To the True Romance

(notes edited by John Radcliffe)


This poem was first published in December 1893, as a ‘Prelude’ to Many Inventions. It is listed in ORG as No. 594. Pinney (Cambridge Edition p. 638) notes that Kipling had intended to put the poem at the head of A Kipling Pageant (1935) though he lost interest in the book, and the plan was changed by his publisher. However, some forty years after it was written, he clearly saw the message of the poem as enduringly true.

It is collected in

  • The Seven Seas (1896)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • The Sussex Edition vols v and xxxiii
  • The Burwash Edition vols v and xxvi
  • Cambridge Edition (2013) Ed. Thomas Pinney, p. 385.

The poem

The poem is a celebration of Romance, the mysterious, elusive, often unattainable quality which can make life into art. It enables poets and story-tellers to kindle people’s imagination and reveal beauty and meaning in ordinary experience, touching the heart.

Here, Romance is like a goddess, to be worshipped and sought after, a crucial inspiration to artistic endeavour, found only sometimes, and with difficulty. He writes of her in high-flown quasi-religious terms, as from a disciple.
Many Inventions (1893) includes stories based on his seven years in India, but also a number of new themes, including his first tale about the Royal Navy. and the first stories involving Mowgli the boy among wolves, and McPhee the ship’s engineer; also, in the first tale in the collection, “The Disturber of Traffic” a man’s descent into madness as a result of overwhelming psychological pressure.

Pamela Frankau writes in KJ 33
for March 1935:

… the essence of his outlook is
contained in the poem “To The True Romance.” He saw
Romance not merely as a halo cast around love struggling against
adversity or courage sustaining desperate odds, but as the goddess
to whom all heroic will is dedicated and at whose feet all
self-sacrificing endeavour, win or lose, is laid. Above and behind
every striving, thus inspired, be it great or small, acclaimed or
unknown, successful or unsuccessful, he beheld this same figure
standing in glory.

Jan Montefiore writes:

Formally, the influence here seems to be 19th Century hymns, perhaps Hymns Ancient and Modern, which Kipling would have been familiar with since his unhappy childhood, although the thought seems distinctly pagan.

In sound and (partly) sense, stanza 9 (‘A veil to draw ’twixt God His Law/ And Man’s infirmity,’) echoes – or anticipates – the much less prolix “Prayer of Miriam Cohen” (1893), the epigraph to “The Disturber of Traffic”, in the same collection:

A veil ‘twixt Thee and us, good Lord,
A veil ‘twixt us and Thee !
Lest we should hear too clear, too clear
And unto madness see !

Also, the poem recalls to me Lucy Snowe’s meditation on ‘Fancy versus Reason’ in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, in which Reason is the tyrant,
‘envenomed as a stepmother’ whereas the ‘kinder Power’ of Imagination is a saving angel:

‘Often has Reason turned me out by night in mid-winter, on snow, flinging for sustenance the gnawed bone dogs had forsaken…Then looking up, I have seen in the sky a head amidst circling stars’. [Chapter 21]

I don’t know if Kipling had read Villette. but he was an omnivorous reader so it’s certainly possible. The earlier passage in the novel where Lucy Snowe is left alone over the Long Vacation and has a breakdown with hallucinations in which she sees the white pillows in the dormitory as skulls, is very close to the experiences described in Kipling’s semi-humorous poem “La Nuit `Blanche” and the grim “At the End of the Passage”. But I suspect the passage might have been too near the knuckle for him to enjoy. [J.M.]

(See also “Kipling and the Brontes” by A. E. Bagwell Purefoy in KJ142 for June 1962. )

Kipling had written about mind at the end of its tether from his experiences in India, and he continued to do so back in England before and after the horrors of the Great War. It is interesting that he chose to begin Many Inventions with “The Disturber of Traffic”.

His posture in the poem is subservient towards his inspiration, but in public assertion of the poet’s power, he was anything but subservient, as witness “The Last Rhyme of True Thomas “ (1894):

“Sleep ye or wake,” True Thomas said,
“That sit so still, that muse so long ?
“Sleep ye or wake ? – till the Latter Sleep
“I trow ye’ll not forget my song.

“I ha’ harpit a shadow out o’ the sun
“To stand before your face and cry;
“I ha’ armed the earth beneath your heel,
“And over your head I ha’ dusked the sky.

“I ha’ harpit ye up to the Throne o’ God,
“I ha’ harpit your midmost soul in three.
“I ha’ harpit ye down to the Hinges o’ Hell,
“And-ye-would-make-a Knight o’ me!”

He was echoing what another Victorian poet, Arthur O’Shaughnessy had written twenty years before:

We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;—
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.

See also “The Song of the Banjo”, in which Kipling celebrates the power of song to inspire pioneers and adventurers down the ages, and “McAndrew’s Hymn”, which proclaims the romance of steam:

From coupler-flange to spindle-guide I see Thy hand, O God:
Predestination in the stride o’ yon connectin’ rod.

Also “The King”, in which he insists that Romance is alive and well in the modern world, despite the tendency of every generation to see it in the past but not the present.

©John Radcliffe 2018 All rights reserved