Tag Archives: kipling


This Kipling poem is one that I’ve memorized off and on, and one of the first I tumbled into (I think “The ‘Eathen” was the first)  in the process of discovering Kipling as a poet. It too would have been fitting for Memorial day, and no, I wasn’t going to wait for veterans day.

The accent is horrible, but trying to read it as actually written pushes you halfway there anyway. Might as well go with it.


Rudyard Kipling

I went into a public-‘ouse to get a pint o’ beer,
The publican ‘e up an’ sez, “We serve no red-coats here.”
The girls be’ind the bar they laughed an’ giggled fit to die,
I outs into the street again an’ to myself sez I:
  O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, go away”;
  But it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play,
  The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,
  O it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play.

I went into a theatre as sober as could be,
They gave a drunk civilian room, but ‘adn’t none for me;
They sent me to the gallery or round the music-‘alls,
But when it comes to fightin’, Lord! they’ll shove me in the stalls!
  For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, wait outside”;
  But it’s “Special train for Atkins” when the trooper’s on the tide,
  The troopship’s on the tide, my boys, the troopship’s on the tide,
  O it’s “Special train for Atkins” when the trooper’s on the tide.

Yes, makin’ mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, an’ they’re starvation cheap;
An’ hustlin’ drunken soldiers when they’re goin’ large a bit
Is five times better business than paradin’ in full kit.

  Then it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, ‘ow’s yer soul?”
  But it’s “Thin red line of ‘eroes” when the drums begin to roll,
  The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll,
  O it’s “Thin red line of ‘eroes” when the drums begin to roll.

We aren’t no thin red ‘eroes, nor we aren’t no blackguards too,
But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you;
An’ if sometimes our conduck isn’t all your fancy paints,
Why, single men in barricks don’t grow into plaster saints;

  While it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that,
     an’ “Tommy, fall be’ind”,
  But it’s “Please to walk in front, sir”,
     when there’s trouble in the wind,
  There’s trouble in the wind, my boys,
     there’s trouble in the wind,
  O it’s “Please to walk in front, sir”,
     when there’s trouble in the wind.

You talk o’ better food for us, an’ schools, an’ fires, an’ all:
We’ll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational.
Don’t mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face
The Widow’s Uniform is not the soldier-man’s disgrace.

  For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!”
  But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot;
  An’ it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please;
  An’ Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool—you bet that Tommy sees


I first ran into this poem while reading an early, collected version of Pournelle’s “Falkenberg” mercenary stories set in a future “CoDominium”. This is much earlier in the same timeline as the classic first contact science fiction novel “Mote in Gods Eye”.

Needless to say – Kipling was well aware that soldiers were hardly saints. 


by Rudyard Kipling

I’ve a head like a concertina: I’ve a tongue like a button-stick:
I’ve a mouth like an old potato, and I’m more than a little sick,
But I’ve had my fun o’ the Corp’ral’s Guard: I’ve made the cinders fly,
And I’m here in the Clink for a thundering drink
and blacking the Corporal’s eye.
With a second-hand overcoat under my head,
And a beautiful view of the yard,
O it’s pack-drill for me and a fortnight’s C.B.
For “drunk and resisting the Guard!”
Mad drunk and resisting the Guard —
‘Strewth, but I socked it them hard!
So it’s pack-drill for me and a fortnight’s C.B.
For “drunk and resisting the Guard.”

I started o’ canteen porter, I finished o’ canteen beer,
But a dose o’ gin that a mate slipped in, it was that that brought me here.
‘Twas that and an extry double Guard that rubbed my nose in the dirt;
But I fell away with the Corp’ral’s stock
and the best of the Corp’ral’s shirt.

I left my cap in a public-house, my boots in the public road,
And Lord knows where, and I don’t care, my belt and my tunic goed;
They’ll stop my pay, they’ll cut away the stripes I used to wear,
But I left my mark on the Corp’ral’s face, and I think he’ll keep it there!

