To the Unknown Goddess

(notes by Roberta Baldi. We are grateful for additional notes and comments from Alastair Wilson)


First published as ‘By E.M.’ in the Pioneer, January 27th, 1885, and the next day in the Pioneer Mail.

Collected in:

  • Departmental Ditties and Other Verses, 1886
  • Early Verse, Outward Bound Edition vol.17, 1900
  • Early Verse, Edition de Luxe vol. 18, 1900
  • Inclusive Verse 1919
  • Definitive Verse 1940
  • Sussex Edition, vol. 32, p. 45
  • Burwash Edition, vol. 25

See David Alan Richards p. 12. The poem is listed in ORG (p. 5072) as no. 130. ORG notes that in all available editions, there are nine verses of two lines each but as first printed there was an additional verse between the present 6th and 7th.

The poem

A young man in India imagines the unknown woman who will be his love. Where will he find her, in the Plains or the Hills? Is she on her way out to India from England? Has he already passed her by unknowingly? And how will it be when he gives up the familiar pleasures of male companionship for love?

All young men suffering the first stirrings of ‘calf-love’ will recognise the sentiments Kipling has expressed in this poem – where will I find my mate, and when? (This commentator would confirm that indeed she “will come in the future”, and has 54 years of marriage to prove it.) [A.W.]

Literary antecedents
Roberta Baldi writes: The poem is crafted so as to intertwine two main strands. There are lines to do with the Anglo-Indian community and setting (ll. 2-5, 7-8, 10-11 in particular), and lines echoing the literary tradition of love poetry dating back to the works of the Italian Petrarch (1304-1374) (ll. 1-2, 6, 9-10. 13-14 in particular).

Petrarch is credited with perfecting the Italian sonnet form (a 14-line piece divided into 2 quatrains and 2 tercets), and his Il Canzoniere in particular (a collection of over 350 poems thought to be dedicated to a lady, Laura) has become the model of the genre.

In this poetic collection, love is depicted as an unbearable combination of opposites: the poet longs to be in the presence of the love of his life; her presence gives him both pleasure and pain; unrequited love creates unendurable desires. Il Canzoniere is considered to be: ‘the single greatest influence on the love poetry of Renaissance Europe until well into the seventeenth century’. (Michael Spiller, The Development of the Sonnet, London, Routledge, 1992, 2).

This is the source text which Chaucer (1343-1400) and later Wyatt (1503-1542) and Surrey (1517-1547) adopted and translated into English from the vernacular of Italy at the time, thus paving the way for the establishment of the English sonnet form (3 quatrains and a final couplet) by Philip Sidney (1554-1586) and William Shakespeare (1564-1616). For a detailed discussion of themes and imagery in Petrarch, and their re-elaboration into Wyatt’s works, see L. Conti Camaiora, Sir Thomas Wyatt’s Close Translations of Petrarch’s Sonnets, Milano, Europrint Publications, 1994.

In Kipling’s poem the continuous shifting of perspective and language, from courtly imagery to expressions and locations typical of and familiar to the Anglo-Indian community, creates a final effect of parody of traditional love poetry.
Ann Weygandt (p. 53) sees the poem as drawing on the young Kipling;s reading of the work of Richard Crashaw (1612–1649) which we know to have been in the Head’s library at United Services College; (see Stalky & Co. “The Last Term” p. 218), in particular, “Wishes to His Supposed Mistress”:

Whoe’er she be—
That not impossible She
That shall command my heart and me:

Weygandt is not very impressed by Kipling’s poem:

Kipling does not specify the kind of goddess he would like, and his form is Swinburnian rather than Crashawian, but the similarity of thought remains. In this case, however, Kipling’s workmanship is very unworthy of his predecessor…

Kipling and his readers

It is doubtful whether many of the Anglo-Indian readers of the Pioneer would have identified the literary resonances of the poem, though they might perhaps have been flattered, like Wyatt or Shakespeare’s public, by the high romantic seriousness with which it invests their amours. However, like his readers, Kipling was very conscious of the contrast between the male camaraderie of a bachelor’s life in India, and the married state. See “The Fall of Jock Gillespie” (1886), The Story of the Gadsbys (1888) in Soldiers Three, and “The Betrothed” (also 1888). [R.B.]


Alastair Wilson writes: Anglo-Indian society was largely male-oriented. The European adult population had many more males than females: not unnaturally, the men had a desire for female companionship. Until the mid-19th century, inter-marriage (and less regular liaisons) with native-born Indian women was quite common, but the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 changed that. The mistrust of Indians which it engendered, and the establishment of the Raj, in place of the more easy-going ‘John Company’, together with an increasing sense of British superiority, resulted in an almost total lack of social intermingling between the races.

One result was that in Kipling’s day, Anglo-Indian bachelors lived largely celibate lives until they could go home on leave with the intention of finding an eligible girl to marry, or unless they could meet an unmarried young woman who had come out from England with the ‘fishing fleet’ (see below).

Until World War I, in general terms, the only career open to a young woman of the middle classes was marriage: and finding a suitable husband was of major concern to the girl and her parents. For women outside the middle class, the alternative was to go into domestic service, but even then, marriage to a suitable husband was the ultimate aim, and domestic service was a useful schooling for running a home of one’s own.

