The Pillow Fight

(notes by John McGivering and John Radcliffe)


Signed ‘Nickson’ this poem appeared in the January 1880 edition of The Scribbler, a hand-written journal produced by the younger members of the Burne-Jones and William Morris families. See Andrew Rutherford (pp. 46-7) for notes and the text of the poem, which has not been collected elsewhere other than in ORG where it is listed as No 2B (p. 5012), and the Cambridge Edition of The Poems of Rudyard Kipling, (2013) Ed. Pinney, p. 1561.

The poem

As the name implies, an account of a fight between schoolboys with pillows as weapons. This is a highly organised battle, with sides picked and a signal given for hostilities to begin, but it soon gets out of hand with a great deal of noise and dust and broken crockery, which rouses a master. Punishment and repentance follow. The young Kipling chronicles these heroic events in iambic pentameters after the manner of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, dwelling more on the battle than its less dignified aftermath.


Kipling was sent to United Services College at Westward Ho! in Devon at the age of twelve, in 1878. It had been recently established to provide education for the sons of army officers. Because of his poor eyesight he was no good at rugby or cricket, and the Head, Cormell Price, who was a friend of his father, gave him the run of his library, where he read voraciously, including a great deal of poetry, which he soon tried to emulate. He also studied the classics in class, including Virgil, and acquired a particular liking for the Roman poet Horace.

As Kipling recounts in Stalky & Co. (1899) the boys at USC were organised in ‘Houses’, each under a master – “Prout’s”, “King’s” , “Macrea’s” – as they are in most British private boarding schools. There was conserable rivalry between the houses, and esprit de corps within them. See the notes on Stalky & Co. by Lancelyn Green and Isabel Quigly. For inter-house rivalry “An Unsavoury Interlude”; and “The United Idolaters”. Also “An English School”, Stalky’s Reminiscences by Lionel Dunsterville, and Schooldays with Kipling by George Beresford.

Notes on the Text

[Title] The Pillow Fight A pillow-fight was described recently on Google as a ’world-wide sport’ played by children at sleep-overs and sometimes by adults. Such s fight has the merit that it is hard to inflict serious damage on your opponents.

[line 4] fray a word of several meanings, here an affray or fight.

bolster in this context a long narrow pillow which at that time would be stuffed with feathers like the pillow.

[line 5] rent here meaning a rip or tear.

[line 6] Insidious sly, crafty.

seamy the ‘seam’ is the stitching that holds the cloth of the pillow-case together. The expression ‘seamy side’, referring to the unseen underside of the pillow, implies something unpleasant, dishonest or illegal.

[line 16] Of earthen pitcher loosened from the stand a pitcher is a large pottery jug, which was used with a basin for personal washing in the days before plumbed-in washbasins with hot and cold running water. They stood on a wash-stand, sometimes with a marble top, and usually came in a set, jug, basin, soap-dish, bucket and chamber-pot, often beautifully decorated.

[line 19] glorious war an echo of a phrase usually attributed to the Empress Maria Theresa of Austro-Hungary (1717-1780) : ‘a mediocre peace is better than a glorious war’.

[line 23] Titanic something of great size and strength. From the Titans, giant semi-divine figures in Greek mythology, of incredible strength. The famous ship of that name was sunk by collision with an iceberg with great loss of life in 1912.

[line 32] master’s ire the anger of one of his schoolmasters.

[line 33] stripes in this context the marks left by the cane when the boy was beaten by the master.

[line 34] chastened feeling deservedly punished and rather small.

[line 35] afterglow: a warm feeling on the skin after a beating.

[J McG/J.R.]

©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2017 All rights reserved