La Nuit Blanche

(Notes edited by John McGivering)

Publication history

This poem (see ORG vol. 8 (V.I.) page 5174, verse No. 269) was first published in the Civil and Military Gazette on 5 June 1887.

It is collected in:

  • Departmental Ditties and Other Verses (1888)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition Volume 32, p. 52
  • Burwash Edition, Volume 25
  • The Works of Rudyard Kipling, Wordsworth Poetry Library

See David Richards (p. 20) for further details of publication.

Origin and Background

This is an account of delirium, reminiscent of Kipling’s later “The Mother’s Son” which follows “Fairy-Kist” in Limits and Renewals. It also has an echo of “The Mad Gardener’s Song” by Lewis Carroll (1832-1898, author of Alice in Wonderland) and the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834).

Some critical opinions

Dr Tompkins looks at this in her Chapter 7, “Man and the Abyss”, saying on p. 205:

I cannot be sure that the ‘blind face that cries and can’t wipe its eyes’ which appears with horrific facetiousness in ‘La Nuit Blanche’ in Departmental Ditties and as pure horror in “At the End of the Passage”, rose in Kipling’s own dreams, but he himself has told us in Brazilian Sketches that once in a child’s dream he wandered into a Fifth Quarter of the world ‘and found everything different from all previous knowledge’, and the memory of that dream must have provided the groundwork for George Cottar’s wanderings. (in “The Brushwood Boy” in The Day’s Work)

Bonamy Dobrée examines the verse in his Chapter IV, saying on page 211:

Sometimes the metre is too lilting, or the rhyme too pat, as to spoil such a set of verses as “La Nuit Blanche,” where the whole dread experience is put too much in the manner of “light” verse. But on the whole, the performance as such is astonishing, and the experimentation was to bear fruit.


Notes on the Text

[Title] French for ‘the white night’, a sleepless night.

[Two-Verse Heading]

disclaim: This is somewhat ambiguous, since the various shades of meaning in the Oxford English Dictionary include ‘to renounce’ and ‘to cry out against’. In this context, it appears to mean ‘deny’.

indubitably: undoubtedly.

[Verse 1]

Tara Devi: a Temple on the mountain of the same name between Shoghi and Simla. It is mentioned as a pleasant ride in many of the Indian stories.

Cart Road: part of the Simla-Tibet Road

Jakko: one of the highest of the foothills of the Himalayas on which Simla is situated, also figures in various Indian stories.

Day of Doom: the Judgment Day, in Christian tradition; the final judgment by God of every nation. (See Revelations 20,12–15.)

[Verse 2]

fender: an ornamental metal frame around a domestic hearth.

leeches: worm-like blood-sucking creatures. in the class Hirudinea.

[Verse 3]

jims: Dr. Gillian Sheehan writes: ‘the jim-jams’ – slang for delirium tremens, which usually occurs in a chronic alcoholic following a bout of heavy drinking. The symptoms include hallucinations which are usually visual and terrifying, insomnia, agitation, and delirium. [G.S.]

Philip Holberton, who also has a medical background, agrees that this must have been delirium tremens rather than mere fever, or the insomnia suggested by the French title:

This also explains the two-verse introduction, which specifically disclaims any idea that the main poem describes the poet’s own experience. If it was just about fever or a sleepless night, why bother? But delirium tremens is strongly associated with alcoholism, so Kipling pointed out that he had not actually been through such a night himself. [P.H.]

See “The Dog Hervey” in A Diversity of Creatures, p. 149 line 24.

they dosed me with bromide: Dr. Gillian Sheehan writes: I think it is more likely to be delirium tremens rather than fever mainly because they gave him bromide which is a sedative and they locked him in his bedroom. A person with fever wouldn’t be given bromide and wouldn’t be locked up. [G.S.]

[Verse 4]

M.D. : Medicinae Doctor Latin for ‘Doctor of Medicine’.

[Verse 5]

’81 champagne:  Champagne is a fine sparkling wine produced in the region of that name in France; some particularly good years are styled ‘vintage’, and1880 and 1884 are so classified. 1881 is not mentioned in Harmsworth as a vintage year.

to sixes and to sevens: to be ‘at sixes and sevens’ is to be in a state of confusion – a muddle.

[Verse 6]

Face: See “In the Same Boat” (A Diversity of Creatures) for the faces of lepers in a dream, and the quotation from Dr. Tompkins above.

[Verse 10]

dun: a dull greyish-brown colour.

saffron: an orange-yellow colour.


[J McG./J.R.]

©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2010 All rights reserved