The Moral

(notes by John McGivering and John Radcliffe)



One of the second group of six, published in 1919 in The Years Between The Muse Among the Motors in vol, xxv of the Bombay Edition. Collected in the Sussex Edition vol. 35, p. 148. (ORG Verse No. 855).

“Author Unknown” As ORG (vol. 8, p. 5405) suggests, this piece echoes Kipling’s own “The Song of the Banjo” (1894): ‘You couldn’t pack a Broadwood half a mile…’

The Theme

The Poet, assuming the voice of a motor-car, advises the driver to be alert and pay careful attention to what is going on around him, and to refrain from strong drink.

Harry Ricketts in KJ 305 comments:

Kipling is too good a sport not to include himself in this parodic
motorcade, and the penultimate piece, “The Moral”, appropriately
spoken by the car itself and nicely guying “The Song of the Banjo”,
is again amongst the best.

There is the annoying note of breezy expertise (‘You mustn’t groom an Arab with a file’), the irritating air of demotic superiority (‘You hadn’t ought to tension-spring a mule’); the
predilection for out-of-the-way slang (‘brumby’, an Australian term
for a wild horse).

There is a perfect spoof Kiplingesque line: ‘I’m the
Mentor of banana-fingered men!’ (one worthy of the late, great comic
poet Gavin Ewart, who specialised in such morsels). There is, finally,
the persistent habit of wrenching commonsensical, even platitudinous,
maxims from unlikely contexts and delivering them as though they
were profound truths:

I will make you I know your left hand from your right.
I will teach you not to drink about your biz.
I’m the only temperance advocate in sight!
I am all the Education Act there is!


Janet Montefiore writes: ‘I’m sure Harry’s right about ‘The Banjo’, but I’ve also always thought this poem looks back to the “The Secret of the Machines”, as well”:

…We can neither love nor pity nor forgive,
If you make a slip in handling us, you die…
We are everything on earth—except The Gods’…


Notes on the text

[Title] In some earlier editions also known as “The Song of the Motor”.

[Line 1] groom an Arab with a file: rub a thoroughbred horse down with an abrasive instrument – or any horse, for that matter

[Line 2] tension-spring a mule: A mule is the offspring of a donkey and a mare, but we have no information on the tension-spring. (John Walker adds: Most early cars used a coiled spring made of light spring steel to return controls like the accelerator to rest.)

[Line 3] brumby:  a wild horse in Australia, descended from escaped or lost horses, dating back to the first European settlers.

See “Her Majesty’s Servants” The Jungle Book p. 262, lines 7/8, in which Billy the mule, feeling insulted by the Troop Horse says: ‘My father was a Southern Gentleman, and he could pull down and bite and kick into rags every horse he came across. Remember that, you big brown brumby.’ Brumby means wild horse without any breeding.

[Line 6] grade:  the degree of slope on a road or railway. A grade of one in ten rises (or falls) one foot for every ten feet travelled. This is the American usage for what is called ‘gradient’ in the United Kingdom.

[Line 7]  I am Duty Law and Order:  Kipling here parodies his frequent use of ‘Law’  to indicate his ethical code, as discussed in a number of entries in our notes.  [D.H.]

[Line 11] temperance advocate: someone advising others not to drink alcohol.

[Line 12] Education Act:  probably the 1870 Education Act, establishing School Boards to be elected by ratepayers in each district of the United Kingdom. The Poet is the only source of wisdom here.



©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2020 All rights reserved