The Prodigal Son

(notes by Philip Holberton)


Kipling used the first verse as the heading to Chapter V of Kim in 1901. It reflects the events in the chapter, where Kim meets a regiment on the march, is recognised as the son of a former soldier, and arrangements are made to send him to school. But all the time Kim is planning to escape back to his free life on the road with the lama.

The chapter heading is called “The Prodigal Son”. When collected it gained the subtitle “Western Version.” The only other poem that Kipling called a “Western Version” is the much later “Cain and Abel” of 1934.

The complete poem is collected in :

  • Songs from Books (1912)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition Vol. 21 p. 105, Vol. 34 p. 102
  • Burwash Edition Vols 16 and 27
  • Cambridge Edition (2013 Ed. Pinney) p. 738

Peter Bellamy’s version is to be found here.

The poem

“The Prodigal Son” is one of Jesus’ best-known parables (Luke 15, 11-32).

A man has two sons. The younger asks for his share of the inheritance and goes off and spends it all on a dissolute life. Then he falls on hard times and can only find work as a swine-herd. So he decides to go home and ask for forgiveness. His father welcomes him back and gives a feast for him. But the elder brother resents all the fuss, pointing to his own years of obedient service: no-one ever gave a feast for him.

The poem is a meditation by the younger son, comparing the home life he has come back to with the freer, less refined but happier life he knew when feeding hogs.

The Bible story ends with the father repeating his delight at the return of the son he thought was lost to him. The idea that the Prodigal Son went off to work in the Yards again is entirely Kipling’s own.

Notes on the Text


[Verse 1]

bone of my bone…flesh of my flesh: another Biblical reference. When Adam first sees Eve he exclaims ‘This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh’. (Genesis 2.23)

the fatted calf: a direct quotation from the parable v.23: ‘Bring hither the fatted calf.’

the husks: See v.16: ‘And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat.’

off to the Yards: This is not a biblical reference. It may refer to stockyards, like the yards for marshalling and slaughtering cattle in Chicago, that Kipling visited on his journey across America in 1989; places where rough casual work was to be had. (See From Sea to Sea Vol II.

[Verse 2]

I’m off with wallet and staff: A wallet and a staff were the traditional equipment of a pilgrim or wanderer, like the begging bowl and crutch of an Indian holy man. (See “The Miracle of Purun Baghat” in The Second Jungle Book.)

[Verse 4]

I wasted my substance: See v.13: ‘wasted his substance with riotous living’.

[Verse 5]

knock under:  to yield, to give in  See OED:

shared their milk and their maize with hogs:   a twist on Luke 15.16:[D.H.]

he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him.

I guess: an Americanism fitting for a “Western Version.”

[Verse 6]

on any neck that’s around:  See Luke 15.20: [D.H.]

And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.

Pater… Mater: Latin for Father… Mother.



© Philip Holberton 2017 All rights reserved