The Threshold

(notes by Gillian Sheehan, John McGivering, and Daniel Hadas)


First published in Limits and Renewals (1932), where it follows “Unprofessional”. Collected in the Sussex Edition volume 11 page 271 and volume 34 page 419. Also, with slight differences, Inclusive Verse, Definitive Verse, and The Works of Rudyard Kipling (Wordsworth Poetry Library)

The poem

Peter Keating (p. 219) notes that:

… the poem pursues this theme of ‘professional’ and ‘unprofessional’ knowledge. Ionia, c. 1000 BC, situated on the coast of Asia Minor (now Turkey), initiated the developments that came to typify ancient Greek civilisation. The philosophers of Ionia (usually referred to as ‘pre-Socratic’) sought to trace the laws of the universe to one physical source (‘Matter’, line 29), thus dispelling earlier concepts of knowledge founded on primitive superstition. The Ionians were in turn superseded, and their sense of the wholeness or oneness of human experience rejected, by a resurgence of superstition and the fragmentation of modern knowledge.

See also “The Redemption Theme in Limits and Renewals, Two Different Paths”, by John Coates, KJ 260/10, and his The Day’s Work, Kipling and the Idea of Sacrifice (p. 84) for an excellent interpretation of these lines in terms of:

… the knowledge, now on the verge of rediscovery, that was possessed by the pre-Socratic philosophers but was strangled at birth. Briefly, “The Threshold” offers a sketch of man’s intellectual development. Men in their caves pictured the gods in an attempt to control and propiate them by “sympathetic magic.”

See also our notes on “Unprofessional”.

Notes on the Text

Verse 1

The pictures moved in the torchlight: the paintings on the walls of the caves appeared to move in the flames of the torches.

Ionia: a prosperous Greek settlement on the coast of what is now Turkey, the site of distinguished schools of philosophy and art which flourished between 700 and 500 BC. Taken here by Kipling as a source of ancient wisdom and knowledge.

Seven Holy Islands  This is rather misplaced. The Seven Islands of Ionia, conceived of as a group, are a phenomenon not of Antiquity, but of Venetian rule in Greece in the late Middle Ages, and the islands are on to the west or (in the case of Cythera) south of mainland Greece, so nowhere near Ionia in Asia Minor/Turkey. The islands also have no association with the pre-Socratics. The islands are Corfu / Kerkyra, Paxos, Leucas, Ithaca, Cephalonia, Zakynthos, and Cythera.

It’s conceivable that the islands are in fact standing for the leading Ionian pre-Socratics: the traditional list has only six names, to whom one could perhaps add Diogenes of Apollonia (see below). [D.H.]

Verse  3

One breath … one Matter  or an example of the sort of ideas to which Kipling is pointing, see St Augustine’s review of Ionian pre-Socratics in The City of God, 8.2: Thales thought water to be the principle of all things. Thales’ successors included Anaximenes, who thought the first principle to be air; Anaxagoras, who posited that everything started with a divine soul forming infinite matter all made of similar particles; Diogenes (of Apollonia), who said that all matters was air, but air that partook of divine reason; Archelaus, who posited particles like Anaxagoras’, but with a mind inside them.

St Augustine’s doxography is one of many we have from antiquity: I cite it only by way of example. But all such doxographies share the idea that many of the Ionians were looking for one, or a small number of, first principles, from which all things stem.  [D.H.]

Verse 4

Babylon: an ancient city and empire in what is now Iraq.

Egypt: fabled for its ancient culture.

Verse  5

the Word was stifled  By capitalizing “Word”, Kipling is hinting at some sort of unity between the Ionians’ search for first principles, and the Word that is Christ. The idea of such a unity is discussed already in Christian writers of the 2nd century and 3rd centuries.  [D.H.]


[G S / J H McG/D.H.]

©Gillian Sheehan John McGivering and Daniel Hadas 2023  All rights reserved