Pink Dominoes

(notes edited by Roberta Baldi
and Alastair Wilson)


Published in the Civil and Military Gazette, March 30th, 1886.

Collected in:

  • Departmental Ditties and Other Verses
  • Early Verse, 1900
  • Inclusive Verse, 1919
  • Definitive Verse, 1940
  • Sussex Edition, Vol. 32, p. 31
  • Burwash Edition, Vol. 25

The poem is listed in ORG (p. 5112) as no. 174.

In the year of first publication, 1886, a second edition was published, in which the verse beginning ‘I want you to see that Jenny and Me Had barely exchanged our troth . . .’ was inserted in brackets. (F. A. Underwood, ‘The Expansion of “Departmental Ditties”’, KJ188 for Dec 1973, p. 8).

The theme

David Gilmour (pp. 34-5) writes that this poem:

… recounts a mix-up at a fancy-dress ball after which a wife, either from a sense of gratitude or under a threat of blackmail, persuades her husband to promote the man she had mistaken for her lover. Later in the volume, in “Certain Maxims of Hafiz” (IV) Kipling produced a particularly cynical couplet:

The temper of chums, the love of your wife, and a new piano’s tune,
Which of the three will you trust at the end of an Indian June.


During the Simla season – roughly from April to October, when the plains were hot dusty and uncomfortable – the Government of India decamped from Calcutta to this small town in the mountains. Within earshot of the business of government and the rivalry for recognition and promotion, there was a lively round of balls, parties, and entertainments. From the accounts of the young Kipling, there was a good deal of intrigue, scandal, flirtation, and illicit love-making.

See also “Mrs Hauksbee Sits Out”, and “My Rival”.

The Living History Society of Minnesota has noted:

The custom of wearing a costume or disguise of some sort to celebrate special occasions has long been a part of cultures throughout the world. In 17th century Italy, the tradition of wearing masks and elaborate costumes during carnival was a direct influence upon the 18th century European craze for masquerades. The licentious behavior so often a part of the masquerade caused them to fall out of favor by the beginning of the 19th century. Masks were discarded, and the emphasis upon costume of an ‘elevated’ nature developed into the Fancy Dress balls of the Victorian age.

One of the most popular and enduring items of clothing for Fancy Dress was the Italian domino, a voluminous cloak. When fastened, a domino completely covered the wearer to the ankles, obscuring whatever might be worn underneath…Dominos were usually made of silk and often hooded. The most common colors were red or black for men, white, red, or blue for ladies. Ladies would often have their dominos made to match the costume underneath, although by the mid nineteenth century, the domino was beginning to fall out of favor.

Notes on the text

The line numbers refer to the whole poem, heading lines included.

[Line 1] Kiss and tell: give away secrets of a love-affair. This is the first occurrence of “kiss” (passim) repeated throughout the poem, it being the event which caused the narrator to become Sir J.’s Secretary.

[Line 2] the poet: probably William Congreve (1670-1729), better known as a playwright than a poet, though he did write poetry. He first used the phrase “kiss and tell”, in the sense meant here, in the play “Love for Love” (1695). [A.W.]

[Line 4] hold his tongue: keep silent.

[Line 6] On the eve of the Fancy Ball: The setting is probably Simla, which Kipling knew well, and which was the social centre of the British in north-west India. The ball is evidently quite a grand affair, grander than might be mounted in the smaller cantonments and social centres, even as important a one as Lahore. [A.W.]

[Line 9] domino: A domino is a kind of hood worn by the canons of a cathedral church. Later the name was given to a mourning-veil for women and later still to half-masks worn by women when travelling or at a masquerade, for disguise. A domino was a masquerade-dress worn for disguise by ladies and gentlemen, and consisting of an ample cloak or mantle with wide sleeves and a hood removable at pleasure. It was usually made of black silk, but sometimes of other colours and materials. [The Probert Encyclopaedia]

[Line 12] Austrian Uniform: British military uniforms of the period had lost some of their glitz and glitter which had distinguished them in the Regency period (1800-1820), but the uniforms of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (right) still retained their panache and swagger, and a young man would readily hope to impress a lady when dressed up in one. [A.W.]

[Line 15] At Number Four: there would be a set programme of dances (Waltzes – almost certainly written valses – Polkas, Lancers, etc: of course, no fox-trots, two-steps, charlestons, all of which are 20th-century inventions). Each dance was numbered on the programme, so, in normal circumstances, when the band struck up for dance number four the writer would go to Jenny, and with the words “My dance, I think”, would bow to her chaperone – an older lady who took responsibility for a young unmarried woman – and lead her off to the dance.

In this case, though, they were going to ‘sit it out’, and had previously arranged to meet, as it might have been, ‘under the deodar outside the side entrance to the ballroom. So Jenny would have excused herself to her chaperone – she might have said “It’s fearfully hot in here tonight: I’m just going to cool off outside for a moment”. Her chaperone probably wasn’t fooled. there had only been three dances out of a programme of twenty or so – the party had scarcely started to get going, but she had once been young herself. However, she wouldn’t allow Jenny too much licence – one dance, no more. [A.W.]

[Line 16] spoon: to behave amorously; a common expression in late-Victorian England.

[Line 18] troth: betrothal.

[Line 22] gloom: With “dusk”, “gloom” sets the scene of the fortuitous meeting – almost as if the narrator were imputing his mistake to the darkness having prevented him from clearly distinguishing his fiancee’s figure.

[Line 23] a Domino: someone wearing this costume.

[Line 34] she’d doffed: taken off, removed.

[Line 40] big Political gun: a person of distinction and importance. (The OED gives the first use in this sense as 1815.) [A.W.]

[Line 42] blue cerulean: of the colour of the cloudless sky, a pure deep blue: a very neat bit of rhyming with line 44, ‘Julian’, of which one may guess that Kipling was not a little proud! [A.W.]

[Line 43] And the name she said when she turned her head: This curiously echoes the way the narrator’s experience the night before is expressed, though in reverse order (see Line 29 – “She turned her head and the name she said”).

[Line 45] for want of pice: In this case simply ‘for want of money’. A pie (singular of ‘pice’) was 1/192 of a rupee.

The modern, decimalised subdivision of the rupee is the ‘paise’, from the same root as the ‘pie’, of which the plural was ‘pice’. But to say ‘one pice’ was quite as bad as saying ‘one pence’ in Britain, rather than ‘one penny’. [A.W.]

[Line 48] Made me his Secretarry: from the mid-18th century onwards, it was quite usual for a great man to have a male Secretary. The post was usually seen as the first step on the career ladder for a young man seeking advancement, mostly in the political field. He usually became one of the Great Man’s household, and was, in military or naval terms, the equivalent of an AdC or Flag Lieutenant.

Today, because ‘secretaries’ are usually seen as being quite low in status, he (or she) is usually referred to as the ‘Executive Assistant’. [A.W.]