A Servant when he Reigneth

(notes edited by John McGivering and John Radcliffe)



The first three verses were first published untitled with the article “Labour” in the Morning Post on April 9th 1908, and in Collier’s Weekly on April 11th; one of eight “Letters to the Family” on Kipling’s visit to Canada in 1907. ORG No. 915.

Later collected in:

  • Songs from Books (1912)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition Vol. 24 p. 171 (three verses), and Vol. 34 p. 85 (five verses)
  • Burwash Edition Vols 19 (three verses) and 27 (five verses)
  • Wordsworth Edition Poems of Rudyard Kipling (2001)
  • Cambridge Edition (2013 Ed. Pinney) p. 742.


As Alastair Wilson explains in his notes, the article linked to this poem is concerned with industrial conditions in British Columbia, the shortage of skilled labour, the issue of immigration from Japan and China, and what Kipling sees as the unreasonable attitudes of the labour unions. It is this last factor that Kipling is mainly addressing in this poem.

Like many of the readers of the Morning Post and many politicians of the right in Britain, Kipling was generally hostile to trades unions, seeing them as a subversive force holding back progress and prosperity. This was a time of considerable industrial unrest in the United Kingdom, as Kipling was well aware. [A.J.W.]

See “A Walking Delegate” (1894) in The Day’s Work, “The Mother Hive” (1908) in Actions and Reactions, and “The Wrong Thing” (1909) in Rewards and Fairies (p. 59 line 28).

See also An American

Notes on the Text


“A Servant when he Reigneth”: This is from chapter 30 of the Book of Proverbs, verses 21 to 23, from the Old Testament, the first part of the Christian Bible. Written between 1200 and 100 BCE, it includes the creation myths, history, law, prophecy, and wisdom of the ancient people of Israel.

The Book of Proverbs (“Proverbs of Solomon”) is a collection of moral precepts for right conduct, mainly based on the principle that submission to the will of God is the beginning of wisdom. Brought up, as he was for some five years, by a strictly evangelical foster mother, Rudyard absorbed many biblical texts at an impressionable age. His works are full of them.

[Verse 1]

Agur: the author of Proverbs 30, son of Jakeh. Nothing more is known of either of them.

brook: a word of many meanings, here ‘to put up with’, ‘to endure’.

[Verse 2]

Handmaid: an obsolete name for a maidservant.

May bear a babe and mend:   See 1 Timothy 2.11-15:[D.H.]

 A woman[a] should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man;[b] she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve.  And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 1But women[c] will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

[Verse 3]

broil: usually a cooking method, but here signifying a quarrel or dispute.

His feet are swift to tumult:  See Romans 3.15:

Their feet are swift to shed blood

St Paul is quoting Isaiah 59.7, but the King James Version text there reads Their feet run to evil   [D.H.]

[Verse 5]

more than ever slave: Under Roman law everything a slave owned became the property of his owner, a tradition that survived many centuries, into modern times.


[J McG/J.R.]

©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2017 All rights reserved