Hymn to Physical Pain

(notes edited by John McGivering)

Publication

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

Verse 2

The trusty worm Echoes of Mark 5, 44: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. and Rupert Brooke’s poem “Heaven.”

[J.McG.]

©John McGivering 2020 All rights reserved