First published in The Years Between (1919). Collected in:
This poem is Kipling’s attack on the Pope’s neutral attitude to the War. The Pope is the traditional successor to St. Peter, to whom Jesus gave the keys of Heaven, naming him as the "rock" upon which the church would be built. (Matthew 16,18-19) So Kipling uses the figure of Peter to stand for the Pope in the poem.
Pope Benedict XV (above) was elected on 3 September 1914, just a month after the War began. He repeatedly called for peace, but refused to criticise either side – to such an extent that each side accused him of supporting the other.
The Central Powers referred to him as "der franzosische Papst" (i.e., the French Pope) while Georges Clemenceau, premier of France 1917-20, called him “le Pape boche” (“boche” being the derogatory French term for the Germans, equivalent to the English “Hun.”)
Kipling blamed the Pope for not condemning the German atrocities in Belgium in 1914. He reverted to the subject in Souvenirs of France (p.13), published as late as 1933:
During the Boer War (1899-1902) what should have enlightened us all as to the future was the thoroughness of the anti-British propaganda ...The mention of Termonde is interesting in the context of the present poem, where Tirmonde (sic) is named in the last line of Verse 5 as the site of the slaying of maidens and wives. At Aerschott, (named in the same line) the Germans killed 156 civilians including women and children. Termonde is more notorious as one of the first towns to be bombed from the air. A well-known photo (right) shows a priest in the ruins of his church there, in 1914.
But the trigger for this poem was the Pope’s attempt to broker a negotiated peace in 1917. Kipling believed that the Germans were “Evil Incarnate”. They had to be utterly defeated. To settle for anything less would be a betrayal of all that the Allies were fighting and dying for. See the Notes on his poem "Justice".
Kipling recited “A Song at Cock-Crow to his friend Rider Haggard on 22 May 1918. (See The Private Diaries of Sir H. Rider Haggard 1914-25, Ed. D.S.Higgins, Littlehampton Book Services 1980, p.136.) Haggard describes it as 'a really remarkable, and most bitter poem', which (says Peter Keating, p. 203) it certainly is.
The Biblical Background
When Jesus was arrested in the garden of Gethsemane and taken to be tried before the High Priest, all his disciples deserted him and ran away. St. Mark (Ch. 14) takes up the story:
54. And Peter followed him afar off, even into the palace of the high priest: and he sat with the servants, and warmed himself at the fire...
(The numbers in italics refer to the verses from Mark 14 above)
“Ille autem iterum negavit.” Latin for “And he denied it again” see 70
followed far off see 54.
Gethsemane the garden where Jesus was arrested, see 66-67.
“Thou also art one of them” see 70.
the Throne symbol of the Pope’s rule as head of the Catholic Church.
the Keys the keys of the kingdom of Heaven given by Jesus to Peter (Mat. 16. 19), symbol of the Pope’s power as Peter’s successor
weep see 72
Fisher of Men See Matthew 4 18-19
Flanders and Picardy areas in northern France where some of the bloodiest battles of the War were fought
Mary the Mother the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus
Tirmonde (now Termonde) One of the first cities to be heavily damaged by aerial bombing in the course of Germany’s attack on neutral Belgium.
Aerschott The first town in Belgium to suffer a mass execution. On 19 August 1914, the Germans killed over one hundred and fifty of the inhabitants, among them eight women and several children. This is one of the German atrocities against which the Pope should, in Kipling’s opinion, have protested forcibly.
The Babe in the Manger Jesus. When Jesus was born, he was laid in a manger, Luke 2.7.
the waters had covered them German submarines sank several passenger liners. The most notorious was the Lusitania in 1915, when 1,198 people drowned, including a number of children.
The Father took from him the Keys and the Sword As punishment, God takes away all the Pope’s authority and power.
© Philip Holberton 2014 All rights reserved