Kipling, Horace, and literary parenthood


A paper by Harry Ricketts presented on April 7th 2004 at the Kipling Society seminar on “Scylla and Charybdis”, the ‘lost’ Stalky story. Harry Ricketts has taught literature at a number of Universities in England and overseas. He has taken a strong interest in Kipling’s writings, and has edited various editions of his stories, poems, and speeches. He is also the author of a major critical biography of Kipling, The Unforgiving Minute.

Kipling always enjoyed the literary genealogy game. You will recall the famous instance in ‘The Janeites’ where one of the officers, Gander, claims that Jane Austen ‘left no direct an’ lawful prog’ny’ only for the mess waiter Macklin to butt in, breaking Army protocol, and argue that’She did leave lawful issue in the shape o’ one son; and ‘is name was ‘Enery James.’ A less well-known example occurs in an 1893 letter to the American writer Edward White in which Kipling proposes John Donne as Robert Browning’s ‘great-great grandfather’..

If we play the literary genealogy game with Kipling himself, I think there’s little doubt that Robert Browning has a very strong claim to literary paternity. Kipling even suggests as much in his autobiography Something of Myself where he says he hopes that Browning’s Fra Lippo Lippi is “a not too remote … ancestor of mine.” Of course there are those who might be reluctant to acknowledge Kipling as Browning’s “direct” and “lawful issue”, considering him more of a bastard line, but that, as the narrator of Plain Tales would say, is “another story”. What I want to do today is briefly make the case for a less obvious but I think highly plausible candidate – the Roman poet Horace.

Once you start to look for it, you can find evidence of Horace’s paternity at every stage of Kipling’s work. There is his early brilliant cheeky translation into Devonshire dialect of Odes 3, 9 (“Donec gratus eram”), knocked out as a sixteen-year-old schoolboy at Westward Ho! There are those remarkable late fake Horatian translations from the spoof 5th book of Horace’s odes, in which Kipling uses the Roman poet as a persona behind which to express a political attitude or a personal mood: ‘The Portent’, for instance, purportedly Ode 20 of Book 5 with its sharp swipe at American Prohibition.

But this conference is organised around and celebrates the discovery of a ‘lost’ Stalky story. So I am going to base my claim for Horace as Kipling’s literary father not on the poetry but on a story from his middle period, “Regulus” – the first of the later Stalky stories, which was probably begun in 1908, worked on and perhaps finished in 1911, and finally published in 1917. This story also involves translating a poem from Horace’s third book of odes – in this case, Odes, 3, 5, the so-called ‘Regulus’ ode – but this time the translation is into prose, and the whole enterprise is much more elaborate and ambitious.

Sensibly Kipling did not expect his readers to have automatic recall of Regulus’ story and (nor do I), so I will give you the brief synopsis he provides as an epigraph:

Regulus, a Roman general, defeated the Carthaginians 256 B.C., but was next year defeated and taken prisoner by the Carthaginians, who sent him to Rome with an embassy to ask for peace or an exchange of prisoners. Regulus strongly advised the Roman Senate to make no terms with the enemy. He then returned to Carthage and was put to death.


Kipling’s story then plunges straight into a minutely detailed recreation of a Latin lesson as the acid-tongued King chivvies the mostly recalcitrant Fifth Form (and hence the reader) through Horace’s ‘Regulus’ ode, more or less line by line, certainly howler by howler. In an often hilarious tour de force Kipling lingers on various boys’ half-baked efforts to render Horace into English. These begin with that of his fictional surrogate Beetle and wind up with that of the central character of the subsequent story – ‘Pater’ Winton, described as “a long, heavy, tow-headed Second Fifteen forward, long overdue for his First Fifteen colours, and in aspect like an earnest, elderly horse”. Here is a snippet of King turning the full flow of his eloquence and invective on the inattentive Beetle:

‘Beetle, when you’ve quite finished dodging the fresh air yonder, give me the meaning of tendens – and turn down your collar.’
‘Me, sir? Tendens, sir? Oh! Stretching away in the direction of, sir.’
‘Idiot! Regulus was not a feature of the landscape. He was a man, self-doomed to death by torture. Atqui sciebat – knowing it – having achieved it for his country’s sake – can’t you hear that atqui cut like a knife? – he moved off with some dignity. That is why Horace out of the whole golden Latin tongue chose the one word “tendens” – which is utterly untranslatable.’
The gross injustice of being asked to translate it, converted Beetle into a young Christian martyr…

What Kipling so entertainingly dramatises here (and throughout this whole opening section of the story) is the kind of experience he was to describe more mundanely in ‘The Possible Advantages of Reading’, a talk he gave on 25 May 1912 to the Literary Society of Wellington College, where his son John was a pupil. In the course of his talk Kipling offers his own rationale for the traditional approach to studying the Classics. It is no coincidence that he uses Horace’s odes as his talismanic example:

The reason why one has to parse and construe and grind at the dead tongues in which certain ideas are expressed, is not for the sake of what is called intellectual training … but because only in that tongue is that idea expressed with absolute perfection. If it were not so the Odes of Horace would not have survived. (People aren’t in a conspiracy to keep things alive.) I grant you that the kind of translations one serves up at school are as bad and as bald as they can be. They are bound to be so, because one cannot re-express an idea that has been perfectly set forth …. Yet, by a painful and ludicrous acquaintance with the mechanism of that particular tongue; by being made to take it to pieces and put it together again, and by that means only, we can arrive at a state of mind in which, though we cannot re-express the idea in any adequate words, we can realise and feel and absorb the idea.


