Epitaphs of the War – Brief Poems by Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard_Kipling,_by_Elliott_&_Fry_(cropped)Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) was born in Bombay, (now called Mumbai), in India but, according to poet Gavin Ewart, was sent at the age of 6 with his sister to horrible foster-parents in Southsea (England) and to an equally horrible public school. In 1882 he returned to India, where he worked for Anglo-Indian newspapers while exploring his Indian surroundings. Kipling’s experiences during this time formed the backbone for a series of stories he began to write and publish. They were eventually assembled into a collection of 40 short stories called Plain Tales From the Hills, which gained wide popularity in England. In 1889, seven years after he had left England, Kipling returned to acknowledge and exploit the celebrity status his stories had given him. After a brief visit to America, where he found his wife, Carrie Balastier, he returned to a London marriage attended by Henry James.

After his marriage he travelled widely through the United States, Canada and Japan. Following the tragic death of his daughter, Josephine, in New York, he returned to England where his literary success culminated, in 1907,  in his being awarded, at the age of 41, the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first English-language writer to receive the prize, and its youngest recipient to date.

Kipling proved to be an ardent supporter of the British war effort in the First World War. In 1915, he traveled to France to report on the war from the trenches. He also encouraged his son, John, to enlist.  Suffering from the same eyesight problems his father had,  John was repeatedly turned down. Kipling made use of his political connections and managed to get his son enlisted with the Irish Guards as a second lieutenant. Within weeks, Kipling received word that John had gone missing in France. Kipling, perhaps feeling guilty about his push to make his son a soldier, set off for France to find John. But nothing ever came of the search, and John’s body was never recovered. A distraught and drained Kipling returned to England where he wrote, among other pieces, his poem, or sequence of poems, Epitaphs of the War.

Although Kipling continued to write for the next two decades, he never again returned to the bright, cheerful children’s stories that had made him so popular. His collected poems appeared in 1933. Over his last few years, Kipling suffered from a painful ulcer that eventually led to his death on January 18, 1936. Kipling’s ashes were buried in Westminster Abbey in Poets’ Corner next to the graves of Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens.


Kipling: poetry or verse?

In his intriguing, astute and wide-ranging introduction to his selection, A Choice of Kipling’s Verse, T. S. Eliot addresses himself repeatedly to the question of whether Kipling  wrote poetry or verse. While he uses the word poet – He is so different from other poets that the lazy critic is tempted merely to assert that he is not a poet at all, and leave it at that – he continues to treat the work as verse. The distinction between poetry and verse is not for Eliot, as it is for many, a question of value. And, despite highlighting the amazing verbal and poetic accomplishments, he argues Kipling is not  trying to write poetry at all. He concludes with this tribute, I can think of a number of poets who have written great poetry, only a very few whom I call great verse writers. And unless I am mistaken, Kipling’s position in this class is not only high, but unique.

Whether poetry or verse, the reputation of Kipling is also, still, one of great popularity.  If—” is probably Kipling’s most famous poem. A relatively recent BBC poll named it Britain’s favourite poem. In a celebrated essay on Kipling from 1942, George Orwell dismissed the poem as the sort of thing (about the only sort of thing) Colonel Blimp would like. On this issue, as on many others relating to Kipling, I tend to be more on Orwell’s side than on that of Eliot. Yet his popularity persists. I have met many people with no literary leanings – a lorry driver, a religious Brother, an ex-soldier – who could recite a Kipling poem (usually Gunga Din) at will. There is no doubting his continuing relevance to many readers. But Orwell may have put his finger on the reason for this: Kipling is almost a shameful pleasure, like the taste for cheap sweets that some people secretly carry into middle life. But even with his best passages one has the same sense of being seduced by something spurious, and yet unquestionably seduced.  There are, of course, best passages, and there is, as Eliot recognised, immense skill and accomplishment. The English poet, Alison Brackenbury,  claims that Kipling is poetry’s Dickens, an outsider and journalist with an unrivalled ear for sound and speech.  That may not excuse the faults that Orwell, among others, finds in the poetry (or verse) but it does explain its popularity.


Kipling: Epitaphs of the War.

There is one issue on which I agree with T. S. Eliot, Good epigrams in English are very few. He says this while asking the reader of Kipling to look attentively at his Epitaphs of the War. These poems, first published in 1919, were modelled on the epitaphs in The Greek Anthology which Kipling read in translation. Although some critics have found personal  issues, particularly those dealing with the death of his son, John, in the war, Kipling maintained, All the epitaphs … are altogether imaginary. They deal with forms of death which may very possibly have overtaken men and women in the course of the War, but have neither personal nor geographical basis. That, I believe, is what gives them their power and their resonance. These brief epitaphs, the shorter and tweet-sized of which I include below,  deal with civilians as well as soldiers, grieving parents, dead sons, the brave and the cowardly, the guiltless and the guilty. While some are in the third person, others have the dead commenting on their own death. Their brevity and compression save these poems from the bluster and sentimentality that infects many of the Barrack-Room Ballads which are better known. They deserve a wider readership.




Brief Poems by Rudyard Kipling

from EPITAPHS OF THE WAR (1914-1918)


A. “I was a Have.”   B. “I was a ‘have-not.’”
(Together). “What hast thou given which I gave not?”



We were together since the War began.
He was my servant—and the better man.



My son was killed while laughing at some jest.    I would I knew
What it was, and it might serve me in a time when jests are few.



I have slain none except my Mother.    She
(Blessing her slayer) died of grief for me.



This man in his own country prayed we know not to what Powers.
We pray Them to reward him for his bravery in ours.



I could not look on Death, which being known,
Men led me to him, blindfold and alone.



Gods of the Nile, should this stout fellow here
Get out—get out!    He knows not shame nor fear.




We giving all gained all.
Neither lament us nor praise.
Only in all things recall,
It is Fear, not Death that slays.


From little towns in a far land we came,
To save our honour and a world aflame.
By little towns in a far land we sleep;
And trust that world we won for you to keep!



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.)



Laughing through clouds, his milk-teeth still unshed,
Cities and men he smote from overhead.
His deaths delivered, he returned to play
Childlike, with childish things now put away.



Prometheus brought down fire to men,
This brought up water.
The Gods are jealous—now, as then,
Giving no quarter.



On land and sea I strove with anxious care
To escape conscription.    It was in the air!



If any mourn us in the workshop, say
We died because the shift kept holiday.



If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.



For Fog and Fate no charm is found
To lighten or amend.
I, hurrying to my bride, was drowned—
Cut down by my best friend.



I was a shepherd to fools
Causelessly bold or afraid.
They would not abide by my rules.
Yet they escaped.    For I stayed.



Headless, lacking foot and hand,
Horrible I come to land.
I beseech all women’s sons
Know I was a mother once.





The complete text of Epitaphs of the War.

A Choice of Kipling’s Verse, edited by T. S. Eliot

George Orwell’s essay on the poetry of Rudyard Kipling.

Some notes on Epitaphs of the War.

The Poetry Foundation Page on Rudyard Kipling.

A Reader’s Guide to the Works of Rudyard Kipling.




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