First published in the Scots Observer on April 12th 1890. The poem is listed in ORG as No. 430.
It is collected in:
- Barrack Room Ballads and Other Verses (1892)
- Inclusive Verse (1919)
- Definitive Verse (1940)
- The Sussex Edition vol xxxii (1939)
- The Burwash Edition vol xxv (1941)
- Cambridge Edition (2013) Ed. Thomas Pinney, p. 182.
This is a question-and-answer ballad in the manner of “Danny Deever” and many others, a verse-form in which Kipling excelled. He was echoing an old tradition, stretching back to the 18th century and beyond, of songs and ballads about soldiers and their loves:
‘Oh soldier, soldier will you marry me
With your musket fife and drum.
Oh no, sweet maid I cannot marry you
For I have no shoes to put on
And then she went
To her grandfather’s chest
And got hin some shoes
Of the very very best,
And the soldier put them on ..
In the end, having wrung many gifts out of her, the soldier reveals that he cannot marry her, because he has a wife at home.
Kipling’s scene is a jetty with a troopship alongside that has just arrived with soldiers from foreign service coming ashore; the first voice is a woman seeking news of her lover. She gets evasive replies, with the suggestion that she should find a new love. In Verse 6 it emerges that her lover is indeed dead and his comrade suggests that she might as well take him, which a third voice confirms.
No author in any literature has composed in verse or prose, so full and varied amd so relentlessly realistic a view of the soldier’s life, with its alterations of boredom and terror, its deadening routine, its characteristic vices and corruption, its rare glories and its irrational fascination…
Carrington fought through the Great War on the Western Front. He wrote an account of his experiences called Soldier from the Wars Returning, a title which may have been inspired by this ballad. See also his A Subaltern’s War which he wrote under the name of Charles Edmunds.
Notes on the Text
a suit of rifle-green the uniform of a Rifle Regiment, ‘The Greenjackets’.
lock o’air (hair) a rather macabre momento mori not uncommon at the time. See “Thrown Away” collected in Plain Tales from the Hills, page 24, line 6. See also “Troopin'”.
Andrew Lycett (p.10) recalls Kipling’s mother Alice burning a lock of John Wesley’s hair she found in a cupboard, crying: ‘See, a hair of the dog that bit us ! ‘.
©John McGivering amd John Radcliffe 2017 All rights reserved