[November 15th 2017]
This poem first appeared in Definitive Verse in 1940, though Kipling dated it to 1930. It is listed in ORG as No 1169. It should not be confused with an unpublished poem of November 1882, with the same title, see Rutherford, p. 50
It is collected in:
A company of grey geese, disturbed by a fool's tread, take wing and fly away to find a safer home. Men are aghast that they are gone, but it is too late.
Since the poem was evidently written in 1930, but not published during Kipling's lifetime, it does not seem to be one of his alarm calls to the nation. Perhaps it expresses his general unease at the temper of the times, and Britain's unpreparedness in the face of dangers abroad, in a year when he and Carriue were often ill, and he was weary of chronic pain.
Jan Montefiore writes:
I see this poem as an imaginative tour de force. The geese depart because they’re frightened and wary. Once they've heard that footstep coming too close they leave, too quietly to be noticed. I take their very condensed speech to mean something like this:Harry Ricketts wonders if at the back of his mind Kipling had a memory of two Yeats poems: "The Wild Swans at Coole" (1919) and "September 1913":'No, we won’t come back, it’s not safe for us here any more. That trespasser may be only a harmless fool, but others who mean harm (‘knaves’) will certainly come after him'.By ‘knaves' they presumably mean sportsmen with guns; at least on the level of story.
Kipling’s lines contain various half-echoes of the former, and the phrase “grey geese” does seem to recall, from "September 1913":Jan Montefiore agrees about a possible echo of Yeats, though she sees it as very indirect:Was it for this the wild geese spreadHowever, how far this helps to read Kipling’s poem, I’m not sure. Yeats’s “grey geese” were 17th and 18th Century Irish Catholic mercenary soldiers, who fought against England, and for Yeats emblematic of a lost, more heroic, romantic Ireland. I suppose it’s possible that they are the ones saying 'Nay, fools foretell what knaves will do' at the end of “The Flight”, but it seems rather far fetched.
Kipling's ‘The Irish Guards’ (1918) with its refrain <'Old Days! The Wild Geese are flighting’, does sound likethe wild geese spreadin "September 1913". There may be a direct influence at work here, but maybe not. Kipling could be riffing independently on the old name for the Irish regiments who historically fought in Europe.
pinion in this context the wing of a bird.
osiers one of various willow trees, Salix viminalis, whose flexible branches are used for making baskets.
myriads very many.
©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2017 All rights reserved