The first and last stanzas of the poem were first published as a heading to the story “Wressley of the Foreign Office” in the Civil and Military Gazette of May 20th 1887, and in successive editions of Plain Tales from the Hills, in which the story was collected. It is listed as ORG no 265.
The complete poem is collected in:
- Songs from Books (1912)
- Inclusive Verse (1919)
- Definitive Verse (1940)
- Sussex Edition Vol. 34 p. 14
- Burwash Edition Vol. 27
- Cambridge Edition (2013 Ed. Pinney) p. 671
The first and last verses, as the epigraph to “Wressley of the Foreign Office”, neatly echo the plot of the story, which John McGivering summarises in his Notes in this Guide:
Wressley is a brilliant senior official in the Foreign Office, legendary for his knowledge and attention to detail. He has the misfortune to fall in love with Miss Venner, a “frivolous golden-haired girl”. As a gift to her he decides to create his life-work, a great book about “Native Rule in Central India”. He puts his heart and soul into it, completes it, and presents it to her, but – empty-headed and trivial-minded – she does not even read it. Wressley – shattered – abandons both her and the book, and sinks all the remaining copies in a mountain lake.
By that time she has transferred her affections to another man.
The expanded poem is almost a short story in itself, the hero goes into battle to set a maiden free, he slays the raider who holds her, only to find she is false to him. As a result of the battle twenty knights have gone down in the bog water, like Wressley’s volumes. The poem closely resembles “Heriot’s Ford” which similarly began as an eight-line chapter heading (in The Light that Failed) and was expanded into a full poem. The two poems also share the metre and feel of the Border Ballads, traditional poems telling of the brutal skirmishes and raids in the border country between Scotland and England during the Middle Ages. See also “The Last Rhyme of TrueThomas”.
Daniel Hadas notes: ‘The theme of the sunken dead knights echoes the end of the Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens:’
Haf owre, haf owre to Aberdour,
Tis fiftie fathom deip,
And thair lies guid Sir Patrick Spens,
The Scots lords at his feit.
Notes on the Text
1 closed came within striking distance.
drew drew my sword.
Reiver Raider. With a capital ‘R’; the leader of a band of robbers. In Verse 5 he is described as an ‘honest thief’, suggesting that he made no pretence of being anything but a robber.
Moss a bog or marsh, giving its name to the band, and used as a protection to their hideout. Raiders on the Border were known as “moss-troopers.”
Dumeny the speaker’s false love.
[Verse 2] The knights evidently lost their way in the marsh and drowned with no chance to fight.
Their flesh shall not decay a considerable number of mummified human bodies have been recovered from peat bogs, their tissues remarkably preserved by the acidic water. Some had been found in Denmark by the date of the poem but it is unlikely that Kipling knew of them. Perhaps he was thinking of Wressley’s books, sunk in the water, though not destroyed.
© Philip Holberton 2017 All rights reserved