Hymn to Physical Pain

(notes edited by John Radcliffe, with notes on the text by Daniel Hadas)


First published in Limits and Renewals (1932) where it precedes “The Tender Achilles”. Collected in the Sussex Edition volume 11 page 333, and volume 34 page 427, Inclusive Verse, Definitive Verse and The Works of Rudyard Kipling, (Wordsworth Poetry Library, 1994.)

Critical comments

Harry Ricketts (page 383) calls this:

One of the most memorable poems in Limits and Renewals … This poem, interpreted confessionally, offered an appalling glimpse of the darker side of Kipling’s last years, celebrating the capacity of physical pain temporarily to blot out mental and spiritual anguish. He also refers to “The Hymn of Breaking Strain” which presented his final word on his deep conviction that life constantly tested one beyond one’s limits and that it was only by stocially accepting this condition that one could renew oneself.

Angus Wilson (page 289) believes that: ‘Any physical pain or malady, Kipling counts as bliss beside the agonies of despair’.
Kingsley Amis (page 104) comments:

One of the disease-and-madness group has prefixed to it a poem … that has attracted attention less for its merits – it is efficient but not outstanding as verse – than for the light it seems to throw on the author’s inner life. Pain is seen as a sort of goddess witrh the blessed power of obliterating grief, remorse and other spiritual discomforts. This is an extreme view, and the poem certainly seems to show first-hand knowledge of its subject.

Norman Page (page 177) sees the resemblance to a hymn (“O God our help in ages past”, No. 165 in some editions of Hymns Ancient and Modern):

this powerful and disturbing poem can serve as a gloss on the preoccupation with disease and suffering in Kipling’s later years

This is a belief echoed by Andrew Lycett   (page 546).

C A Bodelsen (page 22) believes that:

It is obvious that he was not a happy man, and that he needed all the fortitude and stoicism he could summon to meet the blows that fate dealt him. No-one but a profoundly unhappy man could have written “The Hymn to Physical Pain.”

See also Philip Mason (p. 233) for Kipling’s awareness that:

physical pain might be welcome as a cure for mental pain, but it is nowhere stated so explicitly as in “The Hymn to Physical Pain” ……. To pain, remorse and loneliness, must be added a lifelong dread of nightmare…

Notes on the Text

[Stanza  2]

The trusty worm: echoes of Mark 8, 44, a quotation from Isaiah 66.24.

Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. and Rupert Brooke’s poem “Heaven.”

[Stanza 3}

lidless eyes   An image from the Romantics. See OED, ‘lidless’, b:

hours which in our sight  Exceed a thousand years  A bitter inversion of psalm 84.10,

A day in thy [i.e. the Lord’s] courts is better than a thousand”.

[Stanza 5]

Would God ’twere morn … ’twere eve  See Deuteronomy 28.67,

In the morning thou shalt say, Would God it were even! and at even thou shalt say, Would God it were morning!

[Stanza 6]

tender mercies   Another Biblical inversion, since “tender mercies” is Biblical language for the love of God (e.g. psalms 51.1; 69.16; 77.9; 79.8; 103.4; 119.77, 156; 1459.9). But see also Proverbs 12.10:

A righteous man regardeth the life his beast: but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel”. “Tender mercies” in the King James Version renders the Hebrew word racham, meaning originally “womb”, then “compassion”.

[Stanza 7]

in the deep  See Psalm 88.6,

Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the deeps

And Psalm 107.24,

These see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep.

on our beds  See Psalm 63.6,

When I remember thee upon my bed, and meditate on thee in the night watches.

But also Psalm 6.6,

 I am weary with my groaning; all the night make I my bed to swim; I water my couch with my tears.

the pains of hell    See Psalm 116.3,

The sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me: I found trouble and sorrow.

As some of the quotes above show, Kipling alludes throughout this poem to Biblical language of pain and suffering. However, where the Biblical speakers using this language are generally addressing God, asking for deliverance, Kipling is addressing the pain itself, and celebrating it as a sort of deliverance.



©John Radcliffe and Daniel Hadas 2023  All rights reserved