My wife she cries on the barrack-gate, my kid in the barrack-yard,
It ain’t that I mind the Ord’ly room — it’s ~that~ that cuts so hard.
I’ll take my oath before them both that I will sure abstain,
But as soon as I’m in with a mate and gin, I know I’ll do it again!
With a second-hand overcoat under my head,
And a beautiful view of the yard,
Yes, it’s pack-drill for me and a fortnight’s C.B.
For “drunk and resisting the Guard!”
Mad drunk and resisting the Guard —
‘Strewth, but I socked it them hard!
So it’s pack-drill for me and a fortnight’s C.B.
For “drunk and resisting the Guard.”

Gentlemen Rankers

The term “Gentleman Ranker” applies to an enlisted man who is a former officer, or was born into sufficient wealth or prestige that he could have been an officer.

In short, the odds are they majorly screwed up. They may be an outright screw-up.

In this case, the viewpoint character carries a mix of pride and bitterness. 

Gentlemen Rankers

by Rudyard Kipling

TO the legion of the lost ones, to the cohort of the damned,
    To my brethren in their sorrow overseas,
Sings a gentleman of England cleanly bred, machinely crammed,
    And a trooper of the Empress, if you please.
Yes, a trooper of the forces who has run his own six horses,
    And faith he went the pace and went it blind,
And the world was more than kin while he held the ready tin,
    But to-day the Sergeant’s something less than kind.
We’re poor little lambs who’ve lost our way,
    Baa! Baa! Baa!
We’re little black sheep who’ve gone astray,
Gentlemen-rankers out on the spree,
Damned from here to Eternity,
God ha’ mercy on such as we,
    Baa! Yah! Bah!
Oh, it’s sweet to sweat through stables, sweet to empty kitchen slops,
    And it’s sweet to hear the tales the troopers tell,
To dance with blowzy housemaids at the regimental hops
    And thrash the cad who says you waltz too well.
Yes, it makes you cock-a-hoop to be “Rider” to your troop,
    And branded with a blasted worsted spur,
When you envy, O how keenly, one poor Tommy living cleanly
    Who blacks your boots and sometimes calls you “Sir”.
If the home we never write to, and the oaths we never keep,
    And all we know most distant and most dear,
Across the snoring barrack-room return to break our sleep,
    Can you blame us if we soak ourselves in beer?
When the drunken comrade mutters and the great guard-lantern gutters
    And the horror of our fall is written plain,
Every secret, self-revealing on the aching white-washed ceiling,
    Do you wonder that we drug ourselves from pain?
We have done with Hope and Honour, we are lost to Love and Truth,
    We are dropping down the ladder rung by rung,
And the measure of our torment is the measure of our youth.
    God help us, for we knew the worst too young!
Our shame is clean repentance for the crime that brought the sentence,
    Our pride it is to know no spur of pride,
And the Curse of Reuben holds us till an alien turf enfolds us
    And we die, and none can tell Them where we died.
We’re poor little lambs who’ve lost our way,
    Baa! Baa! Baa!
We’re little black sheep who’ve gone astray,
Gentlemen-rankers out on the spree,
Damned from here to Eternity,
God ha’ mercy on such as we,
    Baa! Yah! Bah!

The Gods of the Copybook Headings

This one is about the old and sage advice. it is about empty promises and being sold hope and upliftedness. It echoes and expands upon advice given elsewhere by Kipling on the value of things, and nothing being given for free – see “MacDonough’s Song” about being lured by the loudest throat. It also, in two lines, perfectly encapsulates the misery of the breadlines in the Soviet Union, and the empty store shelves. Though there was “plenty of money” – there was nothing to buy. Keep in mind – the marketplace here, from several references, isn’t just consumer culture, but the “marketplace of ideas”.

Moreso – it is about harsh reality turning around to bite you in the rear, if in a more delayed manner than such things as fire, but with all of the same inevitability.

The Gods of the Copybook Headings

by Rudyard Kipling

AS I PASS through my incarnations in every age and race,
I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market Place.
Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.

We were living in trees when they met us. They showed us each in turn
That Water would certainly wet us, as Fire would certainly burn:
But we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind,
So we left them to teach the Gorillas while we followed the March of Mankind.

We moved as the Spirit listed. They never altered their pace,
Being neither cloud nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Market Place,
But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come
That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome.

With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch,
They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch;
They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings;
So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things.

When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “Stick to the Devil you know.”

On the first Feminian Sandstones we were promised the Fuller Life
(Which started by loving our neighbour and ended by loving his wife)
Till our women had no more children and the men lost reason and faith,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “The Wages of Sin is Death.”

