The Nursing Sister

(notes by Philip Holberton)


The poem, without a title, forms the heading to chapter xx of The Naulahka, published in December 1892. It is listed in ORG as no 548. In the novel the poem is signed as From Libretto of Naulahka. (See Sharad Keskar’s notes on the novel) There are some minor differences in the text between different editions.

Collected in:

  • Songs from Books (1912)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • The Sussex Edition vols xix and xxxiv (1939)
  • The Burwash Edition vols xv and xxvii (1941)
  • Cambridge Edition (2013) Ed. Pinney, p. 814

The poem

There is only one change between the novel and collected editions: line 4 of Verse 2 in the novel reads ‘And priestess of his shrine is she.’ As collected this has become ‘And – teacher unto such as we!’

The best explanation of this poem is Kipling’s own, which he puts into the mouth of the Queen in the chapter that follows this heading (pp. 300-302) She is talking to Kate Sheriff, who has come to Rhatore to run a hospital for women:

From all, except such as have born child, the world is hid…

And thou, coming from ten thousand leagues away, very wise and fearing nothing, hast taught me, oh, ten thousand things. Yet thou art the child, and I am still the mother, and what I know thou canst not know, and the wells of my happiness thou canst not fathom, nor the bitter waters of my sorrow, till thou hast tasted happiness and grief alike. Thou art a maiden, and the heart in thy bosom, beneath my heart, betrayed in its very beat that it did not understand. They taught thee in a school, thou hast told me, all manner of healing, and there is no disease in life that thou dost not understand? Little sister, how couldst thou understand life that hast never given it? Hast thou ever felt the tug of the child at the breast? I know that thou hast not. Though I heard thy speech for the first time, and looking from the window saw thee walking, I should know. And the others – my sisters in the world – know also. When the life quickens under the breast, they, waking in the night hear all the earth walking to that measure. Why should they tell thee?

There was no child in thy arms. The mother look was not in thy eyes. By what magic, then, wouldst thou speak to women? What didst thou know of the springs of life and death to teach them? Thou hast given thy life to the helping of women. Little sister, when wilt thou also be a woman?


Kate Sheriff’s mission in the novel would have been close to Kipling’s heart.
During his time in India, he had been much impressed by the work done by Lady Dufferin, the wife of the Viceroy. She had set up the National Association for supplying Female Medical Aid to the Women of India (‘The Countess of Dufferin Fund’) in 1885.

The association trained women doctors, midwives, and nurses, to improve the treatment of Indian women in illness and child-birth. Many ‘Lady Dufferin’ hospitals and clinics were established, and some still exist under her name.

See Kipling’s poem “The Song of the Women” (1888).

Notes on the Text

[Verse 1]

Our little maid that hath no breasts: See The Song of Songs 8,8:

‘We have a little sister, and she hath no breasts.’

[Verse 4]

Winds of the South:  a further echo of the Song of Songs, in this case 4.16: [D.H.]

Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits.


©Philip Holberton 2017 All rights reserved