The Old Men

(Notes by Mary Hamer)

Publication history

Apparently written during the second half of 1902, during the surge of renewed inspiration that began at that time and culminated in the 1903 publication of The Five Nations. Collected in I.V. 1919, and in D.V. 1940, the Sussex Edition vol. 33, and the Burwash Edition vol. 26; reprinted in Selected Poems, 1931.


A reminder that, when he published this, Kipling was still not yet forty; the angry impudence of its attack on the delusions of those in power and their resistance to change has the ring of a schoolboy’s audacity or that of a very young journalist. In this connection, it is useful to remember that Kipling’s outspoken criticism of official policy had made India too hot to hold him by the time he was twenty-four.

The speakers are presumably those officials in the War Office at home, with their reliance on outdated theory, whom he blamed for the mismanagement of the Anglo-Boer war. Kipling presents them as a kind of comic chorus, like the chorus of peers in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera Iolanthe, first produced in 1882.

See also “The Song of the Old Guard”.

Notes on the Text

(by Mary Hamer, drawing on various sources, in particular
Ralph Durand, “A Handbook to the Poetry of Rudyard Kipling” 1914.)

[Stanza 3] death’s own pale horses: cf Revelations 6,1.

scholarly plough the sands: like Ulysses who wanted to seem mad in order to avoid going to war and so set to ploughing the seashore. The use of ‘scholarly’ only intensifies the notion of an activity, which is futile because not directed towards outcomes. Kipling’s butts use military theory to put off action.

[Stanza 5] evert: turn inside out

[Stanza 6]  preposterous ghosts:  Perhaps Kipling is using ‘preposterous’  here in the same sense as in Verse 7 of “The City of Brass“, as inverted or topsy-turvey, such that one sees falsehood as truth and truth as falsehood.  [D.H.]

[Stanza 7] the smell of it: ‘smelling of the lamp’ was a term of disparagement, meaning ‘all theory’, based on secondhand knowledge derived from books rather than knowledge acquired by experience.


©Mary Hamer 2007 All rights reserved