Sestina of the Tramp-Royal


(notes edited by John McGivering)

Publication history

David Richards (p. 92) notes the first appearance of this poem in The Seven Seas (1896). It is later collected in:

  • Inclusive Verse
  • Definitive Verse
  • The Sussex Edition Volume 33, page 121
  • The Burwash Edition Volume 26
  • The Works of Rudyard Kipling (Wordsworth Poetry Library.)
  • A Choice of Kipling’s Verse by T S Eliot

See also ORG Volume 8, page 5370 (Verse No. 691) .

The Sestina

Raymond Macdonald Alden, in English Verse (Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1903), explains (p. 383):

This form, although originally found in mediaeval Provence in southern France, has been more used in Italy than in France, and, as the English form of the word indicates, was introduced into England under Italian influence. It was invented at the end of the thirteenth century, by the troubadour (wandering singer and poet) Arnaut Daniel.

The common form of the sestina has six stanzas of six lines each, with a terset (three-line stanza) at the end. There is usually no rhyme, but the stanzas are based on six end-words, which are the same in all stanzas; in the terset three of these words are used in the middle of the lines, and three at the ends. The order of the end-words changes in each stanza according to a complex system: thus (in the common modern form) if the end-words of the first stanza be represented by: 1 2 3 4 5 6. The order in the later stanzas will be as follows:

  • second stanza: 6 1 5 2 4 3
  • third stanza: 3 6 4 1 2 5
  • fourth stanza: 5 3 2 6 1 4
  • fifth stanza: 4 5 1 3 6 2
  • sixth stanza: 2 4 6 5 3 1

Sometimes the end-words rhyme by twos and threes.

Some critical comments

Ann Weygandt writes (p. 134):

Only one of Kipling’s efforts in this vein presents no problem. “The Sestina of the Tramp-Royal” is an absolutely regular, conventional sestina, following exactly the intricate arrangement of end-words laid down for it. Even the envoy is perfect. What is more important, it does not appear labored. It is possible to read it without noticing that the same six words appear at the end of the six lines of each of the six stanzas in changing order.

“The Sestina” is a real achievement. It is difficult to employ a French form so naturally that its rules and recurrences do not thrust themselves upon the reader. To frame one of them into a powerful poem is extremely rare. As we have seen, Kipling is not afraid to break the mold when it suits his purpoes to do so, but he is also able to do good work when he has confined himself within narrow limits. In his hands the combination of Cockney dialect and an extremely artificial thirteenth-century French form is not comic, but impressive. There can be no greater tribute to his skill than this.

This poem is still cited in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (OUP 2004, p. 705) with W. H. Auden’s “Paysage Moralisé”, as examples of the genre; and Wikipedia cites the oldest British example of the form:

… a pair of sestinas (frequently referred to as a double sestina), “Ye Goat-Herd Gods”, written by Philip Sidney. Writers such as Dante, Petrarca, A. C. Swinburne, Rudyard Kipling, Ezra Pound, W. H. Auden, John Ashbery, Joan Brossa, Miller Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Paul Muldoon and Joe Haldeman are all noted for having written sestinas of some fame.

The poem was written in 1896, the year in which the Kiplings, harassed by their quarrel with Beattie Balestier, returned to England. During his last two months in Vermont. as Charles Carrington recounts (p. 239):

One day in July Rudyard sat down and completed, in a few hours, a composition in one of the most rigorous of all verse-forms. He called it “Sestina of the Tramp-Royal.”

The poem is neatly encapsulated by G. K. Chesterton in his essay “On Mr. Rudyard Kipling and Making the World Small” in Heretics (1905) pp. 38-53, part of which is collected in Kipling, the Critical Heritage, edited by Roger Lancelyn Green (p.293):

The first and fairest thing to say about Rudyard Kipling is that he has borne a brilliant part in recovering the lost provinces of poetry … .

Mr. Kipling, with all his merits is the globe-trotter; he has not the patience to become part of anything. So great and genuine a man is not to be accused of a merely cynical cosmopolitanism; still, his cosmopolitanism is his weakness. That weakness is splendidly expressed in one of his finest poems “The Sestina of the Tramp Royal”, in which a man declares that he can endure anything in the way of hunger or horror, but not permanent presence in one place.

And Bonamy Dobrée writes (p. 174):

Whatever opinion may be held of him as a poet, it is agreed that he was brilliant in versification. Some of his verse admittedly is jungle, but of set purpose, and always disciplined, prosodically controlled. He could handle all sorts of metres, while his rhythms are complex, sometimes indeed subtle……He was at home in the heroic couplet, common measure, ballad forms; the iambic or the rollicking anapaest as well as more difficult prosodic units …

His ballades are poor, his few sonnets, though one or two of them are good poems, are unimpressive as sonnets, lacking the structural movement. His one triumphant success in an exacting form being “Sestina of the Tramp Royal”.
His long poems tend to be too protracted, though exception must be made of the great monologues ”McAndrew’s Hymn” and “The Mary Gloster” to which must be added the semi-dialogue “Tomlinson”.

[An anapaest is a metrical foot of three syllables, the first two short, the last long: Ed.]

It seems paradoxical to this Editor that Kipling should permit an uneducated man to express his views on life in such an esoteric verse form – especially when it would not mar the scansion if correct English were used: the views expressed bear some resemblance to his own life as Dobrée seems to imply. Is it possible that Kipling is cocking a snook at the critics, and showing them that he could do it, and to irritate those that found him vulgar; and, to add insult to injury, to do so in a dialect that he knew would irritate the literati even more ?

Notes on the text


tramp: a homeless person – usually male – who wanders the country on foot begging for his bread. They were known as ‘hobos’ in the United States, where they often rode illegally on freight trains. Unlike Kipling, tramps tended to avoid work. See The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp by the Welsh poet W H Davies (1871-1940).

royal: a word of many meanings ashore, afloat, and in natural history but, in this context implying something on a grand scale as in ‘battle-royal’ for very fierce fighting. Today he might be called a ‘super-tramp’.

[Verse 1]

He has the beginnings of the ‘go-fever’ upon him. He wants to up-stakes and move out. See “The Ladies”, and “The Explorer”.

such as cannot use one bed too long: this sentiment is reflected in verses 4 and 5 and in chapter 8 of The Light That Failed (p. 125)

[Verse 2]

pretendin’ they are good: an echo of the later “If—”

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
An’ treat those two imposters just the same;

[Verse 3]

tucker: Australian slang for food.

[Verse 2]

Gawd: God.

‘im that doth not work: if you don’t work you die. See “The Gods of the Copybook Headings”, and an echo of Paul’s second Epistle to the Thessalonians, 3, 10: ‘If any would not work, neither should he eat.’

[Verse 5]

the wind: See “The Dawn Wind”, “The English Flag”.


‘E liked it all: See “For to Admire” and “The Captive” (Verse.)

[J McG.]

© John McGivering 2010 All rights reserved