Reading the Will


(notes by John McGivering and John Radcliffe)


Its first publication was in Schoolboy Lyrics in Lahore in 1881, in an edition of around fifty arranged by his mother the year before Rudyard’s arrival in the city at the age of sixteen, to work as a journalist. It is listed in ORG as No 27. It is one of a group of 32 poems bound in manuscript, dated 1882, under the title Sundry Phansies (see ORG p. 5022).

Collected in:

  • The Outward Bound Edition vol xvii (1900)
  • Edition de Luxe vol xviii (1900)
  • The Sussex Edition vol xxxv (1939)
  • The Burwash Edition vol xxviii (1941)
  • Early Verse by Rudyard Kipling (1986) Ed. Rutherford
  • Cambridge Edition (2013 Ed. Pinney) p. 1165.

The poem

This is the young poet in pessimistic mood, offering a Dickensian picture of interested parties gathering for the reading of the will of an unlamented but evidently wealthy figure. The picture it paints is unremittingly bleak, of jealousy, suspicion, venom, and greed. An unpleasant account of the death of an evil character and the equally unpleasant people who are waiting for the reading in the hope that they will benefit from it.

It may have been informed by some of the feelings in the young Kipling about his ill-treatment by his foster-mother in the ‘House of Desolation’ at Southsea before he attended United Services College, and perhaps by the bullying he then experienced as a new boy at the school.

Notes on the Text

[line 3] abhorred: hated.

[line 4] the bell: a single bell is often tolled (rung at regular intervals.) at funerals.

[line 5] cake: refreshment is available after the funeral; the family solicitor is about to read the will to those attending amid speculation as to the identity of the beneficiaries. See line 27 below.

[line 6] ferret-eyed: The ferret (Mustela putorius furo) is a small sharp-eyed agile and inquisitive creature, a member of the weasel family.

[line 7] slake: black was worn for the funeral and for a year following the death, being replaced by other dark colours (‘half mourning’), often purple or dark green trimmed with black. Later the person would ‘come out of mourning’, and wear bright colours again. The closer relation the mourner was, the more mourning costume was required and the longer the period of deep mourning.

[line 27] wiled: the use of cunning and probably dishonest behaviour to lead a person to benefit somebody – in this case to make a will in the favour of the former “housekeeper” who is assumed to have had an affair with the testator.

[J McG/J.R.]

©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2017 All rights reserved