A School Song

(notes by Philip Holberton)



Published, without title, in Harper’s Weekly in September 1899, and as the prelude to Stalky & Co. in the same month, and in subsequent editions of that collection, including The Complete Stalky & Co. (1929). Also, with the title “A School Song”, collected in Songs from Books (1913), Inclusive Verse, Definitive Verse, and the Sussex and Burwash editions.

The poem

This poem is Kipling’s hymn of praise to the masters of his old school, the United Services College (USC) at Westward Ho! in North Devon. See our notes on Stalky & Co. by Isabel Quigly and Roger Lancelyn Green.

The stirring verse form and haunting language have great subtlety. Consider for instance the variation between lines 3 and 5 of the third verse:

And they beat on us with rods
Daily beat us on with rods…

Changing the order of two tiny words not only alters the rhythm, but it also changes the meaning too: beat on us makes “us” just the recipients of punishment, “beat us on” implies purpose in the beating, to drive “us” towards the goal of learning.

Some critical comments

Peter Keating writes:

Although the poem and the stories were written at roughly the same time, the retrospective mood of the poem and the immediacy of the stories creates a distance between them. It is a quite deliberate device on Kipling’s part. The schoolboys, recreated imaginatively as they used to be twenty years earlier, are portrayed as rebellious, opposed to all forms of authority, subversive. “A School Song”, chanted to a rhythm based on Longfellow’s Hiawatha” by a chorus of those same schoolboys, who are now “old boys”, is a celebration of imperial authority and service; “Save he serve no man may rule.” The teachers, once a prime object of the boys’ derision and practical jokes, have become revered for having instilled into the boys – by “beating” them “with rods”, among other methods – the true values necessary for successful imperial rule.
Ecclesiasticus 44 (“Let us now praise famouv men …) distinguishes between different kinds of fame. Some people become famous while alive, and they include among their number “such as found out musical tunes, and recited verses in writing.” Others lead obscure lives, but are no less important than their celebrated contemporaries, for:

… these were merciful men, whose righteousness hath not been forgotten. With their
seed shall continually remain a good inheritance, and their children are within the covenant.”

The teachers are “famous men” in this second sense, and are now given public recognition by one of their “children”, Kipling, who has achieved public fame through his ability in reciting “verses in writing”.

There are many other possible links between the poem and the stories. In one episode of Stalky & Co. (The Flag of their Country) the school is addressed by a patriotic M.P. The boys are disgusted by him, and Beetle/Kipling settles down to write “a simply lovely poem about the jelly-bellied Flag-flapper”, much as Kipling/Beetle now writes a flag-waving poem explaining why it was right and proper for his earlier incarnation to react to vulgar patriotism in the way that he did.’ It is also worth recalling that the young Kipling surprised his school-friends by writing “Ave Imperatrix!”, a poem far removed from Beetle’s attack on the “Jelly-bellied Flag-flapper”, and closer in spirit to “A School Song”.

How the reader responds to “A School Song” depends on the context in which it is read. Taken as originally presented, it is a puzzling introduction to the stories; if read after the stories, it becomes the distanced commentary that Kipling probably intended it to be; when separated entirely from the stories, it is a lofty, stern, hymn of praise to dedicated men busily training the servants of Empire.

Notes on the Text

“Let us now praise famous men”: Ecclesiasticus 44.1. (Ecclesiasticus is one of the books in the Apocrypha, between the Old and New Testaments, in the King James’ Bible) Here is the full passage, which clearly made a strong impression on Kipling:

1. Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us.

2 The Lord hath wrought great glory by them through his great power from the beginning.

3. Such as did bear rule in their kingdoms, men renowned for their power, giving counsel by their understanding, and declaring prophecies:

4. Leaders of the people by their counsels, and by their knowledge of learning meet for the people, wise and eloquent are their instructions:

5. Such as found out musical tunes, and recited verses in writing:

6. Rich men furnished with ability, living peaceably in their habitations:

7. All these were honoured in their generations, and were the glory of their times.

8. There be of them, that have left a name behind them, that their praises might be reported.

9. And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born; and their children after them.

10. But these were merciful men, whose righteousness hath not been forgotten.

11. With their seed shall continually remain a good inheritance, and their children are within the covenant.

12. Their seed standeth fast, and their children for their sakes.

13. Their seed shall remain for ever, and their glory shall not be blotted out.

14. Their bodies are buried in peace; but their name liveth for evermore.

15. The people will tell of their wisdom, and the congregation will shew forth their praise.


[Verse 2]

Twelve bleak houses by the shore: USC was housed in a terrace of twelve interconnected houses, with the Headmaster’s house in the middle and a hall (which doubled as a gymnasium) at one end.

In 1948, the inscription “United Services College” was still very faintly legible on the left-hand house. A plaque honouring Kipling’s time there has recently been refurbished.

Seven summers by the shore: Most boys would have spent seven years at USC. between the ages of eleven and eighteen. Kipling arrived in January 1878 (aged just twelve) and left for India in July 1882 at sixteen.

[Verse 3]

they beat on us with rods: Corporal punishment was certainly a feature of the education at USC (and of education in English public schools generally until at least the 1950s) though probably less than is described in “Stalky & Co.” Kipling seems to have borne no malice. In “An English School” (Land and Sea Tales p. 268 line 6) he writes:

Canes, especially when they are brought down with a drawing stroke, sting like hornets; but
they are a sound cure for certain offences; and a cut or two, given with no malice, but as a reminder, can correct and keep corrected a false quantity
(an incorrect use of Latin) or a wandering mind, more completely than any amount of explanation.

[Verse 4]

our bands: the Old Boys of USC.

Hy-Brazil: a mythical island in the Atlantic; with Troy and Babylon, it gives a sense of how widely “our bands” are scattered.

Islands of the Southern Run: the East Indies? Suggestions welcome!

Cathaia: China – more usually ‘Cathay’.

[Verse 8]

the Staff and chain: surveyors’ instruments, used by Army Engineers. USC prepared boys for the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, for the Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers, as well as the Royal Military College Sandhurst for the Infantry and Cavalry.

mine: in this context, a tunnel packed with explosives under an enemy fortification, to blow it up.

fuse: the means of setting off the explosives in a mine.

grapnel: a grappling-hook for climbing an enemy fortification.

Gifts of case and shrapnel: two forms of artillery shell. Kipling is being ironic: the “gift” is war.

[Verse 10]

to serve the lands they rule: See Kipling’s warning to the United States in “The White Man’s Burden”:

Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need.

[Verse 12]

bays: wreaths of honour.

All the joys of their To-day: ‘Our masters, with one exception who lived outside, were unmarried.’ (Something of Myself p. 31 line 5)


© Philip Holberton 2012 All rights reserved