First published in Barrack Room Ballads and Other Verses in December 1892. The poem is listed in ORG as No 558.
It is collected in:
- Inclusive Verse (1919)
- Definitive Verse (1940)
- The Sussex Edition vol xxxii (1939)
- The Burwash Edition vol xxv (1941)
- Cambridge Edition (2013) Ed. Thomas Pinney, p. 212
This is an ironic Question and Answer ballad in the manner of “Danny Deever” and others, an old-established ballad form, vividly used by Kipling. The first voice asks the soldier where he has been and what he was doing. The replies tell how he and his mates were plucked out of their barracks at Gosport and found themselves in an unknown country with very unpalatable food and drink. In battle, many of the soldier’s messmates were cut up one way and another, he was wounded, carried off the field and survived to tell the tale. The country was pacified and received the benefits of British rule, including a road and a court-house.
The poem, another Barrack Room Ballad, written after Kipling had left India, is another of his sympathetic accounts of the life of the private soldier, of which Charles Carrington writes (p.212):
No author in any literature has composed in verse or prose, so full and varied amd so relentlessly realistic a view of the soldier’s life, with its alterations of boredom and terror, its deadening routine, its characteristic vices and corruption, its rare glories and its irrational fascination…
‘The Widow’ is Queen Victoria, in whose name the soldiers fought and the empire-builders built. She came to the throne in 1837, at the age of eighteen, and reigned for the rest of the century until her death in 1901. In 1840, she married her cousin Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, to whom she became devoted. When he died in 1861 the Queen was heartbroken, went into mourning, and wore black for the rest of her life. For a time she showed herself little in public, causing some public resentment. See our notes on “The Widow at Windsor”.
It has been suggested that Kipling’s references to Queen Victoria as ‘The Widow’ or ‘Widow of Windsor’ caused her offence, but we are not aware of evidence for this. She must have approved of Kipling’s father, Lockwood, as witness the Durbar Room he designed for her at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. As a schoolboy in 1882, Rudyard had written a poem in her honour, “Ave Imperatrix”.
Notes on the Text
picnic lay a picnic is a meal in the open air: ‘lay’ in this context is slang for ‘business’ or perhaps ‘game’. In India there was an expression for a picnic – pagal khana which means ‘Dinner of Fools’ – suggesting that people who sit on the ground in the open for a meal must indeed be crazy. But in England a picnic is traditionally a relaxed and enjoyable experience. For these soldiers the picnic had been far from enjoyable.
Gosport Hard Gosport is a town in Hampshire on the west side of Portsmouth harbour. A hard, in this context, is a paved slope leading into the sea to form a landing-place for boats.
card in this context a beautifully-engraved card of invitation to a ball, dinner etc. which can be refused or accepted as circumstances or fancy decide, but this ‘invitation’ from the Queen is one that cannot be refused.
standing water water in puddles, ditches etc. which can easily be infected with typhoid or cholera or other diseases; see “Cholera-Camp”.
ink a writing-fluid into which the pen was dipped for writing in the days before ball-points or computer keyboards. Kipling writes in Something of Myself (p. 230): ‘For my ink I demanded the blackest’
beef three years stored probably salt-beef in a cask.
knives and forks usually part of a soldier’s kit carried in the haversack.
crimped a word of several meanings, here perhaps somewhat out of its usual context to mean ‘squashed’ to go with the other words signifying ‘wounded’ or ‘killed.’
mess in this context a group of men who live and eat together as in the officers’ mess, sergeants’ mess etc.
whack slang for ‘portion’ or ‘share’.
toff a somewhat derogatory term for a member (or would-be member) of the ‘upper classes’.
niggers an unpleasant word for people with black or dark skin, not acceptable today.
bight usually a loop in a line or rope but here meaning the curve his body would make in the canvas.
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