The Legend of Mirth

(notes by Philip Holberton)


First published in Pearson’s Magazine for October 1st 1910 accompanying the story “The Horse Marines”. Listed in ORG as No 1044.

Collected in:

  • A Diversity of Creatures (1917)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • The Sussex Edition vols ix and xxxiv (1939)
  • The Burwash Edition vols ix and xxvii (1941)
  • Cambridge Edition (2013) Ed. Pinney, p. 965

The poem

The poem tells how the gift of laughter was brought to the four great Archangels to cure them of their zeal for perfection.

Michael, Gabriel and Raphael are named in the Bible. Azrael is the Angel of Death in Muslim tradition. They all appear elsewhere in Kipling’s later works, particularly in Debits and Credits (1926):

Later references to the angels

At the beginning of “The Enemies to Each Other” (1924), Jibrail (the Arabic spelling of Gabriel) and Michael are sent in turn to take the clays and sands needed to make Adam’s body but return empty-handed when Earth supplicates them. Azrael disregards the supplication and tears out the necessary soil. The rest of the story is a version of the temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3) with Jibrail as an active observer.

In verse 2 of the poem “Jane’s Marriage”, which follows “The Janeites” (1924), Azrael, Raphael and Michael offer Jane Austen’s spirit “Anything in Heaven’s gift”. Right at the end of “On the Gate” (1926) Death is revealed ‘in his true Majestic shape’ as Azrael.
Limits and Renewals is the last book of Kipling’s stories to be published in his lifetime. Azrael and Gabriel play large parts in the final story, “Uncovenanted Mercies” (1932), and the poem that follows and closes the book is entitled “Azrael’s Count”.

J M S Tompkins has a whole chapter on Laughter. On p.40 she discusses the angels in this poem:

Theirs is the rigour of unresting zeal, so careful to conform to its own high standards, so anxious, so perilously near to pride, that it needs to be pierced by:

Tales of the shop, the bed, the court, the street,
Intimate, elemental, indiscreet:
Tales to which neither grace nor gain accrue,
But only (Allah be exalted!) true…

and Allah despatches a Seraph on this mission. The ‘utter mirth’ in which the Four forget ‘both zeal and pride’ sends them reeling through the universe, which answers to their laughter,

And e’en Gehenna’s bondsmen understood
They were not damned from human brotherhood.

The Archangels have received new light on their tasks from frivolity, and they tell the tale roundly against themselves in Heaven. These are some of the implications that came to enrich Kipling’s natural – he might have said national – addiction to farce.

There is a distant echo here of a poem of Kipling’s youth, “How the Goddess Awakened” (1881), which contrasts the guilt and woe of Christianity with the mirth and pleasure of an earlier paganism.

Notes on the Text

[line 4] the Host: the Heavenly Host, all the angels and archangels.

[line 45] Prolused: gave an introductory discourse. The Oxford English Dictionary flags ‘prolused’ as a nonce-word – a word apparently used ‘for the nonce’ – i.e. on one specific occasion or in one specific text or writer’s work. So it appears to be Kipling’s coinage.

[line 17]  shining Courts:  The phrase “shining courts” is found in a hymn by Robert Hawker (see here, p. 747).  The idea of God’s courts is Scriptural, particularly common in the psalms: 65:4, 84:2, 84:10, 92:13, 96:8, 100:4, 110:19, 133:12. [D.H.]

[line 23] This of course echoes “Thy will be done on earth as it is heaven”, from the Lord’s prayer. [D.H.]

[line 68] glosses: explanations.

[line 79] diapason: complete harmony.

[line 84] Winged: disabled like a bird shot in the wing.

[line 87] Gehenna: Hell.

[line 91] morning majesty:  I suspect an allusion to Satan’s identification with Lucifer, the morning star. This fits with the theme of pride (ll. 13, 74), from which the Seraph cures the four angels, and which caused Lucifer’s fall. See Isaiah 14.11-12. [D.H.]


©Philip Holberton 2017. All rights reserved