Song of the Old Guard

(Traffics and Discoveries)

(notes edited by John McGivering and John Radcliffe)

Publication history

This poem was first published in Traffics and Discoveries in October 1904, where it precedes “The Army of a Dream”. It is collected in later editions of Traffics and Discoveries, and with slight variations in Inclusive Verse, Definitive Verse, Sussex Edition Volume 7, page 247, and Volume 35, page 221, Burwash Edition Volumes 7 and 28, The Works of Rudyard Kipling (Wordsworth Poetry Library, 1994),
and the Cambridge Edition of Kipling’s poems, Ed. Pinney 1913 (p. 1373).

The poem

Daniel Hadas notes: This poem shares its Old Testament theme with ‘Rimmon‘, but reverses the heathen/Jew divide. In Rimmon, the old guard is identified with the heathens, who worship Rimmon, whereas in ‘The Song of the Old Guard’, the heathens (see stanza 5, l.1) are the would-be reformers, and the speakers, the Old Guard, are the Old Testament priesthood and New Testament Pharisees (see Scriptural references below).

The poem also inverts the positions of the ballad on which it is modelled. In the ballad, it is the Old Guard, the cavaliers, who speak in the parodied voice of the reformers. Here it is the other way round: Kipling is on the reform team, but speaks in the voice of the Old Guard.[D.H.]


Like “The Army of a Dream” the poem reflects Kipling’s response to the worst features of the old army he observed in the South African war, the ‘Old Guard’, formal, set in its ways, ill-trained, unfit, often incompetent, beset by snobbery and caste, pre-occupied by rank and ritual, slow to adapt to new challenges, unloved and ill-understood by the general population, the graveyard of too many promising young men. For the original 17th century Cavalier ballad, on which Kipling modelled his poem, see this site.

For similar savage attacks on a complacent ‘Establishment’ see “The Islanders”, “Rimmon”, “Stellenbosch”, and Angus Wilson, (p. 327) who relates them to Kipling’s belief in the necessity of purging the army of the old officer class, who in his opinion had nearly lost Britain the (Boer) War before Roberts and Kitchener came on the scene. The story “Folly Bridge” (Sussex Edition, Volume 30) illustrates this point in prose.

See also the Headnote to “The Army of a Dream” which follows these verses in Traffics and Discoveries, and “The Old Men”.

Notes on the Text

[Title] ‘The Old Guard’: originally referred to the veterans of the French Army’s Imperial Guard under Napoleon Bonaparte, the elite of his Grand Army, some of the finest soldiers in Europe, who had served him since his earliest campaigns. However, it came to mean people — not necessarily in the army — who were of a conservative nature and unable to understand the changes which arose with improvements in weapons and new tactics on the battlefield. Kipling also uses ‘Imperial Guard’ as the title of one of the important formations in his “Army of a Dream”.

[Heading] This relates to Exodus, 25,31, 35, and 36, instructions for building and furnishing the Temple in Jerusalem

[Verse 2] As Beauty shall decree: refers to the machinations and behind-the-scenes activities of London society women, usually titled, who often had a hand in public affairs, ‘petticoat government’ as it was sometimes called. (The first woman M.P. did not sit in Parliament until 1919.)

[Verse 3] Orders: in this context, Orders of Knighthood, and other titles

[Verse 4] fluttering fan …winnow the old way of cleaning grain on the threshing-floor before threshing-machines, the ripe wheat was fanned to blow away the chaff. This may also be a sideways glance at the fans wielded by the Beauties above! It was never mentioned, but tacitly understood, that those who toed the line and did not interfere with the routine of a peace-time army would receive promotion and honours.

Daniel Hadas notes:’This is Biblical imagery, there are many instances in both Old and New Testaments.’ [D.H.]

[Verse 5] Anise: or Aniseed, less commonly anís (the stress is on the second syllable). Pimpinella anisum is a flowering plant in the family Apiaceae, native to the eastern Mediterranean and southwest Asia. It is a herbaceous annual plant growing to three feet (one metre) tall, used for culinary and medical purposes.

Mint: Mentha – a genus of about 25 species (and many hundreds of varieties) of flowering plants in the family Lamiaceae. used in cookery.

Cummin: Cumin (Cuminum cyminum) (sometimes spelled cummin) is a flowering plant in the family Apiaceae, native from the eastern Mediterranean to India. It is a herbaceous annual plant, cultivated for its aromatic seed, with a slender branched stem 20-30 cm. (up to a foot) tall. The flowers are small, white, or pink.

The Wordsworth edition correctly refers to Matthew 23.23: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone” {D.H.]

the buttons of our trade: the brass buttons (which needed cleaning daily) on peace-time uniforms.

curious work in gilt and braid: decoration on sleeves, front of tunic, and headgear, all of which disappeared on active service.

[Verse 6]

candlesticks and bells:  more Scripture references from the Wordsworth edition: [D.H.]

Exodus 25.31:  And thou shalt make a candlestick of pure gold: of beaten work shall the candlestick be made: his shaft, and his branches, his bowls, his knops, and his flowers, shall be of the same

Exodus 28.33: And beneath upon the hem of it thou shalt make pomegranates of blue, and of purple, and of scarlet, round about the hem thereof; and bells of gold between them round about”

scarlet, brass: the scarlet tunics with brass buttons– see the coloured plates in Newarks’ Kipling’s Soldiers for both parade uniforms and less formal dress in India and South Africa,

badger’s hair: the hair of the badger, Meles meles, was then used for hackles and plumes.

The Ark: in this context, the Ark of the Covenant, the coffer containing matters sacred to those of the Jewish faith.

Armageddon: the final battle which will end the world – see Revelations,

Daniel Hadas notes: ‘Kipling will echo the use of ‘Armageddon’ in ‘The Holy War’. And, before that, the theme is picked up in the allusions to the Book of Revelation in ‘The City of Brass” [D.H.]


[J. McG./J.R.]
©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2007 All rights reserved