Song of the Wise Children

(notes by Mary Hamer)

Publication history

Another of the poems apparently written during the second half of 1902 during the surge of renewed inspiration, which began at that time and culminated in the 1903 publication of The Five Nations. Collected in I.V. 1919, and in D.V. 1940, the Sussex Edition vol. 33, and the Burwash Edition vol. 26.


Kipling was born in Mumbai, then known as Bombay, on the west coast of India where he lived until he was six years old. His sensibility was laid down there. As an adult, he could never get over the grey skies and general misery of the climate he found in England, a grimness which he certainly associated with his first unhappy years in Southsea and the tyranny which his foster-mother exercised in the name of Christian training.

As a youth just short of seventeen he returned to India, where he explored the city of Lahore in considerable freedom. The dancing movement of this poem reaches out to join hands with a time and place where his senses were woken into life and met every day with delight. That delight can also be felt in the adult writer, with his jaunty defiance of those who have never experienced such a life, such sunshine, such freedom.

Notes on the Text

(by Mary Hamer, drawing on various sources, in particular
Ralph Durand, “A Handbook to the Poetry of Rudyard Kipling” 1914.)

[Stanza 1] When the darkened Fifties dip to the north: refers to winter nights in the United Kingdom, which lies between latitudes 50 degrees and 60 degrees on the globe.

Sirs: a form of direct address that recalls the voice of Francois Villon, the bold fifteenth-century French poet and ne’er-do-well.

Bear: the dominant constellation in the northern skies.

[Stanza 3] Father’s House: going back through the male line, as it were, will permit a renewed life as an adult.

flying sea-fires: the phosphorescence of the waves which occurs in tropical seas.

[Stanza 4] birthright: by forgetting that early life, and leaving it behind, such children have lost touch with a way of being in the world that was integral to their nature. For the sake of their ‘souls’  (see the previous stanza) it must be recovered.

[Stanza 5] with shaded brows: wearing hats with brims.

[Stanza 6] the Trade: See note to “The Sea and the Hills”, stanza 2.

[Stanza 8] The wayside magic, the threshold spells … done: surrounded again by the multiplicity of rituals and spiritual practices that inform daily life in India, they will be released from the cramped life imposed on them in the name of the Christian religion.

[Stanza 9] shall ask no vows: surrounded once more by the vivid life of India, as they had been as children, they will recover the old intimate relationship with the world of nature, a relationship without strain, which lays no demands on them.

only the English … why: as people who have never known such a life, the English will be baffled by this desire.


©Mary Hamer 2007 All rights reserved