Song of the Old Guard

Traffics and Discoveries

(notes edited by John McGivering)

Publication history

This poem was first publishe 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).


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 centory 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.

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

Knop in this context is a knob or ornamental swelling on the stem of a candlestick or similar item

[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.

[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 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] 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,

[J. McG.]
©John McGivering 2007 All rights reserved