The Penalty

(notes edited by John McGivering and Gillian Sheehan)


First published in Limits and Renewals (1932) where it follows “The Tender Achilles”. Collected in the Sussex Edition Volume 11 page 355, and volume 34 page 429; Inclusive Verse (with the subhead “A Song for Singing”), Definitive Verse (subhead “The Tender Achilles”), and The Collected Works of Rudyard Kipling, (Wordsworth Poetry Library, 1994).

Critical comments

The poet yearns for his first love, whom he discarded in the mistaken belief that he could do better. Whether this refers to the unnamed girl in the laboratory who was in the plot to cure Wilkes and deliberately mixed up the samples is open to question, as we are never told he knew of her existence. On the other hand, it may refer to the various girls that took the young Kipling’s fancy in India and elsewhere. Philip Mason’s penetrating examination (p. 232) throws some light on the problem:

It is not easy to be sure what is meant by the Star of this poem. In relation to the story, it appears to stand for a man’s particular bent, his own special art or skill or craft … But it sounds to me as though it should also be read with an application to Kipling himself. If so it must stand for the vision of life which he renounced when he married and came to live with folk in housen on the hither side of Cold Iron. It ends grimly – I had loved myself, and I / Have not lived and dare not die !…… The anguish of wasted opportunity, of loss and remorse, was something of which he wrote often and felt deeply. …… In a Kipling love-story of any depth, either the pair are doomed…..the passion is one-sided.

‘Cold Iron’ here refers to the story and verse of the same name in Rewards and Fairies, where iron symbolises the reality of earthly power. Living on the hither side of ‘Cold Iron’ is to be cut off from moving freely within the world of fantasy and imagination, the world of the ‘People of the Hills’.
J M S Tompkins, however, puts her finger on it when she says (p. 107):

The allusions to the woman in the tale are very brief but perfectly clear. It is as if “The Penalty” grew from some “honestly written” but later deleted part of Wilkett’s story, for it falls perfectly into place in it.

(Dr. Tompkins does not refer to “Mrs. Bathurst” (Traffics and Discoveries), but that story immediately comes to mind as another sufferer from over-revision; Ed.)

Notes on the Text

Verse 3

I Have not lived and dare not die!: perhaps an echo of “Evening” by John Keeble (1796 – 1821):

Abide with me when night is nigh,
For without Thee I dare not die.

[G S / J H McG]br>

©Gillian Sheehan and John McGivering 2020 All rights reserved