The Burden of Nineveh

(notes by Roger Ayers)

Publication History

First published in the Civil and Military Gazette (C&MG) on 6 June, 1888. It was reprinted in the paper’s Turn-Overs, Vol II, in August of that year and reprinted again in the C&MG on 17 December, 1933, together with two other stories “that Kipling had left in their original seclusion in the files of the C&MG‘. This was a slightly belated celebration of the 50th anniversary of Kipling joining the staff of the paper in 1882.

The piece has never been collected. The reprint of 1933 was noticed by the Kipling Journal in KJ 29, March 1934, pp 16-18.. The introduction by the C&MG was given in full but the story was truncated. Why this might have been done is discussed below.

In the ORG the complete text is given, numbered Uncollected No. 128, together with some notes.

The text on which these current notes are based is taken from an original copy of the C&MG of December 1933. The two other stories that appeared in that issue of the C&MG were “The Shadow of his Hand” , and “New Brooms”. Both had been collected in Abaft the Funnel (1909).

The story

The story or sketch is a short, superficially light-hearted but acid attack on what Kipling sees as ignorant interference by individual British Members of Parliament in the administration of British India and in the life and culture of the Indian people.

While the general line of attack seen in his poem ‘Pagett, M.P.’, first published in 1886, relates to an M.P.’s ignorance of Anglo-Indian life, this story attacks any attempt to convert the Indian population to British ways of thinking, both cultural and political. The story, ‘The Enlightenments of Pagett, M.P.”, which came two years later took this aspect a stage further.


There are internal references in the text and the epigraph which give a strong indication of literary influences on Kipling at the time, which might have helped to shape the form of the story and may have contributed to the ending, which, from what they may have heard of Kipling, many of today’s readers may find surprising.

The primary clue lies in the opening two sentences which introduce us to Kipling’s female embodiment of India, the Patient East, a term coined by Edward Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776, Chapter 49).

Kipling’s first lines are:

It was the Patient East, but not quite as Arnold has painted her. She was thinking, it is true, but there was no dignity in her attire…

The ORG identified Arnold as Sir Edwin Arnold, one-time principal of the Poona College (1856-61), later Editor of the Daily Telegraph, whose major work was The Light of Asia, a book in blank verse depicting the life and philosophy of Prince Gautama, the founder of Buddhism. However, there is nothing in it to which Kipling’s ‘Patient East’ might be related but I was pointed by Mary Hamer, to whom I am very grateful, to a work by Matthew Arnold which gave a positive identification.

Amongst the poems of Matthew Arnold (1822-88), son of Thomas Arnold of Rugby School fame, is one called “Obermann once more” (1867), the second of two poems, which, together with an essay, Arnold wrote as a result of being influenced by Etienne Senancour (1770-1846).

In this poem, Arnold includes reflections on the end of the Roman Empire and, adopting Gibbon’s idea of the Patient East, depicts her as outlasting the Roman tempest which ‘swelled and swelled’ under the ‘victorious West’ who eventually ‘hurried, torn with inward strife, the wilderness to find’.

The identification of Matthew Arnold as the Arnold of ‘The Burden of Nineveh’ comes from stanza 28 of Obermann once more:

The East bow’d low before the blast,
In patient, deep disdain;

and is confirmed in the following lines:

She let the legions thunder past,
And plunged in thought again.

Here is Matthew Arnold’s female, thinking, patient East, who is depicted in his poem as facing a victorious, female, Roman West, just as the India of Kipling’s day might be considered to be facing the British empire. Kipling has modified Arnold’s version of the Patient East to represent an India who patiently tolerates the British M.P. when he tries to get her to adopt ‘all the (British) refinements of civilisation’ and convince her of some unspecified ‘important political considerations’. However, in the end she rejects him and he, too, hurries off, ‘torn with inward strife, the wilderness to find’ – back to his wife.

After he leaves, the story ends with:

The Patient East dropped her head on her hand and laughed. “After all, what does it matter?” she said. “They will pass away— all my lovers have, I wonder whether I shall be glad or sorry”.’

