First published Sunday Express, 19th September 1926.
Background to the poem
The parable of the vineyard can be found in Matt. 20, 1-16. It tells of a householder with a vineyard that needs labourers. He goes repeatedly to the marketplace to recruit people who are standing idle there; some only come at the eleventh hour, but win the same reward as those that were first.
On 7th November 1918, Kipling wrote to Theodore Roosevelt that the war “would hardly have been begun or if begun would have ended in a few weeks, if the U.S. had entered with the rest after the Lusitania was sunk” (see note on “The Changelings”, line 1). The story
“Sea Constables” has shown why this did not happen: the “neutral” captain in it is evidently a German American whose sympathies are on the other side.
On March 15, 1919, Kipling wrote to Henry Cabot Lodge that President Woodrow Wilson’s behaviour at the peace conference “gives one rather the impression of the Labourer who entered the Vineyard at the Eleventh Hour and spent the time in a lecture on the Principles of Viticulture and the Horrors of Intemperance, instead of helping to clean up the winepress of the wrath of God.” (See also “The Prophet and the Country” with “Gow’s Watch, Act IV, Scene 4.”)
See also “‘The Question”‘ for the US entry into WW1.
Notes on the text
[Stanza 1’] the winepress of the wrath of God: This modifies the Gospel parable, where the labourers are working in a vineyard, not a winepress. So Kipling is bringing in Revelation 14.17-20:
17 And another angel came out of the temple which is in heaven, he also having a sharp sickle.
18 And another angel came out from the altar, which had power over fire; and cried with a loud cry to him that had the sharp sickle, saying, Thrust in thy sharp sickle, and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth; for her grapes are fully ripe.
19 And the angel thrust in his sickle into the earth, and gathered the vine of the earth, and cast it into the great winepress of the wrath of God.
20 And the winepress was trodden without the city, and blood came out of the winepress, even unto the horse bridles, by the space of a thousand and six hundred furlongs.
Kipling may also be thinking of the line from the Battle Hymn of the Republic, “he is trampling out the vineyard where the grapes of wrath are stored”. Kipling of course tended to view WW1 as a just war for the English, in the same way, Julia Ward Howe did the Civil War for the Union.
[Stanza 2’] Here we seem to be no longer in a winepress, but in a vineyard.
[Stanza 3] Another, startling, modification of the Gospel parable: the workers who entered the vineyard earlier have not merely toiled longer; they have died at their work. They cannot ever receive their pay. [D.H.]
©Lisa Lewis and Daniel Hadas 2002 All rights reserved