From the Wings

(notes by John McGivering and John Radcliffe)


The first publication of this poem was in Schoolboy Lyrics published in Lahore in 1881 when Kipling was fifteen. This was an edition of around fifty for private circulation arranged by his mother the year before his arrival in the city to work as a journalist. It is listed in ORG as No 20.

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. Rutherford, p. 95
  • Cambridge Edition (2013 Ed. Pinney) p. 1200.

The poem

A dramatic monologue in rhyming couplets, set on the edge of a stage, from which a man, himself an actor, sees his lady love performing to the applause of the crowd while he looks on unseen. But what is real and what an invented show? What is real between them ? Some day when the show is over and beauty is gone, what are their chances of shared passion ? A sombre, tortured poem, a remarkable piece of work from a schoolboy.

In the manner of the later Kipling it is, incidentally, full of technical details; see the notes on the text below. He was already fascinated by technicalities, witness his account in “The Last Term” of editing the USC Chronicle in its locked formes at the printers: see Stalky & Co. pp. 228-9.


This poem was written when Kipling was fourteen or fifteen, at United Services College at Westward Ho! in Devon, reading voraciously in the Head’s library, and writing furiously, bent on becoming a published poet. He was, in a sense. in the wings himself, studying the work of great performers – Tennyson, Swinburne, Browning – experimenting with themes and styles and rhyme schemes, echoing their work in parodies, finding his own voice. He was also in love with the beautiful Flo Garrard, two years older than himself, which sometimes made his explorations of love between men and women painfully personal.
Ann Weygandt sees this as one of three dramatic monologues written around this time with strong echoes of Browning in tone. She comments (p. 106):

It is not difficult to understand Kipling’s devotion to Browning. He shares with him a tremendous interest in people, and a liking for reconstructing the life of a former day. He enjoys the flashes of description—“On the neck the small face buoyant, like a bell-flower on its bed”—and the brief aphorismic passages, such as “If you get simple beauty and naught else You get about the best thing God invents.”

…Admiration soon led to imitation. At least two of the poems in Schoolboy Lyrics are deliberate parody, and many more show unmistakable signs of Browning’s influence.

Fot the influence of Browning, see also:

“The Jam-Pot”

For the relationship with Flo Garrard see

“The Lesson”
“Illusion, Disillusion, Allusion”

Notes on the Text

[Title] From the Wings The ‘wings’ sre the portion of the stage behind the scenery and not visible to the audience. The reference in line 27 is not clear unless it just means ‘out of sight’.

[line 3] pace the board appear on stage. The expression remains from the days when travelling theatre transformed an inn yard into a theatre with boards – wooden planks – supported on barrels – to form the stage.

boxes enclosures each side of the proscenium arch above the stage often fitted with a sitting-room and cloakrooms – the equivalent of a private room and so more comfortable, though often with a limited view of the stage.Kipling writes in “Epitaphs of the War” (The Beginner):

On the first hour of my first day
In the front trench I fell.
(Children in boxes at a play
Stand up to watch it well.)

[line 4] the pit in this context the cheaper seats behind the stalls immediately in front of the stage.

[line 5] prima donna the principal female singer in an opera company, often with an exaggerated sense of her own talent and importance but traditionally adored by crowned heads and millionaires.

[line 7] footlights a row of lights at the front of the stage to illuminate the scene. Now not often seen, due to improved technical equipment.

[line 8] the Fates three sisters, incarnations of destiny and life. In the Greek pantheon they were Clotho who spins the thread of life; Lachesis who draws the lots to determine how long one lives, and Atropos who chooses how one dies by cutting the thread of life with her shears.

cast in this context to appoint an actor to a part in a play.

[line 11] act-drop the main curtain at the very front of the stage.

[line 12] stalls and gallery seats on the ground floor and uppermost tier of the auditorium respectively.

[line 13] cloths after the show, dust-sheets are put over the more expensive seats which are often luxuriously upholstered.

[line 15] Old and wrinkled perhaps the next five lines indicate death.See “Illusion, Disillusion, Allusion”.

[line 19] rouge a red paste or powder used as a cosmetic

[line 20] belladonna Atropa belladonna or deadly nightshade, is a perennial herbaceous plant in the Nightshade family (which includes tomatoes, potatoes etc.) once used by women to dilate the pupils of their eyes so as to look more seductive. It is highly toxic. Belladonna means ‘Beautiful Woman” in Italian.

pearl-powder very finely-ground face-powder made from freshwater pearls or seawater pearls too small for the jewellery trade. Used by the Chinese and others from 300 A D

[line 23] a little, little time an echo of “The Appeal” made by Kipling over fifty years later, which concludes his Definitive Verse, in which the second stanza reads:

And for the little, little span
The dead are borne in mind,
Seek not to question other than
The books I leave behind.

Kipling’s first official biographer, Charles Carrington (1897-1990), writes in his preface:

There is no other writer, great or small, whose work I know so well, and I have been often astonished to find how how many others, of all ages, knew him as well as I did, even when the critics told us he was clean out of fashion. I never set eyes upon the man ! He shunned publicity and begged his critics not to question other than the books he left behind; but such a desire was too much to expect of a generation which had watched the progress of his work with such attention.

This is a view that is warmly shared by your editors in 2017, as we seek to unravel the influences on his brilliant early work. [J McG/ JR]

©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2017 All rights reserved