, a key demand of the Indian National Congress, which had been formed three years before. This was strongly opposed by the Pioneer, who saw litle merit in the campaigns of Congress (see its leader of October 25th), and by Kipling, who echoed the views of his father, Lockwood, as Charles Allen (p. 57) notes:

…he trod the line, accepting the shibboleths of the day,
which were that socialising with Indians was undesirable, political
reforms that allowed Indians a greater share of government
dangerous and Indians in general untrustworthy – particularly the
educated ones.

For a further sense of Kipling’s views at this time on government policy in India, see also “The Enlightenments of Pagett, M.P.” (uncollected save in the Sussex and Burwash editions), and “The Head of the District” (collected in Life’s Handicap).

The critics

Angus Wilson (pp. 96-7), quotes from a passage in The Jungle Book which makes the point that Indian villagers lived year-in year-out near to starvation, and goes on to comment:

… it is in a bitter poem in Departmental Ditties that the young Kipling most clearly announces this basic fact of Indian life.

A poem in which Government is not spared at all. “The Masque of Plenty” has been curiously neglected, for it is a highly variegated set of verses in form, as well as explosive in content.
(as the) “Argument” he writes:

The Indian Government being minded to discover the economic condition of their lands, sent a Committee to enquire into it, and saw that it was good.

First the Government of India in the raiment of the Angel of Plenty sings:

“How sweet is the shepherd’s sweet life….etc.”

The investigator return with so good a report that the Government of India sings:

“How beautiful upon the mountains …”

And, at last, comes a chorus of the ‘Crystallised Facts’ which ends with these lines about the Indian peasant:

“His speech if of mortgaged bedding,
On his kine he borrows yet.
At his heart is his daughter’s wedding.
In his eye foreknowledge of debt
He eats and hath indigestion
He toils and he may not stop,
His life Is a long-drawn question
Between a crop and a crop.”

Jan Montefiore (p. 120) notes that these lines parody Swinburne:

“The Masque of Plenty” … rewrites the lament for the tragic contradictions of mankind’s existence in Swinburne’s Atalanta in Calydon:

His speech is a burning fire;
With his lips he travaileth,
In his heart is a blind desire,
In his eyes foreknowledge of death;
He weaves, and is clothed with derision;
Sows, and he shall not reap,
His life is a watch or a vision
Between a sleep and a sleep.
[Atalanta in Calydon (1865) Chorus]

Kipling’s version turns the abstractions and metaphors into harsh material facts …
Insisting on the poverty, debt and unending labour that make a
subsistence farmer’s life wretched, the young Kipling mocked
not only the big empty words of poetic universality but the
imperialist boast of enlightened rule as equally irrelevant to the

Other glimpses into Kipling’s view of the world of government at Simla include:

Notes on the Text

[Title] The masque: is a form of entertainment with music, singing and dancing, originating in Italy and flourishing in the royal courts of sixteenth and seventeenth-century Europe. Sovereigns and their familes often took part.
Brian Mattinson, who has extensively researched the many musical settings of Kipling’s verse, writes: ‘I am not aware of any composer turning his attention to ‘The Masque of Plenty’. It has great potential but it is perhaps too specific for now.’

There are, as Brian suggests, a number of particular references to events of the day, quickly understood by his readers, but now more obscure. Also, as described by Kipling, it would be a very demanding piece to set or stage.

[Heading – original version] (Vide Government Resolution in last week’s Gazette) The Gazette was the regular bulletin of the Government of India.

[Heading – original version] HIS EXCELLENCY THE MARQUIS OF A-A:  The Viceroy of India, the Marquis of Dufferin and Ava. See also “One Viceroy Resigns”.

Argument a word of many meanings, here is an explanation and summary of the theme, and the sense in which it is later used in “The Muse Among the Motors”.

saw that it was good: an echo of Genesis 1,30: ‘And God saw everything that he had made. and behold, it was very good’.

the wooded heights of Simla: the Summer Capital of British India.

the Angel of Plenty: not traced in legend but perhaps derived from the mythical cournocopia or Horn of Plenty.

[Verse 1]

How sweet is the shepherd’s sweet life: an echo from “Songs of Innocence – the Shepherd”, by the English poet William Blake (1757-1827): ‘How sweet is the shepherd’s sweet lot…’

Adagio dim: played slowly and dying away.