In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “If you don’t work you die.”

Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew
And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.

As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;

And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!

Prelude (to Departmental Ditties)

Even the introductions to his collections of poetry are works of art. 

Prelude (To “The Departmental Ditties”)

by Rudyard Kipling

I have eaten your bread and salt.
I have drunk your water and wine.
The deaths ye died I have watched beside,
And the lives ye led were mine.

Was there aught that I did not share
In vigil or toil or ease, –
One joy or woe that I did not know,
Dear hearts across the seas?

I have written the tale of our life
For a sheltered people’s mirth,
In jesting guise – but ye are wise,
And ye shall know what the jest is worth.

Dedication from “Barrack-Room Ballads”

This touches on religious themes, as many poems from the past do. Nevertheless, the imagery, to me, owes almost as much to Valhalla and astronomy. A fitting introduction to the stories of those who served, and often died.

Dedication from “Barrack-Room Ballads”

by Rudyard Kipling

BEYOND the path of the outmost sun through utter darkness hurled-
Farther than ever comet flared or vagrant star-dust swirled-
Live such as fought and sailed and ruled and loved and made our world.

They are purged of pride because they died; they know the worth of their bays;
They sit at wine with the Maidens Nine and the Gods of the Elder Days-
It is their will to serve or be still as fitteth Our Father’s praise.

‘Tis theirs to sweep through the ringing deep where Azrael’s outposts are,
Or buffet a path through the Pit’s red wrath when God goes out to war,
Or hang with the reckless Seraphim on the rein of a red-maned star.

They take their mirth in the joy of the Earth-they dare not grieve for her pain;
They know of toil and the end of toil; they know God’s Law is plain;
So they whistle the Devil to make them sport who know that Sin is vain.

And oft-times cometh our wise Lord God, master of every trade,
And tells them tales of His daily toil, of Edens newly made;
And they rise to their feet as He passes by, gentlemen unafraid.

To these who are cleansed of base Desire, Sorrow and Lust and Shame-
Gods for they knew the hearts of men, men for they stooped to Fame-
Borne on the breath that men call Death, my brother’s spirit came.

He scarce had need to doff his pride or slough the dross of Earth –
E’en as he trod that day to God so walked he from his birth,
In simpleness and gentleness and honour and clean mirth.

So cup to lip in fellowship they gave him welcome high
And made him place at the banquet board-the Strong Men ranged thereby,
Who had done his work and held his peace and had no fear to die

Beyond the loom of the last lone star, through open darkness hurled,
Further than rebel comet dared or hiving star-swarm swirled,
Sits he with those that praise our God for that they served His world.

Hymn of Breaking Strain

This poem is about engineering, but so much more. it speaks to all of our projects that we aspire to.

After laying out how we can look up tables of the properties of materials, and design things to take the strength and properties into account, he points out a fundamental truth: People are not all the same, they are not fungible. And so – there is no possible table of what we can  do that says “insert four guys here to get the drawings done, ten there to install the girders.” There is no way to look up ahead of time the temperament and skills of a person, their personality, and how much stress they can take.

I believe it was Terry Pratchett, author of the Discworld fantasy novels, who observed that “Evil begins when you begin to treat people as things.” Things that you can order, sort, categorize, bin, dump as defective, and treat as interchangable cogs.

Political systems that have done that, that have treated people as interchangeable parts described by a label such as “labor”, theocratic or otherwise, have been responsible for deaths in job lots, by the literal tens of millions, in the last century.

Too wonder-stale to wonder
At each new miracle;
Till, in the mid-illusion
Of Godhead ‘neath our hand,
Falls multiple confusion
On all we did or planned-
The mighty works we planned.

 While he may have been speaking to the belief in a predictable universe in his time, I think this also speaks to us as well. We’ve gone to the moon. Now what? We carry around supercomputers in our pockets (by 1990’s standards), and the Star Trek communicator and tricorder? Been there, done that.

We’ve become so used to our miracles that we forget all the things we can’t control or predict. Combine that with the closing of the first verse – if we begin to treat people problems as thing problems, fixable by universal tables, we get results even worse than those we get from predictable materials and an unpredictable universe.

