Added as the closing poem to the story “The Wish House” when collected in Debits and Credits (1926).
Background to the poem
The poem describes two opposed states of feeling — the severe depression experienced by Rahere, and the overwhelming love felt for a leper by a healthy woman. The latter parallels the love that, in “The Wish House”, impels Grace Ashcroft to take upon herself everything bad that’s in store for her man, Harry Mockler, “for love’s sake”.
Kipling himself suffered bouts of severe depression at intervals throughout his life. Speaking to an audience of students at McGill University, Montreal, in his forties he said —
“Some of you here know — and I remember — that youth can be a season of great depression, despondencies, doubts, waverings, the worse because they seem to be peculiar to ourselves and incommunicable to our fellows. There is a certain darkness into which the soul of the young man sometimes descends — a horror of desolation, abandonment and realised worthlessness, which is one of the most real of the hells in which we are compelled to walk.
I know of what I speak…If the dark hour does not vanish, as sometimes it doesn’t; if the black cloud will not lift, as sometimes it will not; let me tell you again for your comfort that…there are no liars like our own sensations. The despair and horror mean nothing…” (A Book of Words, pp.19-20)
According to legend, Rahere founded St Bartholomew’s Hospital after seeing a family of lepers in a London street. Kipling may also have been prompted by Tennyson’s poem “Happy: The Leper’s Bride” (published in 1889; reprinted in The Poems of Tennyson ed. Christopher Ricks (1969) p.1399). In that poem the leper’s bride says to him —
“You say your body is so foul — then here I stand apart,
Who yearn to lay my loving head upon your leprous breast.
The leper plague may scale my skin but never taint my heart;
Your body is not foul to me, and body is foul at best.”
There is also a powerful poem on the love of a man for a leprous woman entitled “The Leper”, in the first series of Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads (1866).
This poem has attracted very little critical attention.
Angus Wilson in The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling says —
‘With the new century…Kipling normally prefaced or followed (sometimes both) his stories when they were collected, with poems, often written quite separately and often themselves in Kipling’s later years more or less painfully obscure. Sometimes this is a happy conjunction, giving extra meaning or clarity to story and poem, sometimes it makes for a crossword-puzzle obscurity…sometimes it produces difficulty…which is surely due to lack of any worthwhile relationship. Occasionally the juxtaposition throws light upon the author as much as upon his work. This is so, I think, with the poem “Rahere” that follows The Wish House.’ Seeing a leper and his woman “each delighting in the other”, Rahere groans again — for, says Wilson, “he sees that passion can endure”—meaning, I think, that he realises that depression, like love, may last indefinitely.
In his Rudyard Kipling Andrew Lycett sees “Rahere”, “where love transforms the ‘faceless, fingerless, obscene’ leper into something without ‘blemish’” — read with “The Wish House” — as coming closer than ever to explaining Kipling’s ideas on the complicated relationship between suffering and love.