The Progress of the Spark

(notes by John McGivering and John Radcliffe)



The fourth of the first group of fourteen, published in the Daily Mail on 6 February 1904. Collected in the Sussex Edition vol. 35. (ORG Verse No. 840).



Donne” John Donne, pronounced “dun” (1572-1631) English Jacobean poet and preacher whose works are notable for their realistic and sensual style.

He wrote sonnets, love poetry, Latin translations, epigrams, elegies, songs, satires, and sermons. His work is noted for its vibrancy of language and the inventiveness of metaphor.

Charles Carrington records Kipling making a special study of Donne (pp. 350, 477)




The motorist has ignition trouble. The spark which ignites the mixture in the cylinder when it is adequately compressed can be advanced or retarded by a lever on the steering-wheel until the optimum is reached; there is also a ‘make-and-break’ which provides electricity from the magneto when required, with contacts which must be kept clean. (See The Motor Manual, Temple Press Ltd., 22nd Edition. c. 1920, chapter 4.) Having diagnosed the trouble, the motorist must carry out repairs at the roadside, rain or shine, as related in “The Prophet and the Country” (Debits and Credits, p. 182, line 10 and p. 200, line 21), and in other motoring stories.
Ann Weygandt comments (pp. 46/47):

…it is interesting to note the evidence of a re-reading of Donne cropping up in Kipling’s work in the early nineties … Yet when he went about to parody his elder, he certainly did not select one of his smoother passages for imitation. He may have thought stanza 35III of the “First Song” of “The Progresse of the Soule” especially suited to a burlesque in which an automobile must be concerned, but it was evidently not suited to draw out his own powers of mimicry.

Since Donne’s name stands at its head … we cannot fail to
recognize its object, but it does not immediately and inevitably suggest Donne to us. Kipling is not imitating the best, or the best-known Donne, and he has tied himself down to a specific model; consequently, his work suffers.

Notes on the text

[Subitle]  XVIth Circuit:   The implication is that the spark goes through many circuits, just as the soul in Donne’s poem is incarnated in many beings. But there’s probably also an automotive joke, perhaps the circuits of a race, or the circuits made by the “metalled crank” of l.3. [D.H.]

[Line 3] he swears/ That turns a metalled crank: He curses as he swings the metal starting handle. In the days before starter motors got engines going at the press of a button it was necessary to turn the engine over by hand with a handle inserted beneath the radiator. This was a tiresome procedure if the timing was not well adjusted and the engine was unwilling to start.

[Line 10]   to file contacts :  I take “contacts'” to be the ‘make-and-break’circuit which provides electricity from the magneto when required, with contacts that must be kept clean, perhaps with a file.  [D.H.]



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