Yet, we are offered hope. Despite being broken and unpredictable, despite having failure thrust upon us by an uncaring universe, have the chance to rise up, and build anew.

It’s our choice.

Hymn of Breaking Strain

by Rudyard Kipling

THE careful text-books measure
(Let all who build beware!)
The load, the shock, the pressure
Material can bear.
So, when the buckled girder
Lets down the grinding span,
‘The blame of loss, or murder,
Is laid upon the man.
Not on the Stuff – the Man!
But in our daily dealing
With stone and steel, we find
The Gods have no such feeling
Of justice toward mankind.
To no set gauge they make us-
For no laid course prepare-
And presently o’ertake us
With loads we cannot bear:
Too merciless to bear.

The prudent text-books give it
In tables at the end
‘The stress that shears a rivet
Or makes a tie-bar bend-
‘What traffic wrecks macadam-
What concrete should endure-
but we, poor Sons of Adam
Have no such literature,
To warn us or make sure!

We hold all Earth to plunder –
All Time and Space as well-
Too wonder-stale to wonder
At each new miracle;
Till, in the mid-illusion
Of Godhead ‘neath our hand,
Falls multiple confusion
On all we did or planned-
The mighty works we planned.

We only of Creation
(Oh, luckier bridge and rail)
Abide the twin damnation-
To fail and know we fail.
Yet we – by which sole token
We know we once were Gods-
Take shame in being broken
However great the odds-
The burden of the Odds.

Oh, veiled and secret Power
Whose paths we seek in vain,
Be with us in our hour
Of overthrow and pain;
That we – by which sure token
We know Thy ways are true –
In spite of being broken,
Because of being broken
May rise and build anew
Stand up and build anew.

Rikki Tikki Tavi

There isn’t room here for the entirety of the Story Rikki Tikki Tavi in one post, much less the entirety of the Jungle Book. Nevertheless, the stories of the Jungle Book, like many of his other short stories, often contained snippets of poems, or entire poems, created for the story being introduced.

My first exposure to the stories of the Jungle Book occurred through both the Disney cartoon (centered on the story of Mowgli), and through the 1975 Chuck Jones cartoon versions of the companion stories: Rikki Tikki Tavi, and the White Seal.

Chapter heading from “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi”

Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book”

At the hole where he went in
Red-Eye called to Wrinkle-Skin.
Hear what little Red-Eye saith:
“Nag, come up and dance with death!”

Eye to eye, and head to head,
(Keep the measure, Nag.)
This shall end when one is dead;
(At thy pleasure, Nag.)

Turn for turn, and twist for twist–
(Run and hide thee, Nag.)
Hah! The hooded death has missed!
(Woe betide thee, Nag!)

The Sons of Martha

The Sons of Martha  is one of many poems by Kipling that celebrates engineers, and what they do to keep things running. It’s loosely based on an interpretation of the following gospel story:

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

— (Luke 10:38-42, New International Version)

While the standard interpretation is that Martha was preoccupied with the wrong priorities, that never sat well with me. Custom at that time imposed obligations on the hosts to honor their guests, and somebody had to take care of that, or it would have been a dishonor. Martha was honoring her guest by making sure everything he needed was available. While I get what was said – the story is supposed to be a metaphor for the priority of the spiritual over the mundane – in the real world, someone has to make sure food ends up on the table.

And those who worry about such realities tend to be engineers. People who do the nasty, scutty work of keeping things running while generally unappreciated and forgotten, making our lives easier.  “They finger Death at their gloves’ end where they piece and repiece the living wires. He rears against the gates they tend: they feed him hungry behind their fires.

The poem also brings up that those of an engineering bent have to deal with the world as it is, and not as they wish it would be. “They do not preach that their God will rouse them a little before the nuts work loose.” Even more so these days, many of these professions are among the few in a cocooned civilization where life and death choices, and attention to details are part of everyday living.

And you can’t quit just because it’s no fun anymore. 

