The Times, 4 October 1900; Harper’s Weekly, October 13 1900; also Literature, October 6 and New York Tribune October 12. Collected in The Five Nations, I.V., 1919, D.V., 1940, the Sussex Edition, vol.33 and the Burwash Edition, vol.26.
Reprinted in A Choice of Songs from the Verse of Rudyard Kipling, 1925.
Carrie Kipling noted in her diary for 22 Sep. 1900 “Verses about The Young Queen”. Written to celebrate the creation of the Commonwealth of Australia. This was a federation of the States of New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia, which had previously been governed separately as independent colonies.
Kipling added the subtitle for publication in The Five Nations in order to remind his readers of the poem’s original context. There was no such subtitle when it first came out in The Times. Instead, it was prefaced by a quotation from The Times itself.
… Some of us may have been unaware to what perfection those fruits have been already matured in the virgin soil of Australia, but if there was surprise in any quarter it was pleasurable surprise, The whole country felt a thrill of pride as the work of her sons was revealed to her, and revealed to her at a time when the ties between her and them had been newly consecrated by common effort and by common sacrifice in a righteous cause. The Times, October 4th 1900.
The phrase ‘The Five Nations’, which became the title of the collection is taken from this poem. Like “Our Lady of the Snows” it marks a milestone in the changing relations between England and its white colonies. To a modern reader, however, both these poems, with their sub-Arthurian fantasies of heroic queens, may seem forced and unconvincing, inflated by an emotion which has not been accurately identified.
However, in representing Australia as a queen, Kipling was aligning himself with the habit of contemporary cartoonists, who regularly used a human figure–from Britannia (for Britain) to Uncle Sam (for the United States) to stand for whole nations. In choosing to follow them, he may have been falling into the trap of producing work that was unworthy of him, a danger Charles Eliot Norton had warned him against. Yet it is also true that the middle classes, whom Kipling was keen to make more alive to the life of the Empire, seemed to like such imagery.
Technically able but striking a note that rings false, they have more in common with Kipling’s juvenilia than they do with the work of maturity. The poet himself believed that in publishing these works he was deepening awareness and appreciation of the nation’s ties with its colonies Yet as readers we may ask ourselves what writing in this manner accomplished for the poet, whether it served purposes, explored or maybe blocked emotions that were not perhaps fully known to him. My own questions would focus on the way he makes use of idealised family relationships to present matters of politics. Deep down he knew better.
Notes on the Text
(by Mary Hamer, drawing on various sources, in particular Ralph Durand, “A Handbook to the Poetry of Rudyard Kipling” 1914.)
[Subtitle] This was added when the poem was collected in The Five Nations.
[Stanza 1] harness: armour
Bright-eyed out of the battle: the Anglo-Boer War was still being fought in South Africa in 1901 when the separate provinces of Australia were formally joined to form a Commonwealth. Australian troops had been sent to support the British in the war; as fine horsemen, they were among the most successful in operating in that terrain.
[Stanza 2] the Old Queen: an uneasy reference, gesturing both towards Victoria, who was indeed old and actually died less than a month after the formal inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia, and also towards a symbolic female figure such as Britannia.
The Hall of Our Thousand Years: a reference to the fact that the early unification of Britain itself could be dated back a thousand years to the reign of King Alfred, who died in 901.
The Five Free Nations: England, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the Cape Colony of South Africa, countries where white English-speaking men governed according to similar traditions and values, as Kipling hoped, though in the case of South Africa, he was to be disappointed.
[Stanza 3] The Leeuwin: the cape of southwestern Australia which catches the full force of the swell from the Southern Ocean.
The coral barriers: the Great Barrier Reef which extends for a thousand miles along the east coast of Australia.
[Stanza 4] In the days when our folk . . .thy sword made sure our lands: This account of England’s history in Australia might be disputed.
[Stanza 5] jealous circlet: crown not readily awarded; ‘jealous’ in the sense of jealous or extreme care.
Pearls of the Northland: Thursday Island to the north of Cape York is the centre of the Australian pearl fishery.
the gold of the West: about a quarter of the world’s gold is mined in Australia, more than half of which comes from Western Australia.
Her land’s own opals: A large proportion of the world’s supply of opals is found in Queensland and New South Wales.
levin-hearted: flashing, like lightning.
The Five-starred Cross above them for sign of the Nations Five: This appears to be a reference to the constellation known as the Southern Cross which is found in the skies over the southern hemisphere and was incorporated into the new Australian flag. Kipling is straining his licence as a poet in claiming it as a sign of the Five Nations for which the collection is named.
[Stanza 6] child of the child I bore: If nineteenth-century Australia, being a colony of Britain, could be described as its child, then federated Australia, the next political development, would be the child of that child. The really interesting thing is how much work the invocation of flesh and blood relationship is made to do here.
Daniel Hadas notes: ‘The old queen’s deliberations in the final four stanzas on what gift to give the young queen echo the dialogue between God and the newly crowned King Solomon at 1 Kings 3. 5-15.’ [D.H.]
©Mary Hamer 2007 All rights reserved