Kipling used the first and last verses as the heading to Chapter VIII of Kim in 1901. The complete poem is collected in:
- Songs from Books (1912)
- Inclusive Verse (1919)
- Definitive Verse (1940)
- Sussex Edition Vol. 21 p. 176, Vol. 34 p. 106
- Burwash Edition Vols 16 and 27
- Cambridge Edition (2013 Ed. Pinney) p. 764
Kipling made some changes when the whole poem was collected. Sharad Keskar details these in his
Notes on the chapter:
Here the first line begins with ‘Something I owe’, but in the Definitive Verse, we have: ‘Much I owe’. So too, in the last verse, ‘shirts’ and ‘shoes’ are ‘shirt’ and ‘shoe’ making the third line scan: ‘Sooner than lose for a minute or two’ as opposed to ‘Sooner than for an instant lose’ .
Sharad Keskar goes on to put the poem firmly in the context of the novel:
The reader must bear in mind that Chapter VIII is the centre of Kim’s 15 chapters and presents the very crux of Kim’s dilemma. This context is made clear on Page 203, when Mahbub’s advises Kim: ‘remember this with both kinds of faces. Among sahibs, never forgetting thou art a Sahib; among the folk of Hind, always remembering thou art—’ he paused, with a puzzled smile.”’
Mahbub gauges Kim’s trouble with identity, and his intuition is confirmed by Kim’s reply: ‘What am I? Mussalman, Hindu, Jain or Buddhist? That is a hard nut.’
The poem has been seen as one of Kipling’s rare pieces of self-revelation, in terms of his own dual English and Indian upbringing. Peter Keating (p. 24) says:
It was, of course, impossible that India shouldn’t be special to him. He had been born there; his parents were Anglo-Indian: his first job had been in India, and it was there that he served his public apprenticeship as a writer. The debt he owed to India was an amalgam of all these experiences, and much more beside, as he explained later in “The Two-Sided Man”.
It is very interesting that when Kipling addressed the Rhodes Dinner at Oxford Town Hall on 6 June 1924, he himself used this image of education in two different countries developing two different sides to a scholar’s head. Speaking of Cecil Rhodes, he said:
He so arranged what he called his ‘game’ that each man, bringing with him that side of his head which belonged to the important land of his birth, was put in the way of getting another side to his head by men belonging to other not unimportant countries.
(A Book of Words, p.243)
However, the meaning of the poem has also been stretched to cover much wider aspects of Kipling’s work. Peter Keating again (p. 155), discussing his work between 1902 and 1914, writes:
At no other time in his career is it more apparent that Kipling really was a man with “two separate sides” to his head than in this stretch of time from the close of the Boer War to the outbreak of the First World War, the period that he himself would later categorise as “the years between”. From one side of his head came the public poems on political and national themes: from the other, the children’s poetry inspired by his move to Sussex.
And Charles Carrington (p.139) manages to use it to describe an aspect of Kipling’s actual personality:
Rudyard Kipling’s extraordinary facility for keeping his interests in distinct compartments of his mind was never more marked than in his London period.
I would go without shirt or shoe,
Friend, tobacco or bread,
Sooner than lose for a minute the two
Separate sides of my head!
So he wrote, on some later occasion, and so he always seemed to organise his thought. Those who knew him best remarked upon the intensity of his interest; in conversation with friends he threw himself so absolutely into the subject under discussion that, for the time, nothing else seemed to exist for him. He opened his mind to the persons he spoke with so fully, so candidly as to penetrate their interests, see with their eyes, and enter into their emotions. ‘His mind’, said one who knew him well, ‘was like the leaves of a book, which could be quickly turned to suit the company he was in’.
Notes on the Text
[Verse 3] This verse lists the Faiths beneath the sun on which the poet has reflected in Verse 2.
Wesley Charles Wesley (1707-88) founder of the Methodist Church..
Calvin John Calvin (1509-64) one of the most influential figures of the Protestant Reformation.
Shaman a healer with magical powers
Ju-Ju the idol of some West African peoples (Oxford English Dictionary).
Angekok an Eskimo sorcerer or medicine-man (OED).
Minister a member of the clergy in a Protestant Church (OED).
Mukamuk (usually Muckamuck) a person of great self-importance (OED).
Bonze Japanese or Chinese Buddhist religious teacher (OED).
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