The Muse among the Motors

A series of verses on motoring and motorists, in the form of parodies in the styles of earlier writers


Notes by John McGivering and John Radcliffe, drawing on ORG, and making extensive use of the work of Ann Weygandt’s “Kipling’s Reading, and its Influence on his Poetry” (1939) and of Harry Ricketts in KJ 305 (2003)

Publication History

There is a detailed account of the publication history of this series in the new (February 2010) Rudyard Kipling, a Bibliography, by David Alan Richards.

Kipling first wrote 14 verses, which were published in the London Daily Mail on 5, 6, 9,13, 17, 23, and 27 February 1904, and an American copyright edition was published by Doubleday. Page, New York, in the same year:

He later added six further pieces, which were collected in The Years Between The Muse Among the Motors, in Vol. xxv of the Bombay Edition in 1919. :

Six further poems, completing the series of 26, were added in
Poems. 1886-1929, published in December 1929:

The full series is collected in DV (Definitive Verse), The Sussex Edition (with an Introduction by H. B. Marriott-Watson), and The Burwash Edition. For these collections some of the titles have been simplified and the poems re-arranged in chronological order. Click here for a full list, based on DV, with the sources of the parodies, and links to our notes on the text.

At first sight these may simply read as parodies of the work of various writers, as in Echoes (1884), but a closer inspection reveals, as might be expected, elegant compositions in their own right; most are as economical as “Epitaphs of the War.”

Kipling and the poets

Kipling had had a passionate interest in reading and writing poetry since the age of twelve. This was enabled and stimulated in his last year at United Services College when he was given the run of the Head’s “brown-bound tobacco-scented library”:

There Beetle found a fat armchair, a silver inkstand, and unlimited pens and paper. There were scores and scores of ancient dramatists; there were Hakluyt, his voyages; French translations of Muscovite authors called Pushkin and Lermontoff; little tales of a heady and bewildering nature, interspersed with unusual songs—Peacock was that writer’s name; there was Borrow’s Lavengro; an odd theme, purporting to be a translation of something called a ‘Rubáiyát,’ which the Head said was a poem not yet come to its own; there were hundreds of Volumes of verse—Crashaw; Dryden; Alexander Smith; L.E.L.; Lydia Sigourney; Fletcher and a purple island; Donne; Marlowe’s Faust; and—this made M‘Turk (to whom Beetle conveyed it) sheer drunk for three days—Ossian; The Earthly Paradise; Atalanta in Calydon; and Rossetti—to name only a few…

He tried his hand from an early age at writing parodies in the style of earlier poets, some written with his sister “Trix”, and published in the 1884 volume Echoes., while he was still in India. Harry Ricketts in “Kipling: lost parodist” in KJ 305 comments:

It is easy to see why Rud found literary parody so appealing. An outsider longing to be an insider, he could show that he at least knew his way around ‘the realms of gold’, however difficult he might sometimes find the worlds of India and Anglo-India. Besides, away from the daily drudgery of the CMG, here was an area where he could safely show off his wit and ingenuity . . . For the most part, bravado was the keynote, the sense of a young writer gleefully picking out figures in the poetic landscape and showing how neatly they could be travestied.

Thus the series The Muse Among the Motors, started in 1904 and completed in 1929, was following in a well established tradition. It is interesting to observe which poets he chose as his models here, since they include some closely studied favourites like Browning and Donne, as well as marginal figures like Clough and Adam Lindsay Gordon. They also omit many important influences, including Cowper, Dryden, Keats, Whitman, and Swinburne. With the aid of extracts from Ann Weygandt’s seminal study Kipling’s Reading and its Influence on his Poetry (1939), we have tried to trace some of these cross-currents.

Kipling the Motorist

Kipling tells of his introduction to motoring in Something of Myself, page 176, when Alfred Harmsworth took him for a drive. Charles Carrington (p. 367) tells how Kipling then hired a motor from Brighton, with an ‘engineer’, for three-and-a-half guineas a week and then bought the ‘Locomobile’ that features in some of his motoring stories.

See “Kipling as an Early Motorist” from the ORG updated by Alastair Wilson, KJ 396 (Meryl Macdonald on “Kipling and the Motoring Diaries”), and the ten stories under ‘Motoring’ in Themes in Kipling’s Works’.

Whether Kipling ever drove a vehicle himself is discussed in KJ 262/39. There is however no doubt, as evidenced by many of his tales, of the pleasure he took in the freedom to explore by car in those early days of motoring, first in Sussex and later in France.

