"The Night Before"



1881

(notes by Philip Holberton, drawing on the work of
Andrew Rutherford and Thomas Pinney)


the poem


[June 7th 2019]

Publication

Published in Schoolboy Lyrics in Lahore in 1881, in an edition of around fifty arranged by his mother the year before Rudyard's arrival in the city to work as a journalist. Thomas Pinney (p. 2233-4) notes that it is the only poem in that collection which is not included in any authorised edition. A copy signed "Nickson" is among the unpublished materials for The Scribbler, a hand-written magazine produced by the younger members of the Burne-Jones and Morris families, between November 1878 and March 1880. These are now in the British Library. See Andrew Rutherford (pp. 47-9).

The Poem

The speaker is a prisoner condemned to die, waiting for the dawn of the day when he is to be executed. Every verse is punctuated by the ticking of the “great jail clock”, counting off the seconds of life remaining to him.

Background

Kipling was sent to United Services College at Westward Ho! in Devon at the age of twelve, in 1878. It had been recently established to provide education for the sons of army officers. Because of his poor eyesight he was no good at rugby or cricket. The Head, Cormell Price, who was a friend of his father, gave him the run of his library, where he read voraciously, including a great deal of poetry, From his earliest time at USC he was determined to become a published poet.

Andrew Rutherford, introducing his collection of the early verse, writes of:
Kipling's frequent imitations of authors he admired, his gift for parody, his eager experimentation with form and technique, his poetic exploration of imagined characters and situations, and his early commitment to a more personal, passionate, and confessional poetry than he was to practise in later years, though this co-existed with the humorous and extrovert persona which he normally presented to his fellow schoolboys.


Notes on the Text


[Verse 1] A priest visited him to try to make him repent before he dies, but he had nothing to say to him. In Verse 6, the priest accompanies him to the scaffold, still praying for him and hoping that he will repent at the last minute.

[Verse 3] He sees the ghost of the man he murdered.

[Verse 6] … to die/ In the face of men and beneath the sky
It will be a public execution in front of the gates of the jail.

the hum of the crowd that awaits me there!
Public executions were regarded as entertainment and large crowds came to watch. In England, the last public execution, by hanging, took place in 1868.


[P.H.]

©Philip Holberton 2019 All rights reserved