The Old Issue

(notes by Mary Hamer)

Publication history

On September 29 1899 this poem appeared in The Times, the Daily Mail, the New York Tribune, and the Boston Globe. Under the title of “The King,” it appeared separately with McClure’s Magazine for November 1899, and the Cape Argus, on November 22, 1899. It was reprinted in the Methodist Times in May 1920.

In the original typescript, held in the Library of Congress Kipling Collection the poem was entitled “The King”. This was changed when the Editor of The Times demurred, suggesting that instead it should be called “Before Judgement or “An Appeal”. The poet preferred “The Old Issue”. [My thanks are due to Debra Wynn of the Library of Congress for providing this information.]

For collection in The Five Nations Kipling expanded the poem by an opening of sixteen lines, which were printed in italics; he also added the date, ‘October 9, 1899’ as a subscript by way of a reminder to readers. That was the day on which Britain received the ultimatum from President Kruger of the Transvaal at the start of the Boer War. The poem was collected in this complete form in I.V. 1919, D.V. 1940 and in the Sussex Edition vol. 33 and the Burwash Edition, vol. 26. For these later editions the subscript reminder was strengthened to ‘Outbreak of the South African War, 9 October 1899’.

It also appeared in Recessional and other poems by Rudyard Kipling, 1925.


On sending him this poem, Kipling wrote to Moberly Bell, Editor of The Times, in order to explain that this was his ‘contribution to the situation and so, of course, there is no charge’; he was anxious, if the poem were published, that it should also come out in the US ‘where the crisis in the Transvaal is rather misunderstood’ (Letters Vol 2, Ed. Pinney).

In fact, England was reviled by liberal thinkers all over the world, first for its attempt to impose on the Boers, then for making war on them. Kipling’s own stance may owe as much to his compulsive need to defend himself and by extension the Empire in which he found his home, as it does to political judgement.

Recognising that readers might find Kipling’s oblique language merely opaque, The Times published an editorial alongside the poem, in explanation. The Boers were attempting to get away with despotism, in refusing the franchise to the Uitlanders, a despotism that had been resisted and overthrown centuries before in England by our ancestors. The insistent tone of the poem, with its endless couplets, repetitions and elaborations, suggests an investment on the part of Kipling that is acutely personal. A nerve has been touched.

Notes on the Text

(by Mary Hamer, drawing on various sources, in particular Ralph Durand, “A Handbook to the Poetry of Rudyard Kipling” 1914.)

[Stanza 1]

(Trumpets in the marshes – in the eyot at Runnymede): refers to the signing of Magna Carta by King John in 1215. The barons who forced this bill of rights out of him held their camp on Runnymede on the bank of the Thames; the actual signing was done on a small island or eyot in the river between Staines and Windsor.

[Stanza 2]

(Trumpets round the scaffold at the dawning by Whitehall): refers to the execution of Charles I in January 1649 which took place in front of the Banqueting House in Whitehall. Right to the end Charles insisted that the people should have no voice in government, declaring: ‘A sovereign and a subject are clean different things.’

[Stanza 3]

He hath veiled the crown … sceptre: Nominally, Paul Kruger stood at the head of a Republic but in Kipling’s view his refusal to allow the franchise to English settlers made him one with English kings who had attempted to rule without heed to the demands of their people. This comparison idealises the position of Britain, which was as eager to control the gold fields of the Transvaal as it was to protect the rights of settlers.

brawling troopships: the tumult around vessels on which troops were embarking for South Africa.

dooms:  very, exceeding (Scota)  [D.H.]

[Stanza 4]

the Vanguard: the English with their tradition of constitutional government are probably meant but the inflated language is embarrassing.

[Stanza 7]

Grey-goose wing: goose-feathers were used by English archers to flight their arrows.

[Stanza 8]

one with us, first among his peers: a translation of primus inter pares meaning ‘lent an agreed authority by others who continue to consider themselves of equal value’. In view of the awe with which Kipling later spoke of the death and burial of Edward VII, these lines are remarkable.

[Stanza 12]

Deeper strikes the rottenness in the people’s loins: The suggestion of sexual disease here is hard to account for except as a sign of disturbance in the writer, a disturbance associated with fatherhood and the inability to father. He had lost his eldest child to death six months earlier; in failing to protect Josephine Kipling could well have felt, however irrationally, that he had failed as a father.

[Stanza 19]

He shall rule above the Law calling on the Lord: For historical reasons President Kruger and the Boers felt themselves to be a people chosen by God, subject first to divine law before any merely human ordinance. Their piety would have been enough for Kipling to dislike them, without the added affront of their political opposition.

[Stanza 22]

sell-deny-delay: the terminology of Magna Carta, which pledges: ‘to none will we sell or deny or delay right or justice.’

The specific reference is to paragraph 40 of Magna Carta: “Nulli vendemus, nulli negabimus, aut differemus rectum aut justiciam” (“to none shall we sell, to none shall we deny or delay right or justice”). [D.H.]



©Mary Hamer 2007 All rights reserved