The Waster

(notes edited by John McGivering and John Radcliffe)


This poem, which is listed in ORG as No 1170, first appeared in Definitive Verse in 1940, where Kipling dated it to 1930. However, a version of the first verse was sent to Sir Hugh Clifford on January 10th 1925 (See Pinney p. 1547) with the last line reading

And—it isn’t set to the Jew.

We have no record of newspaper or other publication apart from an American copyright edition in 1939.

The poem is collected in:

  • The Sussex Edition vol xxxv (1939)
  • The Burwash Edition vol xxviii (1941)
  • Cambridge Edition (2013) Ed. Thomas Pinney, p. 1431.

The poem

The poem is a scathing attack on the inadequacy of the traditional education experienced by a typical British boy of the middle and upper classes.

As the poet relates. from the age of seven, at prep-school and public school, a boy is separated from his family and taught the tribal precepts of a gentleman’s behaviour under a strict and unpleasant regime, suffering insults and enduring beatings. He emerges with a strong ‘caste’ sense of The Things that are Not Done. This does not, however, make him more successful or effective. He is out-performed by the ‘Picts’, outsiders who have not been to such schools, by Jews from outside the system, and by ‘Huns’, foreigners, in particular Germans.

The poem expresses a deeply felt anxiety about the state of the British nation, similar to the feeling he expressed in “The Islanders”, written in 1902 after the South African War, when he felt that the incompetence of the British officers had been evident and shameful:

And ye vaunted your fathomless power, and ye flaunted your iron pride,
Ere—ye fawned on the Younger Nations for the men who could shoot and ride!
Then ye returned to your trinkets; then ye contented your souls
With the flannelled fools at the wicket or the muddied oafs at the goals.
Given to strong delusion, wholly believing a lie,
Ye saw that the land lay fenceless, and ye let the months go by

That poem was published in The London Weekly Times, The Times, the New York Herald, the New York Tribune, and World’s Work. This one, no less deeply felt, but written in the 1920s, was not published at all in Kipling’s lifetime. It is thus not a clarion call to the nation, but a private expression of disgust and anxiety, like “The Flight”, which expresses similar unease about Britain, and remained unpublished until after Kipling’s death. Significantly, though, he clearly approved both poems for inclusion in the posthumous Sussex and Burwash editions of his verse.


Kipling himself had been subjected at United Services College to the sort of regime he describes, where beatings, bullying, and a sort of tribal discipline were the common lot of growing boys. However, soon after leaving USC, he had written enthusiastically of public school camaraderie in “The Boar of the Year” (1884), and of the virtues of USC in “An English School” (1893). In 1895 in “The Brushwood Boy” (The Day’s Work) he had written with whole-hearted approval of a classic English middle-class upbringing, making George Cottar a brilliant young officer.

However, the early failures of the South African War clearly shocked Kipling, and led to the passion and disillusionment of “The Islanders”. Perhaps it was simply the decadence, as he saw it, of the political scene of the 1920s that led to “The Waster” and “The Flight”.

Critical comments

Harry Ricketts, (p. 182) points to the anti-semitism and racism of the poem:

“The Waster” … nonchalantly flaunted its prejudice in its refrain, replacing the rhymes ‘The Jew’, ‘The Hun’. ‘The Jew’, at the end of successive stanzas, with ‘etc,’ The adroit satire on the English public-school did not make the verses any the less racist. (Ricketts notes that Christopher Ricks has an interesting discussion of the poem’s racism in “T S Eliot and Prejudice” – 1988, pp. 25-7)

‘Huns’. ‘Picts’, and Jews

If one restores the unstated, though obvious, meanings of the rhyme endings, thus, the effect for a modern reader is quite shocking. It is interesting that when the poem was finally published, Kipling chose to omit the original endings when approving the text for inclusion in the Definitive Verse. (He also similarly avoided using an expression that might cause offence in “The Sergent’s Wedding” (1896), in using ‘etc.’ rather than ‘whore’ in the second and last stanzas.)


He had an affection for the Picts, the outsiders, see “A Pict-Song”, and warm regard for the common man. Since early in the century he had been hostile to the Germans, who since the Great War he had called ‘The Huns’. He had mixed feelings about Jewish people, respecting their beliefs and mutual loyalty, but conventionally suspicious of their possible influence. See “The Treasure and the Law” in Rewards and Fairies, “Jews in Shushan” in Life’s Handicap, and the poem “The Mother Lodge”

It is ironic that in criticising the failures of the dominant class in Britain he should imply expressions that echo their conventional prejudices towards foreigners, Jews, and the lower classes.

Notes on the Text

[Verse 1]

prep-school: a preparatory school for children of about seven to twelve years old designed to prepare them to progress to a public school. British ‘public schools’ have never been truly ‘public’ since they have always charged substantial fees which largely excluded children from any but wealthy backgrounds, and still do. Like ‘prep-schools’ they were mainly boarding schools, which made them in many ways closed communties, with a shared accent and set of social ttitudes which marked their pupils off from outsiders.

precept, insult and blows: he is initiated into a code of behaviour by violent means, see “The Moral Reformers” in Stalky & Co. and Stalky’s Reminiscences .

seven to twenty-two: the time a young Englishman might expect to attend school and university. In Kipling’s day, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge played a similar role in preserving class differences, though without the regimes of the schools. Kipling never went to University.

Pict: The Picts were an ancient people who lived in Scotland in Roman times. See “On the Great Wall” and “The Winged Hats” in Puck of Pook’s Hill. Kipling is uses the name to signify outsiders who had not attended a public school, had not absorbed the code of what is Not Done, and were more effective and fit for the world than public schoolboys.

[Verse 3]

socks or ties: Some fashionable men held that one’s tie should match one’s socks. and looked down upon those that disagreed. Ties were an important badge of status, denoting the school one had been to (‘The Old School Tie’), or one’s regiment or club, or college. See also Kipling’s later story “The Tie” and its linked poem “The Totem” in Limits and Renewals.

licked: in this context, beaten, as in many episodes in Stalky & Co..

©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2018 All rights reserved