The Question

(notes by Mary Hamer)

Publication history

Published as a copyright pamphlet in the US in 1916, with the title ‘The Neutral’. Also published as “The Neutral, 1916” as the final poem in the prose collection Sea Warfare, a very prominent and telling position. The title was changed to “The Question” when it was collected in The Years Between (1919) and it kept that title when collected in I.V. (1919) and in D.V.1940.

It appears twice in the Sussex Edition: in Vol. 26 as “The Neutral” and in Vol. 33 as “The Question”, similarly in the Burwash Edition vols. 20 and 26. It is collected in the 2013 Cambridge Edition (Ed. Pinney) on p. 1080.

The original title was a very insulting one at that time. The poem was written to condemn America’s stance in remaining aloof from the war in Europe. A new president, Woodrow Wilson, who had boasted he would keep the United States out of the war had just been elected. The following year, 1917, America finally entered the war. Accordingly, when the poem was collected in The Years Between Kipling changed the title and added an epigraph ‘1916’ to indicate the original circumstances in which it had been written. (He also wrote a new much less powerful poem to go with it called “The Choice”, also collected in The Years Between and printed there immediately following “The Question”).

As time passed and memories of the war became less precise, it became increasingly necessary to offer some explanation of this poem. In 1929, when The Years Between was reprinted in Poems 1886-1929, Kipling added the subtitle “(Neutrals)”. When it was reprinted in Inclusive Verse (1933) Kipling added this explanatory note: ‘Attitude of the United States of America during the first two years, seven months and four days of the Great War.’

Notes on the Text

[Stanza 1]

Brethren: archaic plural of ‘brothers’, with a strongly Biblical and religious overtone, lending weight. The language of this poem subtly appeals to the Christian tradition shared by both Britain and the United States.

If it be: deliberately formal and archaic, instead of ‘if it is’; language chosen to give weight.t

proven: archaic form of ‘proved’, with legal associations, again chosen to give weight: changed from ‘shewn’ ie shown in the copyright edition.

For whom a world has died:  Daniel Hadas notes: This inverts the Christian language stating Christ died for the world:

e.g. John 6.51, “the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world”;  John 12.47, “for I came not to judge the world world,:to save the world”;1 John 2.2,  “And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world”.  [D.H.]

[Stanza 2] Daniel Hadas notes:  See Matthew 26.18: “For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins”  See also Mark 14.24. See also the Rite of Consecration in the Book of Common Prayer: “Drink ye all of this; for this is my Blood of the New Testament, which is shed for you and for many for the remission of sins”.

This merely adapts the Latin rite (but presumably Kipling’s familiarity was only with the English one). So again, the sacrifice is inverted: the many (England, France, etc) suffer for the one (America), rather than the one (Christ) for the many (Mankind). [D.H.]

[Stanza 3]

battle-blind: crazy for a fight, or from fighting

dying with open eyes?: fully aware, knowing what they were doing

[Stanza 4]

they did not ask me to draw the sword:   just as Christ at Gethsemane tells an unnamed apostle (Matthew 26.52; Luke 22.51) or St Peter (John 18.11) to put away his sword. [D.H.]

I answered I knew them not?: See Shakespeare Henry IV Part 2, V, 5 where, on becoming king, the Prince repudiates Falstaff, his old friend in need. There may also be an echo of Peter’s denial of Christ in the New Testament: Luke 22,54-57, 59-62; Mark 14,69-70, Matthew 26,73-75, John 18,13-27

Again, we could see America being cast in the role of an inverted Christ. See Matthew 7.23, “And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity”  (see also Luke 13.27).[D.H.]

[Stanza 5]

Their death has set me free: the phrase echoes Christian language and theology. The death of Jesus was said to have made humanity free.

bought for me:  again, language associated with the death of Jesus, said to have bought back or redeemed the world.

[Stanza 6]

being questioned, denied: See Peter’s denial of Christ, above. By the end of this poem, Christ’s death for mankind has been appropriated and transformed. Daringly Kipling argues that it is suffering European mankind, humanity not a god, that is dying. These deaths are accepted in order to save the world of the future in which the United States can continue to flourish.


©Mary Hamer 2014 All rights reserved