That Kipling ended the story in this way, effectively prophesying the end of British rule in India, must have been very provocative at the time of writing. The fact that he did so I attribute to the power of Arnold’s verse, which made Kipling consider the East outlasting the British Empire as it had the Roman Empire. That the very idea remained provocative for the next 45 years may have been the reason that when reprinted in the Kipling Journal in 1934, these two lines were omitted without reference, even though the C&MG had reprinted them in India and Kipling had reiterated the thought in “Recessional”.

That in 1888 Kipling was familiar with Matthew Arnold’s “Obermann” poems is borne out by his handwritten inscription in the copy that he gave to his parents of his just published Plain Tales from the Hills, which included four lines from verse 18 of Arnold’s first Obermann poem, Stanzas In Memory Of The Author Of “Obermann”. (See KJ 200 for December 1976, pp. 10 & 11. My thanks to John Walker for making this link.)

Another aspect of Kipling’s reading is seen in the epigraph:

Small parsons crimp their eyes to gaze,
And misses titter in their stays
Just fresh from Layard’s “Nineveh”.

[The Burden of Nineveh.]

The ORG assumed that this was by Kipling, having been unable to find it in the poem “The Burden of Nineveh” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and it was given a separate ORG number, Verse 321. With one word changed, it is in fact by Rossetti but it only appeared in his first version of the poem, published in the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine in 1856.

This was heavily revised by Rossetti for inclusion in a collection published in 1870, which became the standard work. The lines above, part of the original stanza 7, were lost in the revision. It is not surprising that the editors of the ORG did not find the very scarce magazine first edition in an age before the internet.

What is most interesting is that in 1888 Kipling is quoting the 1856 version. Did he or his parents have a copy of the magazine? Did he have access to it in India or did he quote it from memory? This last is a possibility since he quoted the first line incorrectly. It should read:

Small clergy crimp their eyes to gaze,

and there seems to be little significance in the change.

In brief, Rossetti’s first version expressed his feelings on seeing one of the massive winged bulls from the excavations of Austen Henry Layard at Nineveh being manhandled up the steps of the British Museum in 1850.

Much publicity had been given to the finds made by Layard at Nimrud and Nineveh in the previous three years and there was great interest in those that Layard had shipped back to the British Museum.

Overall, Rossetti is making the point that Art has outlasted Empire, to which Kipling also subscribes, but in the stanza from which Kipling quotes, Rossetti also expresses his pity for the ‘poor god’ walled-up in the museum, being stared at and made light of by uncomprehending Londoners – a theme that Rossetti removed from the poem on revision. However, Kipling chose those specific lines in his epigraph, presumably to indicate that the British M.P. visiting India was no better than the visitors to the museum.
Critical Reception

No record has been found of any immediate response to any of the published versions of Kipling’s story. The earliest traced reference, apart from KJ 29 and the ORG, is Kipling in India, by Louis L Cornell. In a footnote to a discussion of “On the City Wall” (Soldiers Three, In Black and White) Cornell sees Lalun as a version of the old symbol of India as a sinister, desirable woman, an image which for Kipling still had validity. He sees the Patient East as another, a seductive femme fatale who terrifies a visiting British M.P.
Nora Crook sees reconstructions of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath in a number of Kipling’s works, one of which is the Patient East, down to her red feet, even if the red is lac dye rather than scarlet stockings.
William Dillingham considers that the Patient East’s response to the M.P.’s description of Zola’s works as ‘Shocking depravity’ is Kipling’s own impassioned personal defence of Zola.

He also highlights Kipling’s detestation of visiting British Members of Parliament, shown by his making the M.P. in “The Burden of Nineveh” a clone of ‘Pagett M.P.’ of the poem of June 1886; portraying him as an ignorant, blundering fool who can do a great deal of damage if not checked and whom Kipling ridicules by making him flee from the laughing Patient East back to his wife.


©Roger Ayers 2011 All rights reserved