The Reformers

(Notes by Mary Hamer)

Publication history

The Times, October 12, 1901; New York Tribune, October 20, 1901; The Bookman, December 1901; published separately, 1901.
Collected in The Five Nations, I.V. 1919, and D.V. 1940 and in the Sussex Edition Vol.33 and the Burwash Edition, vol.26.


The title refers to a recent exchange of letters on the subject of Army Reform in The Times, several of which were signed ‘A Reformer’. These involved hostile assessments of the record of Sir Redvers Buller during the Anglo-Boer War and a condemnation of the way the army was run and its appointments made. The poem was published two days after Buller, speaking at a public luncheon, had given a speech in defence of his record.

However, we know that Kipling was already working on the text of this poem from early August; see his letter to H.A. Gwynne, Letters Vol 3, Ed. Pinney. He explains that his theme in this ‘bloody parable’ is the value that a volunteer obtains from his military training and experience in later life as a civilian. His country will profit from the realism he has acquired. ‘Trained to deal with the inevitabilities, they must…’ have an impact on ‘our soft slack civil life’.

Notes on the Text

(by Mary Hamer drawing on various sources, in particular
Ralph Durand, “A Handbook to the Poetry of Rudyard Kipling” 1914.)

On its first publication in The Times, the poem bore a prose heading, which like so many of Kipling’s epigraphs was probably created for the occasion by himself:

The men who have been through this South African mill will no longer accept the old outworn explanations. They know too much, and it is to them that we must look, when they come back for the real work of reform in every direction – Extract from a private letter.

[Stanza 1] Who is his Nation’s sacrifice/ To turn the judgement from his race: This Old Testament turn of phrase is at odds with the sentiments of “The Lesson” stanza 3, where ‘the judgement of heaven’ is said to have nothing to do with England’s showing in the war. Kipling exploited the Biblical phrasing here for its concision and weight

[Stanza 2] sleek sufficing Circumstance: the comfortable conditions in which he happened to grow up.

apparelled thought: ideas that were ready-made or second-hand.

[Stanza 3] The old life shrivel like a scroll: a catastrophic end to the world as he was reared to understand it. See Revelations 6,14.

[Stanza 4] Easy sires: more evidence of Kipling’s rebellion against conservative thinking cf note to stanza 5 “The Lesson”.

[Stanza 5] The volunteer bred to the ordinary skittles of life goes to find himself and to measure against experience all he has been taught. In the words of an early draft, he goes in order ‘to stretch his hand and know.’

[Stanza 6] Virtue shall go out of him: he will empower others through his example. See Mark 5,30.

[Stanza 7] Full-harnessed: literally, fully armed, as when at war, that is ready and prepared to act with decision on behalf of his people.


©Mary Hamer 2008 All rights reserved