First published in Three Poems by Rudyard Kipling (1911) where it was originally called “The Pirates of England”, and shortly after in A School History of England (1911) by C.R.L. Fletcher and Rudyard Kipling. In the School History the poem is placed at the start of Chapter II, ‘Saxon England.’ The title has since remained the same, though Harbord gives ‘The Picts’ Work’ as an alternative title [ORG, Verse 1 (1969) 973 (c).].
The sub-title was only introduced in I.V., 1919, and the poem was then subsequently reprinted in D.V., the Sussex Edition, vol. 34, and the Burwash Edition vol. 27.
In line 4 of the poem in both Three Poems and A School History the word ‘British’ was used instead of ‘English’: this was first changed in I.V. For the Sussex Edition, there was one small change to the text, with a comma being inserted at the close of line 11.
‘The Pirates in England’ evokes the unruly period of history between the departure of the Romans from Britain and the establishment of Saxon England. Both Fletcher and Kipling regretted that the Romans limited their civilising mission to England, that they never invaded Ireland and did not move decisively into Scotland. In Fletcher’s blunt words:
It was…a misfortune for Britain that Rome never conquered the whole island. A School History, p. 21.
The benefits of Roman civilisation, though, had to be maintained by military power. Once the Roman army withdrew, England was left at the mercy of various marauding tribes. In Fletcher’s words, these included:
Celtic Picts from the North, Celtic Scots from Ireland; [and]…down the northeast wind came terrible “Englishmen,” “Saxons,” from the shores of North Germany and Denmark.’ A School History, p. 24.
Closely related to this poem are two short stories “On the Great Wall” and “The Winged Hats” in Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906). Roman power is portrayed as in irreversible decline and under attack by the Picts on land and by the ‘Winged Hats’ from the sea. Neither of these invading powers is capable of overthrowing the Romans. Instead they are constantly involved in irritating skirmishes; attacking and retreating, waiting for the Romans to leave. Of particular relevance to Kipling’s attitude on this topic is the poem called “A Pict Song” which serves as the closing frame to “The Winged Hats.”
©Peter Keating 2006 All rights reserved