The Story of Tommy

(notes by Philip Holberton, drawing on the work of Andrew Rutherford and Thomas Pinney)


Published in the Civil and Military Gazette (CMG), 29 September 1884, with the subtitle ‘A Story without a Moral’ and signature “E. M.” Pinney writes of this signature:

The initials stand for “Esau Mull”, a pseudonym that RK had used from May, 1884. It is the most frequently-used of his many pseudonyms, for he typically used it to sign his many “Week in Lahore” columns. A ‘Mull’, short for ‘mulligatawny’, is a slang term for a Madras civil servant. ‘Esau’ presumably stands for ‘exile’.

The poem is further authenticated by its inclusion in Scrapbook 1 of Kipling’s own press cuttings (in the Kipling Papers at the University of Sussex Special Collections). It was never collected by Kipling but is to be found in Rutherford (p. 257) and Pinney (p. 1734).

The Poem

Rutherford notes that there were frequent reports in the Anglo-Indian press of shooting incidents involving British soldiers. On 26 September 1884, for example, the CMG carried a report of an outrage at Mooltan, in which three soldiers of the Manchester Regiment had wandered out with rifles and ammunition and shot at various Indians, killing one.

It seems that the men were mad with drink at the time….

Other cases involved the murder of fellow soldiers. In 1887, in an attempt to check such incidents, the Commander-in-Chief ended the practice of requiring soldiers always to be in possession of ball cartridges.

Louis Cornell (p. 83) comments:

“The Story of Tommy”, which describes the crime and death of a young soldier, is indeed a narrative, but it deals superficially with a way of life in which an older Kipling was to find the materials for comedy and tragedy. Although the poem distantly foreshadows the soldier stories and Barrack-Room Ballads, Kipling seems to have judged it an unsuccessful experiment, for he avoided making another attempt at such a subject for three years.

Brian Harris (p. 108) also notes that this poem was not highly rated by its author, but judges that its merits are sometimes overlooked:

The Story of Tommy is a young man’s poem which showed signs of promise, for example in its repetition of the significant phrase ‘Tommy aged twenty’ and the interposition at a critical moment of the incongruous, ‘Late night owls are chuckling.’

Notwithstanding the sub-title, the poem exemplifies how small human weaknesses can build up into tragedy. Drowsiness caused the coolie to fall asleep on duty; drowsiness and drink caused Tommy to believe that discharging his rifle was just a jape. The result was a double tragedy which the authorities could not afford to overlook .

At the heart of the poem is compassion, the theme that was to run through almost all Kipling’s serious verse, even a trifle like this written by a young man of only nineteen Summers.

Jan Montefiore agrees with Harris:

I think he’s right, though I also think the way the unfortunate punkah-wallah is treated as a mere pawn in the story is heartlessly racist; lots of sympathy for Tommy, none for the victim, who might well have dependents.

See also “In the Matter of a Private” (1888), published four years later, in which an inarticulate private shoots his tormentor Simmonds, also in the hot weather, and also without really knowing what he’s doing; Kipling calls it ‘a form of hysteria’. [J.M.]

Also: “Black Jack” (1888) in Soldiers Three, and “Danny Deever” (1890).


Notes on the Text

[Verse 3]

Zor se kencho you soor Pull hard, you pig!

Kencho you budzart, kench pull, you blackguard, pull.

Kipling was aware from his talks with private soldiers of how terrifying the nights could be in the hot season. Witness the Soldiers Three in “With the Main Guard” (1888) on a June night:

‘The worrst night that iver I remimber. Eyah! Is all Hell loose this tide?’said Mulvaney. A puff of burning wind lashed through the wicket-gate like a wave of the sea, and Ortheris swore.

‘Are ye more heasy, Jock?’ he said to Learoyd. ‘Put yer ’ead between your legs. It’ll go orf in a minute.’

‘Ah doan’t care. Ah would not care, but ma heart is plaayin’ tivvy-tivvy on ma ribs. Let ma die! Oh, leave ma die!’ groaned the huge Yorkshireman, who was feeling the heat acutely, being of fleshy build. (Soldiers Three p. 56.)

[Verse 4]

pickets in this case, rifle cartridges.

Verse 6]

padris Usually padres. Regimental chaplains, priests.


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