I think the following entry at headpoet adds some valuable insight:

I like the way Kipling plays with faith in this poem. Mary’s sons are blessed, and Martha’s sons are trusted. If God himself is making you do the work of cleaving the paths and tallying the soldiers, then you are important and necessary, even if you are not noted. Some of the other commentaries I have read on this poem talk about how the engineers, the Sons of Martha, are apostate, or unreligious, or doubting. I don’t read it that way. I think the Sons of Martha are born unbelieving, ungullible, untrusting, in short, exactly what you want from the person who watches your nuclear dials and your airplane routes, who mixes the chlorine with your drinking water and butchers your meat safely. They cannot, will not believe that everything will turn out well because they are lucky. They are only averting disaster because they do not trust good things to stay good.

The Sons of Martha

Rudyard Kipling
1907 and 1922

The Sons of Mary seldom bother, for they have inherited that good part;
But the Sons of Martha favour their Mother of the careful soul and the troubled heart.
And because she lost her temper once, and because she was rude to the Lord her Guest,
Her Sons must wait upon Mary’s Sons, world without end, reprieve, or rest.

It is their care in all the ages to take the buffet and cushion the shock.
It is their care that the gear engages; it is their care that the switches lock.
It is their care that the wheels run truly; it is their care to embark and entrain,
Tally, transport, and deliver duly the Sons of Mary by land and main.

They say to mountains “Be ye removèd.” They say to the lesser floods “Be dry.”
Under their rods are the rocks reprovèd—-they are not afraid of that which is high.
Then do the hill-tops shake to the summit—-then is the bed of the deep laid bare,
That the Sons of Mary may overcome it, pleasantly sleeping and unaware.

They finger Death at their gloves’ end where they piece and repiece the living wires.
He rears against the gates they tend: they feed him hungry behind their fires.
Early at dawn, ere men see clear, they stumble into his terrible stall,
And hale him forth like a haltered steer, and goad and turn him till evenfall.

To these from birth is Belief forbidden; from these till death is Relief afar.
They are concerned with matters hidden—-under the earthline their altars are—-
The secret fountains to follow up, waters withdrawn to restore to the mouth,
And gather the floods as in a cup, and pour them again at a city’s drouth.

They do not preach that their God will rouse them a little before the nuts work loose.
They do not preach that His Pity allows them to drop their job when they damn-well choose.
As in the thronged and the lighted ways, so in the dark and the desert they stand,
Wary and watchful all their days that their brethren’s ways may be long in the land.

Raise ye the stone or cleave the wood to make a path more fair or flat;
Lo, it is black already with the blood some Son of Martha spilled for that!
Not as a ladder from earth to Heaven, not as a witness to any creed,
But simple service simply given to his own kind in their common need.

And the Sons of Mary smile and are blessèd—-they know the Angels are on their side.
They know in them is the Grace confessèd, and for them are the Mercies multiplied.
They sit at the feet—-they hear the Word—-they see how truly the Promise runs.
They have cast their burden upon the Lord, and—-the Lord He lays it on Martha’s Sons!

MacDonough’s Song

Many who were exposed to Kipling almost exclusively through his more popular poems (such as “If”) or the Jungle Book, would be surprised to know he had also written what would be considered science fiction and horror

Two of his stories, “As easy as A.B.C” and “With the Night Mail” were set in a future where air travel, was managed by a governing body called the Aerial Board of Control,  In these stories, MacDonough’s Song was the banned poem (that nevertheless everyone knew) which was the rallying cry of those who rebelled or opposed the de-facto centralized, one-world government.

MacDonough’s Song

Rudyard Kipling

WHETHER the State can loose and bind
In Heaven as well as on Earth:
If it be wiser to kill mankind
Before or after the birth—
These are matters of high concern
Where State-kept schoolmen are;
But Holy State (we have lived to learn)
Endeth in Holy War.

Whether The People be led by The Lord,
Or lured by the loudest throat:
If it be quicker to die by the sword
Or cheaper to die by vote—
These are things we have dealt with once,
(And they will not rise from their grave)
For Holy People, however it runs,
Endeth in wholly Slave.

Whatsoever, for any cause,
Seeketh to take or give,
Power above or beyond the Laws,
Suffer it not to live!
Holy State or Holy King—
Or Holy People’s Will—
Have no truck with the senseless thing.
Order the guns and kill!

Once there was The People—Terror gave it birth;
Once there was The People and it made a Hell of Earth.
Earth arose and crushed it. Listen, O ye slain!
Once there was The People—it shall never be again!