Private Ortheris’s Song

(notes by John McGivering and John Radcliffe)


This poem, listed in ORG as No 414, was first published in Macmillan’s Magazine within the text of “The Courting of Dinah Shadd”, on March 1st, 1890.

Collected in:

  • Life’s Handicap (1891)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • The Sussex Edition vols iv and xxxii (1940)
  • The Burwash Edition vols iv and xxv (1941)
  • Cambridge Edition (2013) Ed. Thomas Pinney, p. 220.

Peter Bellamy’s recording is here.

The poem

Ortheris (on the left) is one of Kipling’s ‘Soldiers Three’, with Mulvaney and Learoyd. They are probably composite characters, based on the soldiers Kipling met when he was a young journalist in Lahore. But as one reads the stories that he wrote about them over the years one becomes familiar with their marked personalities, their lively relationships, and the lights and shades of their memories.

Like the others, Ortheris has many years of service. He is a Cockney, small in stature, a crack shot, a dog-lover, a teller of tales and singer of songs, much loved by his comrades. In one story (“His Private Honour”) he is accidentally insulted by an officer. The officer takes him out shooting; and they fight man to man with their fists, until honour is satisfied.
In a later story (“Garm, a Hostage”), he is rescued by the narrator from the military police after a drunken night out, and insists on giving up his much-loved bull terrier as a ‘hostage’ for his good behaviour.
Here, at the end of “The Courting of Dinah Shadd”, a bleak tale of a curse that has blighted Mulvaney’s life, Ortheris sings a song about how his own career has been hampered by his weakness for women and drink.

Kipling and the soldiers

From his early days in India Kipling was fascinated and inspired by the lives of private soldiers, which he celebrated in these stories, and in Barrack-Room Ballads. Charles Carrington (p. 212) writes:

No author in any literature has composed in verse or prose so full and varied and so relentlessly realistic a view of the soldier’s life, with its alternations of boredom and terror, its deadening routine, its characteristic vices and corruptions, its rare glories and its irrational fascination.

See also Charles Carrington’s article on “Kipling and the British Army in India”.

A possible echo

This poem is written in a style we don’t find elsewhere in Kipling’s poetry. Ann Weygand (p. 154), notes that while at school Kipling had greatly admired Walt Whitman, who experimented with ‘free verse’ without rhyme or formal structure, Weygand notes that he may have been influenced here by the American

…there are two pieces of his handiwork which may have taken a hint from “The Song of Myself” and “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” They are more regular than Whitman’s wandering excursions, but neither of them rhymes and one does not scan. This is “The Runners.” The recurrent “News,” “Nimrud,” and “Watchers, 0 Watchers” tie it together, and do so more efficiently than the fragments of the mocking-bird’s song bind up “Out of the Cradle,” but the second stanza surely carries more than a suggestion of Whitman, though it is possible that Kipling’s intention was only to make it sound like a translation of a Hindu song.

Notes on the Text

[Verse 1]

onest: once.

shillin’: A shilling was a twentieth part of a pound before British currency was decimalised in 1971. In Kipling’s day, recruits joining the Army were given a shilling, ‘The Queen’s Shilling’, roughly the equivalent of some £6 today, the price of two pints (or a litre and a half) of beer.

Inja: India.


‘eed: heed – take notice of, pay attention to.

at grass: a horse ‘at grass’ is kept in a field and allowed to graze when too old for work, or not needed, rather than being fed in the stable as a working horse.

[Verse 2]

Afghan: a man from Afghanistan.

‘ole in my ‘ed: hole in my head: a wound.

Burman: a man from Burma (now Myanmar).

Dah: a traditional dagger from Burma.

bruk: broke.

[Verse 3]

Corp’ral: Corporal. The rank below Sergeant.

stripes: a chevron, apex downward on the sleeve, is the badge of rank for a Lance-Corporal, the lowest rank of non-commissioned officer in the infantry. The more stripes you have the more senior you are; two for a Corporal, and three for a sergeant.

pop: sometimes used as slang for champagne but here any intoxicating drink. From ‘ginger pop’, a soft drink also known as ginger beer.

on the bend: having a drinking spree.

‘shop’: in this context, in the orderly-room for punishment

[Verse 4]

sez: says

C.B.: confined to barracks – a minor punishment for small misdemeanors.

[Verse 5]

clink: prison. After the old Clink prison in Southwark south of the Thames in London, which held miscreants and criminals from the 12th to the 18th century.

lost my tip:  failed to achieve my objective.

heel ‘o my service: he had nearly finished his time in the army..

laid on the shelf: retired.

by the blood of a mouse: A mouse is very small, and has very little blood, a curious thing to swear by. We have not traced the expression, and suggestions will be welcomed.


©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2018 All rights reserved