This poem is Kipling’s ‘Dedication’ to The Light That Failed when it was published as a book in March 1892 and thereafter, with the “sad” ending in which Dick dies, blind, with his love unrequited. (See the article by David Richards on the various versions of the novel.)
When The Light That Failed was first published, in Lippencott’s Magazine, it was considerably shorter and ended happily with Maisie and Dick united.
Charles Carrington (p. 212) implies that Wolcott Balestier (Rudyard’s great friend and virtually his literary agent) suggested the shorter version to fit within the limit of 60,000 words for magazine publication. This is probably true: the “happy ending” version is about one third shorter, and such drastic pruning was hardly necessary just to bring Maisie and Dick together at last.
In his Introduction to the novel in this Guide, Geoffrey Amis writes:
It is believed by some critics that in addition to Balestier’s view, Alice Kipling, the author’s mother, pressed him to go for a happy ending, which Kipling himself genuinely regretted. This tends to be the view of this Editor, and is borne out by the emphatic prefatory note at the head of the Standard Edition:
This is the story of The Light That Failed as it was originally conceived by the writer.
However, the Dedicatory poem ‘Mother o’ Mine, O Mother o’ Mine’ suggests that in insisting on the ‘sad’ ending Kipling felt some guilt at having betrayed his mother’s wishes.
Andrew Lycett (p. 314) agrees:
Needing to appease his demanding mother (and reassure her of his love), Rudyard wrote the stark emotional poem “Mother o’ Mine”.
Elsewhere (p. 556) Lycett describes it as a powerful but cringing poem.
Kipling was very fond of his mother. Much later, in “The Knife and the Naked Chalk” (Rewards and Fairies, p. 138 line 11), he penned another tribute to motherhood:
When my spirit came back I heard her whisper in my ear, ‘ Whether you live or die, or are made different, I am your Mother’. I was very glad. She was glad too. Neither of us wished to lose the other. There is only the one Mother for the one son.
Kipling also set great value on the advice and criticism of both his parents. Writing of them in Something of Myself (p. 89 line 14) he says:
I think I can with truth say that those two made for me the only public for whom then I had any regard whatever till their deaths, in my forty-fifth year.
So it must have cost Kipling a great deal to go against his mother’s advice in this instance. But Angus Wilson – also a novelist – points out (p. 219):
Nevertheless, there comes a time when a writer wishes to fall by his own misjudgment rather than stand upon someone else’s good one. It may well be that the bitter ending of The Light That Failed was that moment.
© Philip Holberton 2012 All rights reserved