[Verse 2]

largendo con sp.: played slowly and with spirit.

swarthy billions: a vast number of dark-skinned people – the teeming population of

vermillion: alternatively spelt ‘vermilion’ with a single ‘l’. A brilliant red colour.

cotillions: dances with an elaborate series of steps and changes of partner.

[Verse 3]

Turkish Patrol: a lively March of 1882, by Thaddeus Michaelis (1831-1887).

wind down: a procession of men and animals descending a mountain pass.

Himalayas:  the vast mountain system in central Asia extending from Assam to Kashmir, with Tibet to the north. Simla lies in the foothills of the Himalayas, and they are the scene of the climax of Kim and of other Indian verse and prose.

Dim: an abbreviation of diminuendo, letting the music die away; the opposite of crescendo.

ff: fortissimo, very loud.

vina, sitar, and nagara:the vina and sitar are stringed instruments. The nagara is a drum.

byle and yabu: a footnote defines them as ‘The ox and the pony.’

Babu: an educated English-speaking Bengali clerk. See our notes on “The Plea of the Simla Dancers”.

Gazetteers: geographical dictionaries.

state of the Nation: an echo of ‘The State of the Union’, the annual report by the President of the United States to the American people.

Interlude: in this context, music played in the intervals within a performance.

[Verse 4]

Yoke: a wooden collar for oxen drawing a cart etc. but here used as a metaphor for slavery

[Verse 6]

Look westward: to see if the rain-bearing monsoon is approaching.

[Verse 7]

Nay: an archaic form of ‘no’.

it is written:  fate

SEMI-CHORUS:  used for music of a lighter texture and sung by a few members of the main chorus.

[Verse 8]

rust or rot: diseases of corn

[Verse 9]

[Heading – original version] SIR E. C. B-C-K This must be Sir Edward Charles Buck, KCSI. He was Secretary to the Government of India 1882-97, so still in post when RK included the collected version in Departmental Ditties, which is probably why he was cut out.

Dionysus: in Greek mythology, the god of the grape harvest, winemaking and wine. He is often depicted with a lion or tiger. He is known to the Romans as ‘Bacchus’. (Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable)

rhubarb: a group of plants that belong to the genus Rheum. It has large leaves and various medical uses. It is not a particularly dignified plant; there is something faintly ridiculous about wreaths of Rhubarb leaves.

[Verse 10]

ken: in this context, knowledge.

bield: a shelter

byre: a cow-shed.

Castanets: percussion instruments used in many cultures, including the Spanish, consisting of a pair of concave shells joined on one edge by string and held in the hand. They produce echoing clicks for rhythmic beats in dance or music.

step-dance: a form of dance where the footwork is the most important part, with the arms and body often held still.

[Verse 11]

the dom and the mag …: defined by a footnote as ‘A list of various Indian tribes and castes.’
Brian Mattinson writes: ‘We have just had “the forces of Hell” and are approaching Isaiah. I immediately thought mag and nunc, the common abbreviation of the “Magnificat” and the “Nunc Dimittis” (canticles from the Anglican Order of Service), reversed as in “to bear and grin” (verse 16). If I thought of it, did Kipling?

RECITATIVE:  speaking to or over music, a technique used in opera and oratorio.

electro-plated: ‘Electro-plating’ is an electrical process where one metal can be coated with another; in this case probably giving the appearance of silver. Here used to indicate a cheap product.

[Verse 11a – original version]

Sam Hall: originally an old English folk song about a bitterly unrepentant criminal condemned to death, with a rousing tune, which is still sung in modern versions. This section smacks more of the Music Halls than a stately Masque.

dhotis: long loin cloths wrapped around the body, traditionally worn by Hindu men.

English piece-goods: cheap English cotton garments.

dal and hing: dal is lentils, hing is asafoetida, a pungent spice.

lathis:  iron-bound staves, weapons carried by the police and others in India.

chapattis: unleavened bread.

Paul de Kock French author of novels, plays, and libretti for operas (1793-1871)

[Verse 12]

How beautiful upon the mountains:
This quote from Isaiah 52,7, was memorably set by the English composer John Stainer as part of the longer anthem by Stainer ‘Awake, awake, put on thy strength, O Zion’ (Isaiah 52, 1):

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation; that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth!

Cres: abbreviation of crescendo, playing the music louder and louder.

[Verse 13]

Brasses: in this context trumpets. tubas and other instruments made of that metal.

Squire: in this context a country gentleman who owns land, and is the leading figure of authority in his village.

Malarial exhalations: it was believed at one time that malaria was caused by mists and vapours arising from damp land. See Dr Gillian Sheehan’s “Kipling and Medicine”.

