First published in Echoes by Two Writers in Lahore in August 1884, when Kipling. then aged 18, had been in India for nearly two years. In Echoes it had a sub-heading: (Unpublished sonnet by Keats: ‘To a Pipe’). When the poem was collected this was shortened to (Keats). It is listed in ORG as No 127.
A version of the poem, in Kipling’s handwriting, appears with the subtitle “To a Pipe” at the end of”The Eve of St. Agnes” on p. 186 of Kipling’s copy of Longer English Poems, ed. J.W.Hales (London 1878), which was used by Kipling as a schoolbook.
When published in Echoes ‘Burmahs’ replaced ‘Cubas’ in line six of the original.
- The Outward Bound Edition vol xvii (1900)
- Edition de Luxe vol xviii (1900)
- The Sussex Edition vol xxxv (1939)
- The Burwash Edition vol xxviii (1941)
- Early Verse by Rudyard Kipling (1986) Ed. Rutherford, p. 57
- Cambridge Edition (2013 Ed. Pinney) p. 1226
The poet celebrates the joys of smoking tobacco. He had rejected cigars and cigarettes in favour of his old meerschaum pipe. His only regret is that he did not start smoking earlier. (It is not strictly a sonnet, since it has only ten lines.)
Kipling was a lifelong smoker, continuing in later life even when his doctors advised against it. At United Services College the prefects, the senior boys who carried much authority, were allowed to smoke pipes, and did what they could to prevent their juniors from usurping that privilege. But on the evidence of “In Ambush” in Stalky & Co. (left) from an early age Kipling and his two close friends made hide-outs in the gorse and above the cliffs (‘The Pleasant Isle of Aves’), where they could smoke and read.
Also in Stalky & Co. (p. 161) they have a disastrous experiment with a cheroot, which makes them extremely sick, rather like the cigar in Captains Courageous (p. 9) which causes Harvey Cheyne to fall overboard from a liner in mid Atlantic, at the start of his life-changing adventures as a fisherman.
Kipling also wrote affectionately of smoking in “The Maid of the Meerschaun” (1884) and “The Betrothed” (1888), in which he coined the notorious phrase: ‘A woman is only a woman, but a good Cigar is a Smoke.’. Of his journey back from India to England via Burma, Japan, and America in 1889, he advised the future traveller:
Above all, he should bring with him thousands of cheroots—enough to serve him till he reaches ’Frisco. Singapur is the last place on the line where you can buy Burmas. Beyond that point wicked men sell Manila cigars with fancy names for ten, and Havanas for thirty-five, cents. No one inspects your boxes till you reach ’Frisco. Bring, therefore, at least one thousand cheroots.
(From Sea to Sea vol. I, p. 456)
See also the loving description of the tobacconist’s shop of Mr Burges in “In the Interests of the Brethren” (Debits and Credits pp. 59/60).
Kipling left United Services College in July 1882, and in October became Assistant Editor of the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore. Two years later he published Echoes there with his sister ‘Trix’. See our notes on “A Vision of India” for an account of his experiences and state of mind at that time.
Kipling and Keats
John Keats (1795-1821) was a major English Romantic poet, a contemporary of Shelley, Byron, and Coleridge. Though he died at as a young man of twenty-five he left a small treasure trove of poems which are still read with pleasure: including “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, “The Eve of St Agnes”, “Ode to a Nightingale” and “La Belle Dame sans Merci”. Keats was much revered by Kipling, as Ann Weygandt notes (pp. 81-82) , and there are many references in Kipling’s writings to his work:
From them we may infer that Kipling is especially familiar with Isabella”and “The Eve of St. Agnes,” though his one serious attempt at Keatsian parody, “Tobacco,” follows the “Ode to a Nightingale ” in form, and the second stanza of the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” in its opening phrases. These are the ways in which it resembles the poetry of Keats. In spite of Kipling’s intense admiration for Keats, he cannot imitate him successfully; or could not do so in 1884, when “Tobacco” was written. [A.W.]
See also our notes on “Wireless”.
Notes on the Text
charge a word of several meanings, here meaning to refill his pipe with tobacco.
meerschaum a pipe for smoking tobacco in use from the early Eighteenth Century. Made from the mineral serpiolite, it provides an excellent cool smoke, darkening with age like the clay pipe Mulvaney smoked in The Solid Muldoon (Soldiers Three, pp. 42/3.)
youth born in 1865, Kipling probably first tried smoking at the age of thirteen or fourteen.
sickness smoking, to the beginner, produces a dreadful feeling of nausea, usually followed by vomiting.
Manilla a choice cigar from the Philippines where they also grow a very fine hemp for making ropes. See “A Smoke of Manilla” (Abaft the Funnel).
cigarettes The most common way of smoking today throughout the world. First made in the United States, they came to Europe in the mid-nineteenth Century.
Havana a fine cigar from Cuba
©John McGivering Philip Holberton, and John Radcliffe 2019 All rights reserved