Published in the Pioneer on 22 June 1885, with the signature R.K. and reprinted in the Pioneer Mail on 28 June. The text here is from Pinney (p. 1752), based on the version in Scrapbook 2 in the University of Sussex Special Collections, which incorporates various corrections in the Pioneer versions. ( The poem was never collected in Kipling’s published work but is also to be found in Rutherford p. 266.)
A young administrator, near death from a severe attack of fever, is carried up a mountain path in a covered litter, a ‘doolie’, because (line 31) hill breezes are his one-half chance of living after such a severe attack that ‘two days ago they thought me dead’ (line 8). He meditates on his recent life, and on what may follow the death that still may come.
Pinney notes that Kipling had gone on sick leave to Simla in 1885, and had then been sent on a walking tour into the Himalayas for his health in the company of an invalid officer and his wife. (Something of Myself p. 58). Civilians and soldiers working in India suffered frequent ‘fevers’, including Malaria and Typhoid, both killers, as was Cholera; the death-rate, as Kipling knew only too well, was high.
Echoes of Browning
The title echoes Browning’s “Caliban upon Setebos or, Natural Theology in the Island”. The quotation in lines 1-2 is from Browning’s “A Grammarian’s Funeral” which Kipling’s poem echoes, though in blank verse. Kipling had greatly relished Browning’s poetry since his schooldays, when, as he records in Something of Myself (p. 34):
C— in form once literally threw Men and Women at my head.
Notes on the Text
[Title] Natural Theology is theology based on the facts provided by nature and experience, without the benefit of revelation.
JONES, B.C.S. soliloquises In the Pioneer and Pioneer Mail the speaker’s name is ‘Browne’, not ‘Jones’. B.C.S. stands for Bengal Civil Service.
Let us begin and carry up this corpse / Singing together These are the first two lines of Browning’s “A Grammarian’s Funeral”.
[line 9] Lazarus Biblical character raised to life by Jesus (John 11 v. 1-45).
[line 11] Come forth! The words used by Jesus to call Lazarus from the grave. (John 11.43).
[line 22] Three weeks ago he remembers his life before he fell ill with the fever.
[line 24] Edith his wife.
[line 37] A hair may turn the balance he imagines he is on a pair of scales, balanced between Life and Death so evenly that the weight of a single hair could bring it down on either side. The chill of a passing shower would be enough to kill him.
[line 39] Smith’s step promotion. If he dies, Smith will take over his position.
[line 40] longer than a step for me the change from life to death.
[line 42] bajra millet.
[line 62] self-condemned pass on to my new life, / Higher or lower as the record runs he professes to be a Materialist, but expects reincarnation into a higher or lower life form, depending on how he has lived his life – a version of Buddhism.
[line 68] six black swine a blatantly racist description of the six porters who have been carrying his doolie. Kipling is expressing the view of his fictional character “Jones”. He writes elsewhere with contempt about the Captain of the Fort in “On the City Wall” (Soldiers Three p. 336.)
The Captain was not a nice man. He called all natives ‘niggers’, which besides being extreme bad form shows gross ignorance.
See also “The Mother Lodge”.
[line 76] Hers evidently another woman in his life besides Edith.
[line 80] Siste viator Stop, traveller (Latin). A common inscription on Roman tombs, which were placed at the side of roads.
[line 86] life after all he realises that he is going to survive.
[line 87] My case postponed! He will not have to face the Judgement of God yet. God’s justice is as slow as mankind’s.
©Philip Holberton 2020 All rights reserved