Natural Theology

(Notes edited by John McGivering)

Publication history

ORG Volume 8, page 5458 lists this poem as Verse No.1102. It was first published in The Years Between (1919). See also David Alan Richards, p. 142 for further details of publication. It is collected in:

  • Inclusive Verse 1919
  • Definitive Verse 1940
  • The Sussex Edition Volume 33, page 429
  • The Burwash Edition, Volume 26
  • The Works of Rudyard Kipling Wordsworth Poetry Library 1994

“After the Fever”, a different poem (Verse No. 136 (U)) which appeared in the Pioneer of 22 June 1885 has the alternative title “Natural Theology in a Doolie.” The text is to be found in ORG Volume 8, page 5074. See also
KJ 199/04 for a long article on “Kipling’s Theology”,


The poet considers various mishaps and disasters experienced by humankind since prehistoric times, commonly blamed on the Gods or the priests. He concludes that most are of man’s own making through carelessness and lack of thought. So much for theology.

A critical comment

Jan Montefiore, in The Kipling Journal 367 for March 2017, notes:

The starting point of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Natural Theology’ is Robert
Browning’s monologue “Caliban upon Setebos: or, Natural Theology
in the Island”, spoken by Shakespeare’s enslaved savage meditating on
the nature of his god, whom he imagines as a more powerful version of
his own brutalized self. Kipling knew this poem well; in Stalky & Co.
‘Beetle’ quotes it while leafing through Browning’s poems in search of
inspirational lines (“Slaves of the Lamp” I. p. 52). His own ‘Natural Theology’
clearly echoes Browning’s Caliban, not only in the title but in the
opening ‘Primitive’ who so regrettably dined on rotting whale-meat.

But Kipling’s poem takes the ironies of self-inflicted damage much
further, satirising the blindness of pre-scientific thought, the idiocy of
squeezing natural resources for unlimited profit – and, of course, the
self-delusion of liberal disarmers who in 1914 lost their sons in battles
which they had refused to prepare for. In the poem’s ‘Conclusion’, he
speaks in his own voice for the first time, invoking the Word of God
in a medley of biblical and liturgical quotations: ‘with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again’ (Matthew 7:2); ‘God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap’ (Galatians 6:7), ‘As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be’ (BCP psalms passim). ‘Natural Theology’ would be wittier without this hammering home of its moral, but it is clear that Kipling felt, perhaps rightly, that his message needed more than a light ironical touch. Certainly his satire retains its bite after nearly a hundred years.

To salute the twenty-first century, I have taken the liberty of bringing it up to date with one further stanza:


I burn my oil by the millionth barrel,
I throw my garbage into the sea….
The tides are rising above my sea-wall,
Why has the Lord afflicted me?
I have had enough of experts warning
That carbon dioxide poisons the sea.
There is no such thing as global warming.
Look how God is afflicting me!


Notes on the Text

[Title] The Oxford English Dictionary defines Theology as:

Dealing with knowledge of God as gained from his works by the light of nature and reason.

The stranded whale appears already as prehistoric food in ‘The Story of Ung’, stanza 8. [D.H.]

[Verse 1]

PRIMITIVE: at a very early stage of cultural development.

stranded: driven onto the seashore by force of weather or tide, and unable to swim away. The carcass would rot.

purged: a word of several meanings connected with cleaning or clearing, here indicating a thorough evacuation of the bowels.

wraith: ghost.

sick: vomiting or simply unwell, here probably both.

[Verse 2]

PAGAN: heathen, especially in antiquity.

a harmless flea: Plague and other diseases are carried by fleas – see “A Doctor of Medicine” (Rewards and Fairies p. 264, line 25. Also Dr. Gillian Sheehan’s “Kipling and Medicine”.

kith and kin: once meaning ‘friends and relations’, now ‘relations’.

[Verse 3]

MEDIÆVAL: the Middle Ages generally refers to the thousand years between the end of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, from about the Fifth Century to the Fifteenth.

privy: a latrine, the sewage drops into a pit below and contaminates the ground, so wells nearby contain the germs of cholera and other diseases which will be transmitted to humans in their drinking-water.

well: a deep, usually circular, hole dug in the ground and lined with masonry, to provide a water-supply.

Christendie: a poetic or archaic version of ‘Christendom’, Christian countries and peoples generally.

fevers: the patients suffer abnormally high body temperature and other symptoms caused by infection. See Dr. Gillian Sheehan’s Kipling and Medicine.

fluxes: in this context, morbid discharges of blood etc.

[Verse 4]

MATERIAL: concerned with commercial rather than spiritual matters.

eight hundred hens to the acre: Heavy and unhealthy overcrowding. Poultry kept out of doors needed sunshine and green grass. But to be healthy they need to be kept at not more than one hundred to the acre (40 square metres per bird).

dozens: a dozen is twelve.

L. S. D.: the abbreviation for the Latin Libræ solidi denarii ‘Pounds, shillings and pence’

[Verse 5]
PROGRESSIVE:: modern, forward-thinking. but here used in a derogatory sense by Kipling in the same manner as “the Immoderate left” in “My Son’s Wife” (A Diversity of Creatures) and other works, reflecting his right-wing views and belief in a strong Navy and Army.

Mons retreat: This was the withdrawal to the River Marne, in August and September 1914 by the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and the French Fifth Army, in the early weeks of the Great War
(1914-1918). See our Notes on “The Soul of a Battalion” (one of Kipling’s uncollected speeches). Kipling’s own son John was killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915 (Carrington, p. 436 passim). A body believed to be his was later found but may have turned out to be that of another soldier. See KJ228/08 and KJ263/09.

pillage: plunder, rob, loot.

arson: setting on fire the property of others.

the Times: a newspaper established in 1785 as the London Daily Universal Register, which was changed to The Times in 1788. Writing to The Times is still a traditional method of airing a grievance, though the paper has lost some of its authority in recent years.

[Verse 6]
CHORUS: all voices singing together

[Verse 7]

Spirit He breathed in Man: see Genesis, Chapter 2, verse 7.

And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life: and man became a living soul.

As was the sowing so the reaping: an echo of Hudibras (line 504) by Samuel Butler (1612-1680).

For, as you sow, so are you like to reap.

See Jan Montefiore’s comment above, where she traces the origin of this quotation to St Paul’s letter to the Galatians, in the New Testament, which Kipling would probably have known from his unhappy time as a foster-child in “The House Of Desolation” in Southsea.


[J McG.]

©John McGivering 2011 All rights reserved