Things and the Man

(notes by Geoffrey Annis)

Publication history

First published in The Times 1 August 1904. Collected in:

  • The Years Between (1919)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition (Vol 33 p 412)
  • Burwash Edition (Vol 26)


The poem is dedicated to Joseph Chamberlain: businessman, politician, statesman, and one of the most influential late-Victorian public figures, who shared Kipling’s views on Empire and the greatness of England and the English. The ‘In Memoriam’ subtitle mourns not his death, but his resignation from the Conservative government in September 1903. (see below).

Kipling described him as:

the statesman who, in the evening of his days, crowned with years and honours, beheld what our Empire might be made…
[A Book of Words p. 26: “Imperial Relations”, an Address to the Canadian Club Toronto, 1907]

Chamberlain himself wrote of the English:

I believe in this race. [who] …will infallibly be the predominating force of the future”.
[Alfred Cobham, “Ideas and beliefs of the Victorians”, quoted by Bonamy Dobrée p. 80].

The poem also expresses Kipling’s admiration for achievers; leaders and men of action. “The Pro-Consuls” (also in The Years Between) is dedicated to Lord Alfred Milner, High Commissioner to South Africa and the man behind the British war against the Boers, which Kipling had warmly supported.

:Kipling’s imperial Pro-Consuls

“Lord Roberts” (again in The Years Between) is a tribute to the celebrated soldier who defeated the Boers.

“The Burial”, in The Five Nations, commemorates Cecil Rhodes, the dedicated Empire-builder in Southern Africa, in tones similar to those of “Things and the Man”:

Dreamer devout, by vision led
Beyond our guess or reach
The travail of his spirit bred
Cities in place of speech.

The use of a capital letter for “Man” in the title echoes that in “If—” , which expresses his view of the qualities that make great leaders:

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

The word “Things” also widens the poem’s sub-text. In “Weland’s Sword” the opening story of Puck of Pook’s Hill, (1906), when Puck is conjured up by Dan and Una, he says: ‘…all the People of the Hill are gone. I’m the only one left. I’m Puck, the oldest Old Thing in England” (p 8).

And “When Earth’s Last Picture is Painted” (“L’Envoi” to The Seven Seas, 1897) concludes with:

And only the Master shall praise us,and only the Master shall blame;
And no one shall work for money, and no one shall work for fame,
But each for the joy of working, and each, in his separate star,
Shall draw the Thing as he sees It for the God of Things as They Are!

Bonamy Dobrée (p 73) refers to the Empire-builder’s selflessness and sense of responsibility in Kipling as: ‘a Thing bigger than man’s self for which a man could renounce himself’.

And in “The Runes on Weland’s Sword”, the sword is a symbol of power, but:

It is not given
For goods or gear,
But for The Thing


Joseph Chamberlain (1836-1914) came to prominence as a radically reforming Mayor of Birmingham in 1873, doing much to improve the city. Like Winston Churchill, he began his political career as a Liberal, becoming President of the Board of Trade in Gladstone’s Government of 1880. However, he broke with the Liberals on the issue of Home Rule for Ireland, believing, like Kipling (see “Ulster” and “The Covenant”) that it would weaken the Empire.

In 1895, he became Colonial Secretary in a Conservative-Unionist government, armed with a vision of the Empire as a Federation of English-speaking nations. In 1899, urged on by Alfred Milner, he persuaded the Cabinet that war with the Boers, to secure British supremacy in Southern Africa—another cause espoused by Kipling—was necessary.

After the South African War, to bind the Empire closer together, Chamberlain mounted a vigorous public campaign for ‘Imperial Preference’, by which imports from countries outside it would face tariffs, and become more expensive. But he failed to win over his colleagues within the Government, and in September 1903 he resigned. As
Philip Mallett notes:

The Imperialists had won the war, but not the battle for hearts and minds.

After Chamberlain had left office Kipling was unimpressed by the Conservative leadership, still less by the Liberals, hence the elegiac tone of this poem. In 1906, the year in which the Conservatives went out of office, Chamberlain suffered a stroke which ended his career.

Notes on the Text


Daniel Hadas notes: ‘This has an echo of the first words of Virgil’s Aeneid, arma virumque, rendered “arms and the man” in Dryden’s translation. [D.H.]

[epigraph] And Joseph dreamed: more from Genesis 37,5. The Biblical Joseph becomes the political Joseph, also a dreamer and visionary as well as a leader. But Ann Parry notes (p.115):

…once again the poem inverted the ultimate outcome of the Biblical incident cited at the outset … Joseph’s dream … after trial and tribulation was fulfilled, but Chamberlain’s dream would remain exactly that—a dream.

See also our notes on “Seven Watchmen”.

[Verse 1]

Once…a Man: The poem casts Chamberlain as a mythical, legendary figure. Parry notes:

… it gives the impression that Chamberlain’s moment had passed and gives the poem an air of lament and a very bitter one at that.

[Verse 2]

He single-handed met and slew: As Parry notes:

(he) compares Chamberlain to a mythical dragon-slayer; a lone figure amongst doubters, “dispensing with the old order with the industrial instruments of the new.”

[Verse 3]

half a league: This echoes Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade”—‘Half a league, Half a league, Half a league onwards…’—great courage in the face of powerful forces.

The peace … strings: This suggests the idea of challenging authority and outmoded ideas.

He headed … desert wanderings: This conflates the Biblical comparison to Joseph with the image of Moses as a leader of men.

[Verse 4]

Thrones, Powers, Dominions: This phrase echoes “Cities and Thrones and Powers”, the prelude to Puck of Pooks Hill.

Kipling says of this verse:

The last but one has the moral, which may be very hotly contested by those who prefer to believe in things happening in obedience to the Time Spirit or whatever they call it.

[Note accompanying a letter to the publisher Frank N. Doubleday, 18 March 1919. See Thomas Pinney (Ed.) Volume 4, p. 544]

Daniel Hadas notes:’ The Wordsworth edition of the verse rightly points out that these are “three of the nine orders of angels”. The names go back to Colossians 1.16.  Kipling however is not thinking of angels but of earthly powers, as indeed may have been the case for St Paul.In other words a country looks to its great leaders to solve its problems. One cannot simply allow events to take their course.’ [D.H.]

Clio: the Muse of History in Greek myth; daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne.

[Verse 5]

A bolt…. from the blue: a sudden and unexpected event, like lightning from a clear sky.

When Dothan’s…..harvestings: another reference to the Biblical Joseph in Genesis 37,11-20: ‘So Joseph went after his brothers and found them at Dothan …They said to one another ‘here comes the dreamer…’

My Lords….these things: addressed to the House of Lords, in the view of Parry (p.117): “most probably the ‘diehard’ contingent of the Upper House’.

The ‘diehards’ were those Lords who were most resistant to liberal or reforming ideas. The Conservative party of the day was still largely dominated by aristocrats, unlike Joseph Chamberlain.


©Geoffrey Annis 2011 All rights reserved