[Verse 14 – original version]

Which nobody Can deny!:  This is the refrain of the traditional drinking song “For he’s a Jolly Good Fellow!”, to the tune of which this verse could be sung.

Collectors, Deputy Collectors and Commissioners: senior officials in the Indian Civil Service. ‘To blow one’s own trumpet is to boast of one’s achievements.

Kennst du das land: ‘Know’st thou where …’ From the German, of Goethe and others.

thannadar: A police officer.

zillah: an adminstrative sub-division.

tappal the letter post. This whole ratherobscure pseudo-romantic nonsense section must be ironical.

[Verse 15]

Roger Ayers writes: The list of names in the ‘Chorus of the Crystallised Facts’ reads like a summary of those who had contributed to a complacent view of the condition of the Indian populationl; Richard Strachey, chairman of the 1880 Famine Commission; Sir William Muir, Finance Minister 1874-76 then Member of Council to 1885; Lord Lytton (Viceroy 1876–1880), who is quoted by Philip Mason (writing as Woodruff) as saying that the Famine Relief Camps of 1878 ‘..were like picnics… and the people on them, who do no work of any kind, are bursting with fat…’.

Ripon (Viceroy 1880-1884) ‘fooling with Heaven’ (an Anglo-Indian heaven) appears to be included because he was interested in things like education, the repeal of the Vernacular Press Act (1878) and introducing the even more controversial Ilbert Bill rather than maintaining the population’s living standards.

Lastly, Richard Temple, who made himself into an indispensable famine trouble-shooter, was heavily criticised for his prodigality with public money and for blowing his own trumpet. Temple was described by John Beames, ICS, Commissioner in Lower Bengal, as ‘following his own unaided judgment. In his usual theatrical way, he rode at the rate of 50 to 60 miles a day through the districts, forming as he said an opinion on the state of the people and the state of the crops… He would write a vainglorious minute… that he had come to the conclusion, that so much grain, usually 3 to 4 times as much as was really wanted, would be required …’.

All these people had left India by the time Kipling was writing. [R.C.A.]

Two Viceroys

Men with a pair of shears: probably administrators looking for economies in government.

Cess: now confined to dialect – a tax.

sifted sand…: in the grain, the corn is adulterated with sand to make it weigh more heavily and thus provide an illicit profit to the dealer.

Adam’s Bridge: a line of rocks and sandbanks, the remains of the land bridge that once joined southern India to Sri Lanka.

Peshawur: a District and major city on the North-West Frontier, now in Pakistan.

[Verse 16]

Roger Ayers writes:

I think that the first twelve lines of this stanza are the things that Dufferin’s predecessors imposed on the population, all imported western ideas, while the last eight lines are the local reality, which Dufferin’s Report presumably exposed. Of particular interest is the line ‘Railways and roads they wrought’ – a hint at the ‘Trains and Drains’ argument raised by Dadabhai Naoroji as early as 1866 when he wondered who the trains benefitted and where the drains actually led. By the time Kipling was writing, this had been taken up by the National Congress. (See

India, a History

John Keay, Harper Collins, London, 2000).’ [R.C.A.]

to bear and to grin: an inversion of the proverb ‘to grin and bear it’ – to make the best of a bad job or situation.

mortgaged bedding: the man is so poor he has borrowed money on he security of his bedclothes.

kine: cattle

[Verse 17 – original version] This whole section expresses Kipling’s view that the Government had missed an opportunity by glossing over the evidence from the Enquiry.

[Verse 18 – original version] This section looks forward to the impending departure of Lord Dufferin as Viceroy, and the arrival of Lord Lansdowne, his successor.

The Martlet on the ducal cap: Lord Dufferin’s coat of arms, which carries
On a ducal coronet, a martlet Or. A martlet is a stylised bird, the diminutive of Martin.

the ermined horse that bears the fleur de lys … the Centaur and the Bee: The crest of Fitz-Maurice, Marquess of Lansdowne includes: 1st: a bee-hive beset with bees, diversely volant; 2nd: a centaur drawing a bow and arrow. The supporters are two pegasi, ermine, each charged on the shoulder with a fleur-de-lys. ‘Pegasi’ are winged horses.

The Lion of the flaming sword: Symbolising British rule?

winged horses from the West:  Lord Lansdowne coming out from London. Will he take a more realistic line on the condition of the people?

[J McG./J.R.]

©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2011 All rights reserved