The Winners

(notes by Philip Holberton)



Published in Volume 2 of the Indian Railway Library in 1888 as “L’Envoi” to The Story of the Gadsbys and in the first English edition of Soldiers Three in the same year.

The poem is collected in:

  • Inclusive Verse (1927)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition vol. 35
  • Burwash Edition vol. 28
  • Cambridge Edition (2013, ed. Pinney)


In the eight linked stories that make up The Story of the Gadsbys, Captain Gadsby of the Pink Hussars marries Minnie Threegan. After a year, in which she has had, and lost, a baby, she very nearly dies of fever. Later when they have a little son, Gadsby worries about the health of his family in India. As John McGivering writes in his notes to “The Swelling of Jordan”:

…worse, he has lost his nerve, and on parade or manoeuvres is constantly fearful that he will fall from his horse and be ridden over. Marriage has taken its final toll of his manhood.

The poem is Kipling’s comment on the stories. It opens with the query: “What is the moral?” and the last line of every verse gives the answer: “He travels the fastest who travels alone.”

Itil Asmon (Discover Kipling: An Annotated Selection of Rudyard Kipling’s Verse) comments:

This lamentable philosophy of boundless egoism – which all too many men hold, but few dare to assert so openly – is superbly expressed in this poem. Ascribing this philosophy to Kipling himself would be about as logical as considering Shakespeare a criminal because he created monsters such as Iago and Richard the Third. Moreover, the choice of language shows that Kipling considered the rewards of a self-centered life to be hollow – “loot”, “pelf”, “plunder” and “spoil”.

The swinging, cantering meter particularly suits verse 1, which deals with the hazards of riding “When the night is thick and the tracks are blind”.

Verse 2 refers especially to the cloying effect of love and marriage. It echoes Gadsby’s whispered confession:

“Marriage – even as good a marriage as mine has been – hampers a man’s work, it cripples his sword-arm, and oh, it plays Hell with his notions of duty!”
[Soldiers Three p. 224]

Daniel Hadas takes the view that the final verse gives the game away on  Kipling entirely rejecting the speaker’s perspective. ‘One could imagine that in 1888, the 22-year-old Kipling might have thought it was clever to talk down marriage. But verse 4 recommends betraying one’s friends, and there is no aspect of Kipling’s thought, throughout his life, whereby that would not have been repulsive.’  [D.H.]

Notes on the Text

[Verse 1]

Gehenna: Hell.

the Throne: the throne of God, Heaven.

[Verse 2]

the scabbarded steel: the sword in its sheath.

[Verse 3]

pelf: booty.

[Verse 4]

holpen: old form of “helped”

stayed: In this context, supported, sustained.

heretical: completely selfish, rejecting the Christian commandment to “love thy neighbour as thyself”.

spoil: plunder.


© Philip Holberton 2014 All rights reserved