A Recantation

(notes by Philip Holberton)


First published in The Years Between, April 1919. ORG No. 1103.

Collected in:

  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition Vol. 33 p. 389
  • Burwash Edition Vol. 26
  • Cambridge Edition (2013 Ed. Pinney) p. 1096

The title

To recant is to renounce a former belief as erroneous. The poet used to dislike the music-hall artist Lyde and her performances as “O’erblown and over-bold.” But his son, who “cherished all (her) lays”, has lost his life in the War, and the poet now “join(s) the hosts who bow to (her) as Queen of Song”, thanking her for all she did for his son. Kipling’s only son John was “missing, believed killed” in the Battle of Loos on 27 September 1915. This poem, written two years later, may have been part of the grieving process for his loss.

Kipling wrote affectionately about the music-halls and the power of their artistes to move audiences, in “The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat” collected in A Diversity of Creatures (1917). Charles Carrington (p. 351) says:

Since childhood Kipling had been fascinated by the London music-halls – too much fascinated his father thought – and when he returned to London in 1889 he told a friend that he found them more satisfying than the theatre.

Andrew Lycett (p.592) quotes a letter from Kipling to a Captain Lewis in December 1913: ‘I’ve taken John to divers music-halls, which always make me inclined to weep but J. thinks them “top-hole”.’

The form of the poem

This poem is one of a number in which Kipling imitated the Odes of the Latin poet Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus, 65 BC – 8 BC), hence the use of rather antiquated words, and the reference to Rome at the end of verse 6.

Kipling had to study Horace’s poems at school. In Something of Myself (p.33) he says: C— [W.C.Crofts, his Latin master] taught me to loathe Horace for two years; to forget him for twenty, and then to love him for the rest of my days and through many sleepless nights.


Lyde (two syllables) is named in Horace’s Odes, Book III No 28 (translation by John Conington, 1882):

Neptune’s feast-day! what should man
Think first of doing? Lyde mine, be bold,
Broach the treasured Caecuban,
And batter Wisdom in her own stronghold.

(Caecuban was one of the best wines of Ancient Rome)

It has been suggested that “Lyde” is just the Cockney pronunciation of “lady”. If “Lyde” was a real person, Lycett notes (p. 651) that: ‘The name of the singer was ambiguous: it could have suggested a Cockney variation on Lloyd – as in the star Marie Lloyd – but it is generally taken to refer to the more establishment figure Harry Lauder, who lost his son in France in 1917’.

Notes on the Text

[Verse 1]

What boots it ?: what good does it do?

[Verse 2]

The poet’s heart had grown cold with age but has been touched and warmed again by the fate of his son, killed in the War.

O’erblown: exaggerated
over-bold: immodest, rude

[Verse 3]
vacant days: life is empty without his son

on his shield: The ancient Greeks used a dead soldier’s shield to carry him off the battlefield.

Daniel Hadas notes that this is a reference to Horace’s claim, in Odes 2.7.10, to have left his shield on the field of battle. The story is probably borrowed from Archilochus. [D.H.]

not meanly: his son died bravely

lays: songs

[Verse 4]

A description of his son’s stock of gramophone records of Lyde’s songs

[Verse 5]

His son had a photo of Lyde in his dugout in the trenches in France

child: John Kipling was only 18 when he died

[Verse 6]

When he came home on leave, he and his friends loved to go to Lyde’s show.

Rome: London, in keeping with the Roman form of the poem

[Verse 7]
I humble: the poet apologises to Lyde for his previous dislike of her performance.

hosts: the present audiences

ghosts: those like his son who used to come to Lyde’s show but have died in the War.

[Verse 8]
Gaul: the Latin name for France

Thy son – had followed mine: Lyde’s son has also been killed.

[Verse 9]
The night Lyde heard of her son’s death, heroically she concealed her loss and still went on stage and danced (capered) and made a new joke that delighted all the troops in France.

[Verse 10]
Ours: possessed

Sleep before noon: The poet’s son and Lyde’s both died young.

[Verse 11]
the Word: Lyde uses songs and jokes
To hearten and make whole: to encourage and heal her audience

Though vultures rend their soul: an echo of the myth of Prometheus, who gave fire to mankind and was punished by being chained to a mountain where an eagle came every day to eat his liver. Kipling likens his gift and his suffering to that of the music-hall artistes who hide the pain and grief of bereavement and continue to perform.


© Philip Holberton 2016 All rights reserved