First published in Limits and Renewals (1932), where it follows the story “The Manner of Men” collected in that volume.
Background to the poem
The poem is closely connected with the story “The Manner of Men” which describes St Paul’s sea voyage and shipwreck as seen through the eyes of the captain and mate of the wheat-ship conveying him to Rome.
Some critical comments
In The Art of Rudyard Kipling (1959) J.M.S.Tomkins writes (at page 107):
We have seen Paul through the eyes of the captain and mate of the wheat-ship, his promptness, his unshaken courage, his ubiquity, his “woman's trick”, which displeases the Sidonian captain, “of taking the tone and colour of whoever he talked to”; neither of them understands him at all. The poem does not attempt to suggest the motive-power of Paul, but it indicates the cost to him of his service. The man who has been “made all things to all men” prays only at his death that Christ shall “restore me my self again."In Kipling’s Hidden Narratives Sandra Kemp (1988) Sandra Kemp writes:
…the poem …is deeply moving, for as a prayer to Christ it expresses in human terms the fact that that, for Paul, his “reward” would be restoration to himself after a lifetime of self-sacrifice for Christ’s sake.In Rudyard Kipling (1999) Andrew Lycett writes (page 548):
Rudyard’s fascination with St Paul…is instructive. Like himself, the apostle was a writer and ideologue born outside his native land. St Paul’s evangelism provided a model for present-day political activism—a theme Baldwin took up when he spoke of party workers as “missionaries” and “apostles” and the British population as needing “salvation” or “redemption”. Most of all, Rudyard identified with St Paul’s desire to be “all things to all men”. As a reclusive individual, this was the last of his ambitions. But as an artist, pushing his ideas to their limits, it was his primary goal. While ostensibly about St Paul, his poem “At His Execution”…expressed the perennial dilemma of the creative man—that in adopting the voice and perspective of those around him, he loses his own.
[Title] The New Testament is silent on the subject of Paul’s death, but it is probable that he was executed in Rome on the charge of endangering public order and fostering treason against the official cult of the emperor.
[Line 1] The speaker is St Paul, and in the light of the last three lines of the poem, which are clearly a prayer, the whole poem ought perhaps to be regarded as a prayer, spoken or unspoken.
I am made all things to all men. A direct quotation from 1 Corinthians 9, 22, which continues “that I might by all means save some”.
[Line 12] great Light and Word. This refers to Saul’s visual and auditory experience on the road to Damascus as decribed in Acts 9, 3-4. Paul was originally called Saul (see Acts 13, 9: “Saul (who also is called Paul”).
©George Engle 2005 All rights reserved