‘The fishing fleet’ was the unkind name given to the substantial number of young women of marriageable age who were sent out, or invited out, or went of their own accord, to India to find a husband. It was a case of supply and demand. The young men going to India, whether into the ICS or the Indian Army, reduced the pool of available young men in England, so there was more competition among the women. The obvious answer was to go where the men were, and so, at the start of the rainy season, the eastward-bound ships of the P. & O. were filled with young women, more or less chaperoned, going to India to find a husband. (There has been a recent book on the subject, The Fishing Fleet, by Anne de Courcy, Orion Publishing Co., 2012.) [A.W.]

Notes on the Text

[Title] To The Unknown Goddess. an echo of Acts 17,22-23, as Durand points out (pp. 10-11):

Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars Hill, and said, Ye men of Athens … as I passed by … I found an altar with this inscription, To the unknown God

[Lines 1-2] Will you conquer my heart with your beauty…Shall I fall to your hand as a victim: This is one of the typical warfare-related conceits of the love poetry of Petrarch and Wyatt, and continues in line 6.

[Line 2] Shikar: hunting game. (Hindi from the Persian.) Here used metaphorically to indicate the love-hunt as in traditional courtly poetry from Petrarch, through Wyatt, Spenser, and Shakespeare.

But it should be noted that the sub-title of The Fishing-Fleet, cited above, is ‘Husband-Hunting in the Raj’. Kipling’s use of ‘shikar’ is not all that metaphorical. [A.W.]

[Line 4] Simla: the station in the foothills of the Himalayas where the Government of India was based in the hot season, and the location of many stories by Kipling about Anglo-Indian society, including Plain Tales from the Hills.

[Line 5] The P. and O: the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, which carried soldiers and administrators and their families back and forth between India and England.

[Line 5] clad in short frocks in the west: In the Victorian era, young girls wore short frocks (dresses) up to their early ‘teens, as in Sir John Tenniel’s illustrations of Alice, in Alice in Wonderland (1865).

[Line 7] Will you stay in the Plains till September: ‘Most English women, and all men who can get away, leave the Indian plains in the summer and go to Simla or some other cool hill station. September is the month in which the agony of the long summer culminates.’ (Durand, p. 10).

[Line 8] where the thermantidotes play: A Thermantidote was ‘an enclosed paddle-wheel, actuated by hand, for driving air through screens of wet scented grass (kus-kus) with the idea of lowering the temperature of rooms in hot weather. The throb of the paddles and the drip of the water is a characteristic hot-weather sound.’ (Durand, p. 10.)

It is just possible that Kipling was echoing the song ‘Home on the Range’ (now the state song of Kansas, USA) which has the line “where the deer and the antelope play”. The poem from which the song developed was written in 1873, so it is quite feasible for Kipling to have known it. [A.W.]

[Line 9] The light of your eyes shall make pallid the mean lesser lights I pursue, And the charm of your presence shall lure me: another typical conceit from courtly poetry, i.e. the idea that this lady’s eyes are hyperbolically brighter and more luminous than those of other ladies he has pursued (as a consequence of her purity and beauty), and that the lady ‘charms’ the poet into her love-trap.

lesser lights: The lesser lights are emblems of freemasonry: When an initiate is first brought into the light in a Masonic Lodge, the radiance come from the Lesser Lights, which form a triangle about the Altar. Kipling became a freemason the following year, and it is possible that he uses this phrase to show off his esoteric knowledge. [A.W.]

[Line 10] ‘Thirteen-two’: thirteen hands two inches high at the withers (effectively, the horse’s shoulders). Since a ‘hand’ is four inches, ‘thirteen-two’ is four and a half feet, or about a meter and a half.

A ‘thirteen-two’ here is probably a polo pony, so the line suggests that the lady’s charms will lure the poet from the polo field.

[Line 11] ‘peg’: an alcoholic drink, typically brandy and soda.

‘pig-skin’: Although this reference may generally refer, for instance, to both leather and gloves, it is here used as ‘saddle’, ‘pigskin’ being a slang term for a saddle at the end of the 19th century. So the line refers to bachelor pursuits – drinking and riding, which would be hunting, racing, or polo, echoing the ‘thirteen-two’ in line 10.

Calcutta-build clothes: Calcutta was the headquarters of the Goverment of India, and the metropolis for Anglo-Indians, where the best tailors were to be found, and where a well-dressed young man would have his clothes made.

[Line 12] The Delight of Wild Asses: See Jeremiah 2.24: ‘A wild ass used to wilderness, that snuffeth up the wind at her pleasure’. (Durand, p. 10)

[Line 13] As a deer to the head of the hunter: The deer is another typical character from Petrarch that Wyatt transfused into his own poetry (see for instance ‘Whoso list to hunt’ deriving from ‘Una candida cerva’, Il Canzoniere, 190); a similar image also surfaces in Wyatt’s “They Flee From Me”.

Kipling is continuing to follow the hunting metaphor – he has been brought to bay, and turns to face his hunter. [A.W.]

Gibes Derisive remarks.


©Roberta Baldi and Alastair Wilson 2012 All rights reserved