‘Way Down the Ravi River

(notes edited by John McGivering and John Radcliffe)


Published in Echoes by Two Writers in Lahore in August 1884. Listed in ORG as No 129.

Collected in

  • The Outward Bound Edition vol xvii (1900)
  • Edition de Luxe vol xviii (1900)
  • The Sussex Edition vol xxxv (1939)
  • The Burwash Edition vol xxviii (1941)
  • Early Verse by Rudyard Kipling (1986) Ed. Andrew Rutherford , p. 197
  • Cambridge Edition (2013) Ed. Pinney, p. 1249.

The poem

A stinking corpse floats in the Ravi river, soon to be devoured by an alligator. Kipling makes it clear that this is the body of a Hindu, which suggests that it is probably a body that has been partly cremated and then left in the river, one of the aspects of life in Lahore which his Anglo-Indian readers would have found most unpleasant. (See also “A Murder in the Compound”, “The City of the Heart”, and “Nursery Rhymes for Little Anglo-Indians”.)

The poem is written as a simple piece of reportage. It has none of the sentimentality of Stephen Foster’s well-known lines about the Swanee River, and Kipling does not acknowledge the ‘echo’ of any other poet. It uses the same six-line stanza as “The Walrus and the Carpenter” from Alice in Wonderland (1865) by Lewis Carroll, also later used by Oscar Wilde in “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” (1897).


Kipling left United Services College in July 1882, where he had read widely and written copiously, determined to become a published poet. In October, at the age of sixteen, he became Assistant Editor of the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore. where he was plunged into the daily grind of newspaper production, in a strange land, with a fearfully demanding climate, and a heavy workload. During 1883 there were times when his editor was away amd he was left alone to manage the paper.

He was sustained by his home life with his parents, though there were times when they were away, and – from December of that year – by a happy partnership with his young sister ‘Trix’ with whom he played word games and other literary inventions, and wrote parodies. Several of these were published in Echoes by Two Writers. This poem is clearly Kipling’s own work. He could readily have witnessed such secnes on the Ravi.

Notes on the Text

[Title]  The Ravi is one of the great rivers of the Punjab, flowing close by Lahore City. The title is in quotes to echo “Old Folks at Home”, the minstrel song by Stephen Foster (1826-1864). Foster was the most successful American song-writer of the 19th century, and his sentimental words and melodies were well-known throughout the English-speaking world, wherever sheet music, and a piano or banjo, were to be found. Its opening line, echoed ironically in Kipling’s title, is ‘Way Down Upon the Swanee River”.

[Verse 1]

Alligator Rather than an alligator, this predator was probably the marsh crocodile (Crocodylus palustris), or ‘mugger’, which is found throughout the Indian subcontinent.

See “The Undertakers” in the Second Jungle Book, “The Bridge Builders” in The Day’s Work, and “A Ripple Song”.

dead Hindu Hindus traditionally believe that if a deceased person is cremated, and his ashes laid in a sacred river, the soul will be transported to heaven and escape the cycle of rebirth. At Varanasi, on the Ganges, many bodies are burned every day, and their ashes scattered in the river from the ‘burning ghats’, the steps leading down to the water where cremation takes place. Sometimes bodies are not entirely burned before disappearing into the water.
Some five years later, when he was working on the Pioneer, Kipling visited Varanasi, and wrote a story called “The Bride’s Progress” about the experiences at the burning ghats of an English honeymoon couple. Charles Allen has written in Kipling’s Kingdom, that ‘Like most Punjab men, Kipling found the manifestations of Hinduism much less easy to tolerate than those of Islam ‘

[Verse 2]

The evening dews were falling fast An echo of Longfellow’s poem “Excelsior”: ‘The shades of night were falling fast.’

©John Radcliffe and John McGivering2017 All rights reserved