Nursery Idyls

(notes by John McGivering and
John Radcliffe)



Published in Echoes by Two Writers in Lahore in August 1884. A parody of Christina Rossetti; listed in ORG as No 121.

Collected, with the sub-heading (‘Christina Rossetti’s ‘Sing-Song”) in:

  • The Outward Bound Edition vol xvii (1900)
  • Edition de Luxe vol xviii (1900)
  • The Sussex Edition vol xxxv (1939)
  • The Burwash Edition vol xxviii (1941)
  • Early Verse by Rudyard Kipling (1986) Ed. Rutherford, p. 238
  • Cambridge Edition (2013) Ed. Pinney, p. 1234


Kipling had left United Services College in July 1882, where he had read widely and written copiously, determined to become a published poet. In October he became Assistant Editor of the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore. See our notes on “A Vision of India” for an account of his experiences and state of mind at that time.

In December 1883 Mrs Kipling brought out Kipling’s 15-year-old sister ‘Trix’ from England, and they embarked on a series of literary games and compositions, which by the Spring of 1884 had generated a great many poems, mainly parodies of established poets. Rudyard was emboldened to publish some of them in an edition of 150 in August 1884 under the title Echoes by Two Writers. His model for the title was Bayard Taylor’s The Echo Club and Other Literary Diversions (Boston, 1876), which he knew well.
Harry Ricketts writes (p. 63):

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 find the realms of India and Anglo-India. Besides, away from the daily drudgery of the CMG, here was an area where he could show off his wit and ingenuity…

Although not immediately obvious, nearly half of Rud’s contributions to Echoes were not new. Of the thirty-nine poems in the volume that were almost certainly his, fourteen or so had been written the previous year, or had been culled from his old notebooks.

The verses

Like the earlier “Nursery Rhymes for little Anglo-Indians” these verses dwell sardonically on the seamy unpleasant side of life in India, the danger of death from disease, the fearful heat, the longing for temperate England, the disgusting experiences – a rotting dead mongoose in the bathroom – the idle dishonest servants. They express the familiar discontents of Anglo-Indian memsahibs. Apart from their simplicity they bear little relation to Rossetti’s verses. They are certainly not for children, and one doubts whether Rossetti would have been much impressed by them. It is not clear why Kipling, unlike Tennyson, spelt ‘Idyl’ with a single ‘l’.

In the collected editions, Kipling added notes explaining some Indian words: pipal: fig-tree; sais groom; chutti his dismissal. In Echoes, the first line of the last poem has the reading ‘Malli’s mate’ for ‘gardener’. (A Malli is a gardener.)

Kipling and Rossetti

Christina Rossetti (1830 to 1894) was a popular and successful lyric poet. ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’ and ‘Remember’ are among the best-loved English poems.

Her first published poems appeared in The Athenaeum in 1848; she modelled for her brother Dante Gabriel’s ‘Girlhood of Mary Virgin’, and later for other paintings. Goblin Market and Other Poems was published to critical acclaim in 1862, and Christina was hailed as a successor to Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Other collections followed, including Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book (1872).
Her brother William Michael was Secretary of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood which included John Everett Millais, later President of the Royal Academy, and William Holman Hunt. Edward Burne-Jones, who was married to Kipling’s ‘Aunt Georgie’, was a later Pre-Raphaelite. See Andrew Lycett (pp.14-15)

In later years Rudyard recalled Christina Rossetti as one of the writers and artists he heard of as a schoolboy when visiting his ‘three dear ladies’ in Kensington:

Somewhere in the background were people called Jean Ingelow and Christina Rossetti, but I was never lucky enough to see these good spirits.
(Something of Myself, p. 22)

But Ann Weygandt (pp. 122/3) takes the view that Kipling had little in common with Rossetti:

She is the member of the Pre-Raphaelite group to whom he pays least heed. A reference to “Goblin Market” in a title, a set of parodies on “Sing-Song”, and a quotation from one of its rhymes in “The Story of the Gadsbys” are the only comments he has to offer on her work. He applies the name “Goblin Market” to Canton, a city which seems to have given him the horrors. In “Nursery Idyls” he proves his familiarity with Christina’s children’s verse – a familiarity which has bred something akin to contempt.

Kipling contrasts with the insipidity of Christina’s style “a little liver” and a “dead mongoose.” He takes her daffodil seen “growing in the vale” and puts it into a poem whose metre is that of “Mother shake the cherry tree.” The metre of her “Brown and furry” may have suggested “Here’s a mongoose,” and “Margaret has a milking pail,” has affinities with “Tara Chand is the gardener’s mate.”

Kipling certainly knows “Sing-Song” well, but it has had no effect on his own writing for children, except possibly as a warning as to what to avoid.

Notes on the Text

[Verse 1]

A little sigh See “Kipling and Medicine”.by Dr Gillian Sheehan.

[Verse 2]

Daffodils in English fields The golden Daffodil
(narcissus) flowers in fields and hillsides and parks and gardens, in early spring, and is a much-loved sign of the end of the chills of winter.

Here’s a sun would strike you dead

Heat stroke, also known as sun stroke, is a heat illness where the body temperature becomes excessively high. See “Kipling and Medicine”.by Dr Gillian Sheehan.

[Verse 3]

Cook’s tourist comes and goes
Thomas Cook’s company, founded in 1841 and thriving to this day, was the great Victorian travel agency, arranging transport for the British all over the Empire. When it was necessary to send a force up the Nile in 1884 to relieve General Gordon in Khartoum, it was Thomad Cook who arranged the transport. Kipling made extensive use of the agency in later life, including his retreat from his honeymoon from Japan to America in 1892, after his bank failed. There are numerous references to Thomas Cook in his works. (See The Light that Failed chapter 2.)

[Verse 5]

the Indian Pipal is always gay and green The Pipal (ficus religiosa) is a semi-evergreen fig-tree, sacred in India to Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists.

Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment (bodhi) while meditating underneath a Pipal tree. The original tree was destroyed, and has been replaced several times. A branch of it was rooted in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka in 288 BCE and is known as Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi. It is the oldest flowering plant in the world.


[Verse 6]

an English Elm The Elm (genus Ulmus, family Ulmaceae) a fine tall tree, was a familiar sight in the English landscape in Kipling’s day. It has since largely disappeared through the ravages of Dutch Elm Disease.

[Verse 7]

Here’s a mongoose The mongoose (Herpestidae) is a small carnivorous mammal native to south Asia and Africa, which preys on snakes and other small creatures. See “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” in The Jungle Book.

[Verse 8]

Sais a groom

Golden barley. One of the first cultivated grains, Barley (Hordenum vulgare) is used as animal fodder and making malt for beer and fermented drinks like whisky.

[Verse 9]

chuti His dismissal

©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2017 All rights reserved