The Necessitarian

(notes by Philip Holberton)


First published in the Windsor Magazine on December 1st 1902, accompanying the story “Steam Tactics”. Listed in ORG as No 870.

Collected in:

  • Traffics and Discoveries (1904)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • The Sussex Edition vols vii and xxxiv (1939)
  • The Burwash Edition vols vii and xxvii (1941)
  • Cambridge Edition (2013) Ed. Pinney, p. 760

The poem

This poem is a hymn to whatever unnamed power releases laughter on the Earth. It is very similar to “The Playmate” (prefixed to the story “Aunt Ellen” in Limits and Renewals), though there the power is feminine.

The poem as collected in Definitive Verse is very slightly altered from the version in Traffics and Discoveries: ‘whose’ in the first line and ‘him’ in line 1 of verse 5 are both capitalised, and ‘may it be’ in the last verse becomes the emphatic ‘it must be’. J M S Tompkins (see below) quotes the original version.

Daniel Hadas adds: A necessitarian is someone who denies the existence of free will. The title is somewhat opaque (to me), but stanza 3 does seem to indicate that the ridiculous arises through the machinations of fate, rather than human decisions.  See also ‘The Legend of Mirth’ for the release of laughter upon the earth. [D.H.]


Tompkins has a whole chapter devoted to “Laughter” in Kipling’s works. On p. 48 she discusses this poem:

The Demon of Irresponsibility, who prompts the narrator, is not the Daemon who sometimes controlled Kipling’s art, but a recognisably human and personal impulse. In ‘The Necessitarian’, however, the verses prefixed to ‘Steam Tactics’, we meet the suggestion that, like all Kipling’s ultimate powers, this Power too is outside man. Time, Chance and Circumstance are merely the instruments of the unknown Jester, the culmination of whose play is called the Sacredly Absurd, as if a manifestation so excessive, so unaccountable and so complete must, like lunacy in former ages, somehow belong to the Divine. Of this power Kipling posits only craftsmanship, but a conscious craftsmanship, not the ‘rapt aesthetic rote’ of Hardy’s Artificer; he admits that ‘no creed has dared to hail him Lord’, but in the well-known last verse hazards the speculation:

Yet, may it be, on wayside jape
The selfsame Power bestows
The selfsame power as went to shape
His Planet or His Rose.


The “Demon of Irresponsibility” appears in “Aunt Ellen” (Limits and Renewals page 125 line 17), where “Chance and Circumstance” are also invoked:

All the better, if they should imagine they had done murder. Thus I argued in my lower soul; but on the higher planes of it where thought merges into Intuition and Prophecy my Demon of Irresponsibility sang: ‘I am with you once more! Stand back and let Me take charge. This night also shall be One of the Nights.’ So I stood back and waited, as I have before, on Chance and Circumstance which, accepted humbly, betray not the True Believer.


The “She” of “The Playmate” promises “This shall be a Night of Nights!”

Notes on the Text

[Verse 1]

urns:  See Homer, Iliad 24.527-8, translated by Samuel Butler.  [D.H.]

For two urns are set upon the floor of Zeus of gifts that he giveth, the one of ills, the other of blessings

[Verse 2]

[line 1] Heavenly Lark arise: a play on words between the lark, a high-flying song-bird, and a lark or joke. This may also be a reference to George Meredith’s poem “The Lark Ascending” (1881).

[Verse 3]

[line 1] join the flats: a metaphor from the theatre: to bring two pieces of scenery together to make a whole. Here Time and Chance come together to make a backdrop for the prey preferred – the victim of the joke.

©Philip Holberton 2017 All rights reserved