The Wage-Slaves

(notes by Mary Hamer)

Publication history

Possibly written late in August 1902 (see below). Published in The Five Nations (1903).  Collected in I.V. 1919, and in D.V. 1940, the Sussex Edition vol. 33, and the Burwash Edition vol. 26; reprinted in Songs for Youth 1924.


A poem buoyant with the same high-spirited anger that drove “The Old Men”, which was also written around this time. On August 27 1902 The Times recorded the publication of the annual report on changes in rates of wages and hours of labour, which was issued by the Labour Department of the Board of Trade. This noted a decline in wages for the first time since 1895. On August 30 the report was the subject of a Times leader.

In adopting the term ‘wage-slave’ for his title, a term originally used by Marx, Kipling highlights the exploitative nature of this wilful detachment on the part of elite observers. For his own part, in this poem, his first move is to take up his place alongside working people as their spokesman, as just another worker, a ‘bondslave’. He too knows the ‘insolence’, ‘delay’ in payment and unreliability of employers.

But every worker is also an employer, one who needs the skills of others and as such has known what it is to be cheated. They know enough to value the men who actually perform their work honestly and with competence. (Around this time Kipling himself was looking for good workmen, for Bateman’s, his newly acquired home in Sussex, into which the family moved on 3 September 1902. Mrs Kipling remarked in her diary that the house was still full of workmen the day she moved in.)

As the engine of change, labour is the sole means by which development can take place and the world move forward. Those who labour from need, because their time is ‘mortgaged’, then, rather than those who ‘scorn the loitering street’, that is those who write so disparagingly about them are the ones who are deeply engaged with the processes of life itself.

It is not difficult to see why Kipling did not publish this poem in The Times. It may even be one of the occasions when his wife, Carrie, restrained him. Buried in The Five Nations, where it was first published, the immediate target of his wrath was not so detectable.

Notes on the Text

(by Mary Hamer, drawing on various sources, in particular Ralph Durand, “A Handbook to the Poetry of Rudyard Kipling” 1914.)

[Stanza 2] Insolence, delay:   Daniel Hadas notes: ‘This echoes lines from Hamlet’s soliloquy:in Act III Scene 1:

The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes

And indeed the “patient merit of the unworthy” is one of the poem’s themes.[D.H.]

[Stanza 3] From forge and farm … throne: this catalogue mimics the tables of ‘Groups of Trades’ in the Labour report noted above yet it also uses those lists as a springboard. Kipling’s list is more extensive, gathering in the classes not subject to Board of Trade Reports, the judges and clergy, the services, the educators, the politicians, and even the very ruler on his throne; in this way, Kipling vigorously undoes the separation from the labouring classes which was implied in the report.

[Stanza 4] achieve: bring to a successful conclusion, help the men who are over-rewarded fools to join in the struggle and get something done.

lists: as in jousting, the arena of struggle.

[Stanza 5] Gates of Stress … labour spent: the image is one of childbirth. Sustained work duplicates childbirth, in that the product is beyond calculation, ‘unthought’.

[Stanza 6] Fates … Power attend: effort and labour are what drive life, not the Fates, a concept that denies human responsibility. The rather vague term’ Power’ is one Kipling falls back on when he wishes to speak in terms that are spiritual while avoiding the language of conventional religion.


©Mary Hamer 2007 All rights reserved