(notes by John McGivering)
notes on the text
Money was wanted for small comforts for the troops at the Front, and to this end the Daily Mail started what must have been a very early ‘stunt’. It was agreed that I should ask the public for subscriptions. That paper charged itself with the rest. My verses (‘The Absent-Minded Beggar’) had some elements of direct appeal but, as was pointed out, lacked ‘poetry. Sir Arthur Sullivan wedded the words to a tune guaranteed to pull the teeth out of barrel-organs. Anybody could do what they chose with the result, recite, sing, intone or reprint, etc., on condition that they turned in all fees and profits to the main account – ‘The Absent-Minded Beggar Fund’ – which closed at about a quarter of a million. Some of this was spent in tobacco.The actress Mrs. Beerbohom Tree recited it on the stage of the Palace Theatre in London every night for fourteen weeks and raised £70,000 (Julian Ralph, p. 54) [My Mother used to say that she recited it in the cocoa-rooms in her village of New Ferry in Wirral but I never asked her how much money she collected and if she paid it in; Ed.]
I went into a public-‘ouse to get a pint o’ beer. The publican ‘e up an’ sea ‘We serve no red-coats ‘ere...'The status of the private soldier in Victorian England was never very high, and people of all classes seem to have regarded serving the Queen in the ranks as something of a disgrace rather than an honour. Farwell (Mr. Kipling’s Army, (W.W. Norton, 1981 page 93), quotes a popular rhyme from the time of the Duke of Marlborough (1650-1722), the great British general:
O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Tommy, go away;
But it’s ‘Thank you, Mr. Atkins’ when the band begins to play.
God and the soldier we both adoreBe that as it may, Charles Carrington, himself a soldier who served in the trenches in France for the whole of the 1914-18 War, observes on page 106:
When at the brink of ruin, not before.
The danger over ,both are like requited,
God is forgotten, and the soldier slighted.
Search English literature and you will find no treatment of the English soldier on any adequate scale between Shakespeare and Kipling.This sentiment is echoed by Marghanita Laski (page 34) who likens Kipling’s "Three Musketeers" (Plain Tales from the Hills) to Shakespeare's Nym, Bardolph and Pistol as the best-known soldiers in literature.
What really mattered to Kipling in the winter of 1899-1900 was the Boer War. As soon as it was declared on 11 October he threw himself into the British cause, including getting involved locally with rifle-training and the setting up of a Volunteer Corps. He also, on the 16th, began a four-stanza poem hat took just under a week to complete.This was “The Absent-Minded Beggar”, which, Ricketts continues:
Kipling Senior called, 'A rhymed invitation to subscribe to a Soldiers’ wives and children’s fund, run under the popular auspices of the Daily Mail'. Arthur Sullivan produced the tune.
Lord Newton in his autobiography gives us an interesting glimpse of Kipling's touchiness in connection with this poem. In the course of a debate on a military Bill, Newton had spoken disparagingly of Kipling's verse, which he described as being admirable in sentiment, but deplorable in poetry, with its `Duke's son, cook's son, son of a belted Earl'. He was surprised to receive a few days later a letter from Kipling complaining that his friends deplored the attack and, far from being ashamed of the poem, he (Kipling) felt very proud to think it had helped to raise over £250,000 for soldiers in South Africa.It may, of course, be that Newton, equally open to the charge of touchiness, was expressing the distaste felt in the hallowed chamber of the House of Lords at Kipling's bracketing of a cook's son with the sons of Dukes and Earls. Gilmour (page 143) also notes Newton's view, but takes a more robust line himself, observing that Kipling:
…had not been attempting to write another anthem of spiritual uplift. In form, sentiment and language, he was deliberately returning to the barrack room ballads for the purposes of charity and propaganda. In language that everyone could understand, he managed to convey not just the plight of Tommy Atkins but also the condition of those he left behind ... the humanity of the poem and its simple message had an astonishing impact: accompanied by a drawing of the wounded but undaunted Tommy, the verses soon cluttered tables and mantelpieces throughout Britain, stamped on mugs, ashtrays, tomacco-jar, plates, biscuit tins and other souvenirs. The sale of such items – and the poets waiving of copyright – enabled a fund of for soldiers’ families to raise the immense sum of £300,000.While Seymour-Smith, noting Kipling’s refusal to become Poet Laureate, says (page 293):
In part this was modesty arising from his sense of his calling. But it may have been a certain sense of conscience too, arising from his misuse of his genius in the interests of rhetoric. He justifies himself in the case of “The Absent-Minded Beggar” by pointing out that all the funds earned by it’s performance…. Went to the soldiers in South Africa – and indeed it earned a great deal for this cause.[This Editor suspects, however, that such criticism is at least in part inspired by jealousy, the inability of the commentators to write such compelling lines.]