This is exactly the process presented so vividly in Kipling’s story. In the opening section, the boys, cajoled, harried and browbeaten by King, are shown literally “tak[ing] [Horace’s ode] to pieces and put[ting] it together again”.

After the Latin class, Winton attempts “the only known jest of his serious life”, releasing a mouse in a mechanical drawing lesson. This “rank ruffianism” leads (with various twists and turns including the headmaster’s active, benign connivance) to Winton being sentenced to a “thrashing” by the head of games, his close friend Mullins.

This series of events turns the ‘costive and unaccommodatingly virtuous’ Winton into a sort of schoolboy Regulus. As the events unfold, we see how some of the other boys have intuitively begun to “arrive at the state of mind” in which they can “realise and feel and absorb the idea” of Horace’s ode and its code of dutiful self-sacrifice. That Stalky at least has internalised the code is underlined by his apt quotations from the Horace poem. Asked by King at one point whether he and the other boys restraining the suddenly aggressive Winton are ‘the populus delaying Winton’s return to – Mullins’, Stalky quips: ‘No, sir … We’re the maerentes amicos’ [the sorrowing friends]. And at the very end of the story Stalky gleefully calls Mullins ‘my barbarus tortor’ [barbarous torturer] and nicknames Winton “Regulus” – much to the gratification of the eavesdropping King. ‘You see,’ King observes to the Reverend John and Hartopp, with whom he has been strenuously defending the importance of classics over science. ‘It sticks. A little of it sticks among the barbarians.’

So “Regulus” works on a number of levels, all intimately related to Horace. The boys study Odes, 3, 5, in which the self-sacrificing integrity of a long-dead Roman hero is held up by Horace as an exemplary model for contemporary Augustan Rome and its expanding empire. Kipling then neatly connects the ode and its imperial “idea” to the world of the school, translating, as it were, Regulus’ story into a modern context. In addition to Stalky’s apt quotations, this act of translation is achieved by portraying the school itself as a mini Roman empire. This analogy, implied in a number of places, is spelt out in a short scene in which King tries unsuccessfully to persuade the headmaster to waive Winton’s punishment:

Winton was in King’s House, and though King as pro-consul might, and did, infernally oppress his own Province, once a black and yellow cap was in trouble at the hands of the Imperial authority King fought for him to the very last steps of Caesar’s throne.

So the school is seen as a miniature Roman empire, in which the boys are confronted with equivalent moral tests and choices. But the reader is also aware (from the earlier Stalky & Co. and from specific details in this story) that the school’s entire raison d’être is as a training ground for a real contemporary empire, the British Empire. The Fifth Form boys (with the exception of Beetle) are all studying for the Army Examination. Part of Winton’s perturbation at the ‘mouse-business’ and his consequent punishment is that it may count against his future career – and that career, it is plain, will be conducted in some branch of the Army in some far-flung corner of the empire.

Perhaps Kipling’s use of Horace as a formal and informal education for those intended to run an empire (though certainly ingenious) may seem a little too smoothly worked out, too palpably designed to convince. Perhaps – except that Kipling (as usual) has not in fact allowed things to become too tidy or predictable. King may insist that the study of the classics teaches “Balance, proportion, perspective”, but he himself even after a lifetime of such study is shown to be still patently deficient in all three qualities. (Ironically, the science master Hartopp is presented as both more balanced and in terms of his treatment of the boys displaying more perspective.) Similarly, Winton emerges at the end of the story as rather a cutprice Regulus, neurotically worrying about his temper, his conscience and his “new responsibilities as a sub-prefect”. Winton is only admirable up to a point. He is, as the Reverend John decisively observes, ‘the very best type of second class’ and unlikely to become ‘anything more than a Colonel of Engineers.’

So I offer you ‘Regulus’ the story as persuasive ‘hard evidence’ of Horace’s literary paternity. But let me leave you with two more circumstantial pieces of evidence. First, there is the much quoted passage from Something of Myself where Kipling gives his own crisp summary of his lifelong relationship with the Roman poet: “C–– [Crofts the master on whom King was partly based] taught me to loathe Horace for two years, forget him for twenty, and then to love him for the rest of my days and through many sleepless nights.” What could more convincingly convey a sense of filial relationship than this mixture of forgetfulness and affection (and not forgetting the obligatory period of adolescent ’loathing’). Or, less well-known, there is the 1934 letter to Sir Herbert Baker, in which Kipling dubbed Horace “the soundest Platitudinarian that ever was”. Now doesn’t that register precisely the note of tender contempt we reserve exclusively for our real parents?

Harry Ricketts, April 7th 2004.