The Story of Uriah

(notes edited by Roberta Baldi. We are grateful to Alastair Wilson for various comments and suggestions)


First published in The Civil and Military Gazette, March 3rd, 1886.

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. 14
  • Burwash Edition, vol. 25

See David Alan Richards p. 12. The poem is listed in ORG (p. 5109) as no. 169.

Some critical opinions

Harry Ricketts (p. 90) writes:

Occasionally Rud struck a more sardonic note, as in “The Story of Uriah”. He took the title from the episode in 2 Samuel where King David, lusting after Bathsheba, sent her husband, Uriah the Hittite, to his death in the front-line. Rud’s poem presented an Anglo-Indian equivalent, with Jack Barrett being transferred by his wife’s high-placed lover from a safe billet in Simla to die in fever-ridden Quetta. According to Kay Robinson, the poem was a thinly disguised version of a topical scandal and:

‘those who had known the real “Jack Barrett”, good fellow that he was, and the vile superior and faithless wife who sent him “on duty” to his death, felt the heat of the spirit which inspired Kipling’s verse in a way that gave those few lines an imperishable force’.

[Harold Orel (Ed.), Interviews and Recollections Vol 1, p. 74]


Notes on the Text

The lines refer to the whole poem, heading lines included.

[Title] The Story of Uriah: As Daniel Karlin explains, the biblical source for this story – which his readers would have known well – is 2 Samuel, 11, in which King David arranges for Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, to be killed in battle:

And it came to pass on the morning that David wrote a letter to Joah, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. And he wrote in the letter, saying, Set ye Uriah in the forefront of the hottest battle, and retire ye from him that he may be smitten and die.

[Heading] “Now there were two men in one city; the one rich and the other poor”: Quoted from 2 Samuel 12, 1. In the biblical account, the prophet Nathan rebukes David for his murder of Uriah through a parable that begins with these words.

The rich man has many flocks and herds while the poor man has only one lamb. When a guest comes, the rich man takes the poor man’s lamb to feed him. David denounces the rich man’s greed and injustice, whereupon Nathan declares ‘Thou art the man’.

[passim] Quetta: Quetta is the capital of Baluchistan province. At 5500 feet (1675 m.) above sea level, it is one of the most important military locations in Pakistan. It was not until 1876 that Quetta came under permanent British control.

In the latter days of the British Raj, Quetta was the site of one of the Indian Army staff colleges. It also suffered a very severe earthquake (8.4 on the Richter scale) in 1935. Today (2012) it is known to be a hotbed of Pakistani Taliban, anti-western fighters allied with their counterparts across the Afghan border. [A.W.]

[Line 6] Simla: See the notes on “Army-Headquarters”.

[Line 7] Screw: slang for salary, wages.

[Line 20] in that very healthy post: Kipling is sarcastic. Quetta was extremely unhealthy for Europeans. [A.W.]

[Lines 21 and 22] And Mrs. Barrett mourned for him / Five lively months at most:  Mrs. Barrett was clearly complicit in the move of her husband. The normal period of mourning for a widowed wife was one year – and the suggestion (“five lively months”) must be that Mrs. Barrett was not too careful about the observation of mourning.

She could perhaps risk doing so, because the months would have been from October to March, which was outside the Simla season, and her behaviour might have occasioned less remark – though she must have been fairly besotted by Barrett to have taken such a risk. Anglo-Indian Society was notorious for its gossip at any time of the year. [A.W.]

The biblical account in 2 Samuel 11, 26-7, runs:

And when the wife of Uriah heard that her husbamd was dead, she mourned for her husband. And when the mourning was past David sent and fetched her to his house.

[Line 23] Profound: “profound” suggests an “unbroken or undisturbed” rest, but also Barrett’s corpse beneath the ground.

[Line 23] Repose: The ecclesiastical overtones of this word, for which OED has one definition as the ‘death, decease (of a saint)‘, reinforces the biblical echo of the poem.

[Line 28] Last great bugle call:  In Christian tradition, the moment on the Day of Judgement at the end of the World, when a trumpet is sounded and the dead rise from their graves to be judged:

…the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. [First Epistle of Paul to the Thessalonians 4,13-18]

[Line 29] Hurnai: Harnai, in the Quetta region.

[Line 31] big black Book of Jobs: presumably the record of men and their work, rather than a reference to the Book of Job. Kipling writes ‘Jobs’ to keep his rhyme with ‘throbs’, but also, perhaps, to hint at the number of backstage departmental machinations that Barrett and his superior are exposed to.

A ‘job’, in the Victorian world, was also an abbreviation of ‘jobbery’, the practice of turning a public office or position of trust to personal gain or political advantage (OED). See Judson and the Empire (Many Inventions p. 348) and Gilbert and Sullivan’s light opera “Trial by Jury”. [A.W.]


©Roberta Baldi and Alastair Wilson 2012 All rights reserved