A Mistake

(notes by Philip Holberton, drawing on the work of Andrew Rutherford and Thomas Pinney)


Published in United Services College Chronicle, no. 6, 1 November 1881, with subheading “By R****t B******g” [Robert Browning]. (Andrew Rutherford )

The poem was never collected by Kipling, but is to be found in Rutherford (p. 71), and Pinney p. 1590.

The poem

A new boy at school has been hurt in a scuffle and vows to get his revenge. The poet proudly admits that he did the damage, and the new boy attacks him fiercely and makes his nose bleed. The poet’s “Mistake” was to quarrel with someone whose quality he didn’t know.

Kipling and Browning

The form of the poem is inspired by Robert Browning (left), with its alternating long and short lines, far-fetched rhymes (“lunatic” to rhyme with “melodramatic”) and invented words (bebitten).

In Something of Myself (p. 34) Kipling records how C——- (Crofts, the original of King in Stalky & Co.) in form once literally threw Men and Women at my head. The same incident is related in “Slaves of the Lamp, 1” (Stalky & Co.) which spells out the effect that Browning’s works had on “Beetle”:

The book was a fat brown-backed volume of the later Sixties, which King had once thrown at Beetle’s head that Beetle might see whence the name Gigadibs came. Beetle had quietly annexed the book, and had seen – several things. The quarter-comprehended verses lived and ate with him, as the be-dropped pages showed. He removed himself. [p. 46]

Browning was one of the Victorian poets whom the young Kipling read with particular enthusiasm in his time at USC. He felt a special affinity for Fra Lippo Lippi, the 15th Century painter-friar and central figure of Browning’s poem of that name, who struggled to lead a free life and express his ideas despite the cramping authority of Holy Church.

See also “The Flight of the Bucket, “Conventionality”, “From the Wings, “The Jam-Pot”, and


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