The Maid of the Meerschaum

(notes by Simon Machin)


First published in July 1884 in Lahore, in Echoes by Two Writers. Collected with the sub-heading ‘(Swinburne)’. Listed in ORG as No. 119.

Collected in:

  • The Outward Bound Edition vol xvii (1900)
  • Edition de Luxe vol xviii (1900)
  • The Sussex Edition vol xxxv (1939)
  • The Burwash Edition vol xxviii (1941)
  • Early Verse by Rudyard Kipling (1986) Ed. Andrew Rutherford, p. 244
  • Cambridge Edition (2013) Ed. Thomas Pinney, p. 1261.

The poem

A carved Meerschaum pipe featuring the elaborate design of a nude nymph on its bowl is the rationale for a skilful parody of Algernon Swinburne, whose rebellious and erotic Poems and Ballads of 1866 scandalised polite Victorian literary society. Meerschaum (from the German, sea-foam) is a malleable soft white clay mineral, sepiolite, and the pipes made from it, with their carved images, have become collectors’ items. Much prized by serious Victorian smokers, the Meerschaum pipe lost its whiteness progressively with smoking, turning anything from a flamingo pink to a deep black.

“The Maid of the Meerschaum” plays with the concept of a clay nymph who loses her maidenly whiteness while clinging to the lips of her smoker more faithfully than the flesh-and-blood female flames encountered by him in daily life. In its preference for strong Virginian tobacco over feminine charms, the poem anticipates “The Betrothed” published four years later, which famously declares that ‘a woman is only a woman but a good Cigar is a Smoke.’

See also our notes on “Tobacco” (1884), a parody of Keats, also to be found in Echoes. Kipling had been a dedicated smoker since his schooldays, and continued to be so until the end of his life, in defiance of his doctors. See his loving description of a tobacconist’s shop in “In the Interests of the Brethren” (1918). collected in Debits and Credits p. 59-60.


Many of the verses in Echoes spring from the word games and other literary diversions that Rudyard and his sister, Trix, engaged in when reunited as young adults in the cultivated home of their parents, Lockwood and Alice, in Lahore in 1884, where Lockwood was Principal of the Mayo School of Arts and Rudyard Assistant Editor of the Civil and Military Gazette. Yet the wide reading and experiments in verse which undergirded Rudyard’s skill as a parodist had been in full flow during his schoolboy years at the United Services College, in Devon where, he writes in Something of Myself, “the tide of writing set in’ (p.22).

Angus Wilson notes that at USC Kipling read ‘all the major poets down to and especially Swinburne’ (p.70). Swinburne was admired even by his detractors for his mastery of verse forms, and in such an accomplished parody Kipling is perhaps staking out his claim as the new enfant terrible.

See also our notes on “Quaeritur” .

Janet Montefiore suggests that the ‘echo’ here is from Swinburne’s poem “Dolores, our Lady of Pain”, witness the lines slightly misquoted from the seventh stanza in “In the Rukh” (Many Inventions p. 230) by Muller, the Head Ranger of Woods and Forests for all India:

Though we shift and bedeck and bedrape us
Thou art noble and nude and antique;
Libitina thy mother, Priapus
Thy father, a Tuscan and Greek.

Notes on the Text

[Title] Maid of the Meerschaum the poem envisages a maid carved into the bowl of a smoking pipe made of Meerschaum, a white, mouldable clay, soft enough to be carved, but hard enough to be polished..

[line 1] Neuberg’s J. Neuberg, Meadows Street, Bombay – an emporium famous for cigars and cheroots.

[line 5] Old Judge a cigarette brand of Goodwin & Company, an American tobacco manufacturer.

[line 5] Lone Jack smoking tobacco produced by the Lone Jack Cigarette Company, based in Lynchburg, Virginia.

[line 5] Bird’s-eye a whole leaf tobacco common to Virginia, with a bird’s eye effect when cut.

[line 12] Stunt Anglo-Indian slang for Assistant.

[line 13] labuntur anni fugaces ‘How the fleeting years have glided away’. An adaptation of the opening line of Horace’s Ode II. xiv.

[line 16] D. C. a District Collector. A D.C. was a powerful regional officer of the Indian Civil Service, in charge of revenue collection and local administration, and empowered as an executive magistrate.

[line 22] pro tem for the time being .(Latin).

[line 25] pig broke from cover pig sticking (or hog hunting) on horseback was a popular sport amongst the British officer class.See “The Boar of the Year” (1884)

[line 26] pleaders pleaders, or mukhtars if they were native Indian, were professional agents recognised by the Courts of British India.

[line 29] Bund a man-made waterfront.

[line 39] Hic jacet here lies. (Latin).

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