One view called me to another; one hill top to its fellow, half across the county, and since I could answer at no more trouble than the snapping forward of a lever, I let the county flow under my wheels. The orchid-studded flats of the East gave way to the thyme, ilex, and grey grass of the Downs; these again to the rich cornland and fig-trees of the lower coast, where you carry the beat of the tide on your left hand for fifteen level miles; and when at last I turned inland through a huddle of rounded hills and woods I had run myself clean out of my known marks. Beyond that precise hamlet which stands godmother to the capital of the United States, I found hidden villages where bees, the only things awake, boomed in eighty-foot lindens that overhung grey Norman churches; miraculous brooks diving under stone bridges built for heavier traffic than would ever vex them again; tithe-barns larger than their churches, and an old smithy that cried out aloud how it had once been a hall of the Knights of the Temple. Gipsies I found on a common where the gorse, bracken, and heath fought it out together up a mile of Roman road; and a little further on I disturbed a red fox rolling dog-fashion in the naked sunlight.

As the wooded hills closed about me I stood up in the car to take the bearings of that great Down whose ringed head is a landmark for fifty miles across the low countries….
[the opening passage of “They” in Traffics and Discoveries”]

And as well as the freedom to explore, Kipling greaty relished the life of the English road:

… which to me is one renewed and unreasoned orgy of delight. The mustard-coloured scouts of the Automobile Association; their natural enemies, the unjust police; our natural enemies, the deliberate market-day cattle, broadside-on at all corners, the bicycling butcher-boy a furlong behind; road-engines that pulled giddy-go-rounds, rifle galleries, and swings, and sucked snortingly from wayside ponds in defiance of the noticeboard; traction-engines, their trailers piled high with road metal; uniformed village nurses, one per seven statute miles, flitting by on their wheels; governess-carts full of pink children jogging unconcernedly past roaring, brazen touring-cars; the wayside rector with virgins in attendance, their faces screwed up against our dust; motor-bicycles of every shape charging down at every angle; red flags of rifle-ranges; detachments of dusty-putteed Territorials; coveys of flagrant children playing in mid-street, and the wise, educated English dog safe and quite silent on the pavement if his fool-mistress would but cease from trying to save him, passed and repassed us in sunlit or shaded settings.
[“The Vortex” in A Diversity of Creatures”]

His motoring journeys and their discoveries inspired such other lively stories and verse as those in Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies; “Steam Tactics” (Traffics and Discoveries); and “The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat”, in A Diversity of Creatures. and “The Bull that Thought” (Debits and Credits).

Some critical comments

Andrew Lycett (p. 356) considers The Muse among the Motors to be:

… modest fare … as his parody on Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads showed:

He wandered down the mountain grade
Beyond the speed assigned—
A youth whom justice often stayed
And generally fined.

[“The Idiot Boy”]

The ditties provided an amusing commentary on the controversy that the new pastime of motoring was generating. The letters columns of The Times were still full of complaints from people who considered the car both dangerous and unsociable

Lycett continues with a short account of Kipling’s difficulties with the car he named “Jane Cakebread”, after a notorious lady of easy virtue who was frequently in trouble with the law.
Jan Montefiore takes the series rather more seriously. She refers (p. 119) to the parody and pastiche which play a key role in Kipling’s poetry from the early schoolboy pastiches and the parodies written with his sister “Trix” and collected in Echoes, to the later sequence “The Muse Among the Motors”:

Like Kipling’s hymns, these highly accomplished parodies often betray serious concerns, including an ever-present sense of crisis, danger and sorrow.

Ann Weygandt, relating the parodies to Kipling’s reading and his other verse, finds a number of them extremely skilful and responsive versions of the style of the long line of poets he has chosen, from Simonides to Robert Louis Stevenson.

Harry Ricketts too, in KJ 305 for March 2003 is strongly appreciative of the series:

The idea of organising parodies of various writers around a single subject or motif is not in itself new; it dates back at least to Isaac Hawkins’ A Pipe of Tobacco (1736). What is strikingly original is Kipling’s combination of subject and range: ultra-modern subject (the motor car) and wide traditional range (‘English’ poetry through the ages). The result is a perfect matching of two of what – forgive the irresistible pun! – one might call his driving obsessions: modernity (particularly modern technology) and poetry.

Some further reading

Some other motoring verse

[J McG. / J.R.]

©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2010 All rights reserved