The Return of the Children

(notes edited by John McGivering)


This poem was first published in Traffics and Discoveries (1904) where it precedes, and should be read with, ‘They”, as it forms an essential part of the story. (Hart p.194, R L Green p.175).

Collected in the Sussex Edition Volume 7 page 309 and Volume 34 page 119, the Burwash Edition Volumes 7 and 27, Songs from Books, Definitive Verse, Inclusive Verse, and The Works of Rudyard Kipling (Wordsworth Poetry Library, 1994)

Jan Montefiore writes:

Listening recently to Holst’s setting of Christina Rossetti’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ – ‘In the bleak mid-winter’ (first published 1872), it came to me that this must have influenced Kipling’s poem “The Return of the Children”. The emphasis on the loving physical, indeed animal warmth of the Nativity – Mary breastfeeding the infant Jesus, the animals in the stable, contrasted with the glorious but inhuman angels – is so strikingly similar. Note also the way both poets invoke Mary’s breast (and the word ‘adore’).

Rossetti stanzas 3 and 4
Enough for him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk,
And a mangerful of hay.
Enough for him whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.
Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air,
But only his Mother
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.
Kipling’s stanza 3:
Then, to Her Son, Who had seen and smiled, She said: “On the night that I bore Thee,
What didst Thou care for a love beyond mine or a heaven that was not my arm?
Didst Thou push from the nipple, 0 Child, to hear the angels adore Thee
When we two lay in the breath of the kine?” And He said — “Thou hast done no harm.”

Holst’s setting was first published in The English Hymnal 1906, two years after Traffics & Discoveries, so I don’t suppose it influenced RK when he wrote the poem. But he certainly knew Christina Rossetti’s poems – he and Trix parodied her in Echoes, and in the later story “Unconvenanted Mercies” a key line is quoted from the last poem of her sonnet sequence Monna Innominata. [J.M.]

Notes on the Text

[Verse 1] Cherubs: usually represented as little naked boys with wings – the plural is strictly cherubim.

Neither the harps nor the crowns … splendid robes:   These are accoutrements of the blessed in the book of Revelation. For harps, see Revelation 15.2; for crowns, Revelation 4.4; for (white) robes Revelation 6.11. [‘D.H.]

Princes and Powers: See once again Colossians 1.16:

For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him:

Note that this time Kipling’s reference is to angelic powers, in line with the traditional reading of the Colossians passage. [D.H.]

[Verse 2] Mary the Mother: the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus Christ:  Matthew 1, Luke 2.

Peter: St. Peter, patron saint of fishermen and keeper of the keys of heaven.

jewelled floor:    See Revelation 21.21: [D.H.]

on the heavenly Jerusalem: the street of the city was pure gold, as it were transparent glass.

[Verse 3] Her Son: Jesus Christ.

The breath of the kine: Jesus was born in a stable, as there was no room at the inn. Luke, 2. Kine is an old word for cattle.

to hear the angels adore thee:  Kipling is of course thinking of the angels who appear to the shepherds on the night of the Nativity (Luke 2.9-14). [D.H.]

[Verse 4] Suffered the children to come to Me: an echo of Mark 10,14: ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.’ ‘Suffer’ here means ‘allow’.

resheathed their swords:  See Genesis 3.24.

So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.

Kipling is inverting this, since the children in the poem are in some form of Paradise, but wish to return to earth to gently haunt their parents. [D.H.]



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