First published in the Scot’s Observer of April 26 1890 with the title “The Sons of the Widow”. It is listed as No. 432 in ORG.
It is collected in:
- Barrack Room Ballads and Other Verses (1892)
- Inclusive Verse (1919)
- Definitive Verse (1940)
- Sussex Edition Vol. 32 p. 202
- Burwash Edition Vol. 25
- Wordsworth Edition Poems of Rudyard Kipling (2001)
- Cambridge Edition (2013 Ed. Pinney) p. 200
There us a sung version by Peter Bellamy here.
‘The Widow’ is Queen Victoria who came to the throne in 1837, at the age of eighteen and reigned for the rest of the century until her death in 1901. She was the longest serving British monarch at a time of unparalled British wealth and power in the world. Her 64 year span of service is only exceeded by her great-great-grand-daughter, Elizabeth II.
In 1840, the Queen married her cousin Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, to whom she became devoted. As her consort he sensibly avoided politics but did much to encourage innovation in the arts science and industry. He sponsored the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the splendid group of museums in South Kensington, including the Victoria and Albert Museum, – the V&A – the world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design.
When Prince Albert 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. Like successive Tory governments, and like Kipling, she was always a great enthusiast for the extension of the British Empire She was made Empress of India in 1876. Her popularity waxed and waned, but she was always a powerful symbol of British imperial authority, as expressed in this poem.
Kipling and the Crown
Kipling had always had a certain reverence for the Royal family, though he never accepted any honours from them. At the age of sixteen he had written “Ave Imperatrix” a youthful tribute to Queen Victoria, after a failed attenpt on her life. He later wrote “In the Presence”, a powerful account of the Indian soldiers standing guard as Edward VII lay in state. His historical stories, and their accompanying poems, like ” The King’s Job” about the Tudor monrchy, and “Gloriana” about Queen Elizabeth I, left no doubt of his respect for the role of the Crown as a force for unity and authority over the centuries. In his last years, in the 1930s, he wrote radio broadcasts for George V, Victoria’s grandson.
There are several Masonic references in this poem and it may help the reader to know that Hiram Abif, considered one of the three original Grand Masters in Freemasonry alongside King Solomon and Hiram of Tyre, was the son of a widow. He was murdered just before the completion of King Solomon’s Temple and with his death the genuine secrets of a Master Mason were lost. By extension Freemasons consider themselves to be ‘sons of the widow’.
Kipling here sees the Army as an analogy of a Freemasons’ Lodge, as sons of Hiram Abif’s mother and of Queen Victoria who was by then also a widow, having lost Prince Albert on 14 December 1861. [G.K.]
See also “The Mother Lodge” .
Notes on the Text
The Widow at Windsor Windsor Castle, some twenty-five miles (40 km) to the west of London, is one of the residences used by the British monarch.
hairy splendid, famous
nick The regimental number is burnt on the front near hoof of government horses. See ,“The Rout of the White Hussars” (Plain Tales from the Hills).
mark Probably the Broad Arrow
troopers in this context troopships. See “Troopin'”, The Big Drunk Draf’ and “The Burning of the Sarah Sands“ (Land and Sea Tales). The troopships were H.M.S. Crocodile, Euphrates, Jumna, Malabar and Serapis.
with the sword and the flame Ultimately biblical. See Isaiah 66.16: “For by fire and by his sword will the LORD plead with all flesh: and the slain of the Lord shall be many.” [D.H.]
Lodge o’ the Widow The Royal Lodge at Windsor was a residence used by officers of the Royal household. In this context it is also a Masonic Lodge dedicated to Queen Victoria. [G.K]
tile A Masonic Lodge is considered ’tiled’ when the door to the Lodge room is closed and guarded on the outside by the Tyler; Lodge business cannot proceed until it is properly tiled. In this instance the rank an’ file are considered as the guards of the Widow’s Lodge.[G.K]
An’ open in form with the guns Before business can be considered in a Lodge it must be opened in due form in one of the three degrees in which the ritual is to be performedl; the Worshipful Master and the Wardens gavel in succession perhaps evoking the sound of an artillery salvo, although that may be stretching the imagery too far; more prosaically battles normally opened with an artillery barrage.[G.K]
the tune that they play The National Anthem, God Save the Queen.
Then ‘ere’s to the sons o’ the Widow
Wherever, ‘owever they roam
‘Ere’s all they desire, an’ if they require
A speedy return to their ‘ome
This is an adaptation of the traditional Tyler’s Toast given at the conclusion of the Festive Board in Masonic Lodges and is the last toast of the evening. The first line is usually ‘To all poor and distressed Freemasons’. Kipling’s words are sometimes used at the banquet, although not surprisingly they usually omit the line that follows:
(Poor beggars! – they’ll never see ‘ome)
This bitter, if realistic, afterthought is in direct contradiction to the pious wishes expressed in the preceding lines.[G.K.]
Take ’old o’ the Wings o’ the Mornin’ This is a quotation from Psalm 139 v.9-10:
If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;
Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand hold me.
The meanings are parallel. However far you go, in the psalm you cannot get away from God, in the poem you are always within earshot of the bugles saluting the Flag. [P.H.]
©John McGivering and George Kieffer 2017 All rights reserved