"Overheard"



1881

(notes by John McGivering
and John Radcliffe)


the poem


[May 20h 2017]

Publication

The first publication of this poem was in Schoolboy Lyrics published in Lahore in 1881 when Kipling was fifteen. This was an edition of around fifty for private circulation arranged by his mother the year before his arrival in the city to work as a journalist. It is listed in ORG as No 26.

Collected in
  • The Outward Bound Edition vol xvii (1900)
  • Edition de Luxe vol xviii (1900)
  • The Sussex Edition vol xxxv (1939)
  • The Burwash Edition vol xxviii (1941)
  • Early Verse by Rudyard Kipling (1986) Ed. Rutherford, p. 93
  • Cambridge Edition (2013 Ed. Pinney) p. 1196.
The poem

A sad conversation, overheard at the circus. A young woman tells a former friend how her life has fallen apart. She is now a streetwalker, living in poverty in a cold cold room. It is headed, in the various editions in which it is collected, "Supposed to be after Browning".

Background

After his unhappy years at Southsea, Kipling was sent to United Services College at Westward Ho! in Devon at the age of twelve, in 1878. Because of his poor eyesight he was no good at games, and the Head, Cormell Price, gave him the freedom of his library, where he read voraciously. See Stalky & Co. pp. 217-8)

Ann Weygandt (pp. 103-106) writes:
At Southsea he found an old magazine with extracts from Tennyson's poems; both at his aunt's, and in the Head's library, Swinburne was available to him; but, if he does not deliberately mislead us in Stalky & Co., it was [Browning's] Men and Women thrown at his head by "King" that had the first place in his affections.
Ann Weygandt goes on to identify a number of Browning's poems which the young Kipling was attached to, and continues:
"Fra Lippo Lippi," however, means more to Kipling than any of them. He sees a resemblance between his own miserable days at Southsea and the boy Lippo's in Florence and feels that he, as well as the painter, profited in some ways from his misery.
See Thomas Pinney's Introduction (pp. xxx to xxxii) to the Cambridge edition of Something of Myself (1990) for a further account of Kipling's affinity with the 15th century artist-monk, one of the founders of artistic realism.

Weygandt goes on to comment:
It is not difficult to understand Kipling's devotion to Browning. He shares with him a tremendous interest in people, and a liking for reconstructing the life of a former day. He enjoys the flashes of description—"On the neck the small face buoyant, like a bell-flower on its bed"—and the brief aphorismic passages, such as "If you get simple beauty and naught else You get about the best thing God invents."

Admiration soon led to imitation. At least two of the poems in Schoolboy Lyrics are deliberate parody, and many more show unmistakable signs of Browning's influence. "Overheard" and "The Jam-Pot" have both caught Browning's jerky, exclamatory style. The first copies his tendency to employ widely separated rhymewords—the scheme of the opening stanza is abccdbda—as well as his decided leaning toward the introduction of foreign phrases, here exemplified in "Voilà tout" and "Entre nous."
See also "The Beginner", one of the splendid array of later parodies in the first series of "The Muse among the Motors" (1904).

William Dillingham in his "Hell and Heroism" (p. 4), suggests another influence on the poem:
... the poem is a kind of parody of Browning in meter and rhyme. However, the work suggests more of a kinship with Thomas Hardy than with Robert Browning, for it deals with a subject and situation similar to that of "The Ruined Maid" (written earlier but published after Kipling's poem): a young woman who has taken to the streets for her livelihood is having a conversation with a former friend about her present occupation. As Louis L. Cornell has astutely observed, the poem "reminds us less of Browning than of naturalistic fiction." Scarcely more than a child himself, the young Kipling succeeded with amazing precocity in depicting effectively the coldness, despair, emptiness, and hopelessness of the girl prostitute.

Notes on the text


[line 3] sawdust Circuses of the time used to have sawdust on the floor, as would public houses.

[line 8] equestriennes girls riding horses .

[line 17] A babble of children a play on the convention of words expressing a number of birds or animals - a pride of lions, a gaggle of geese etc.

[line 3] Voilà tout that's all. (French.)

[line 41] Took to the streets became a prostitute.

[line 42] Entre nous between ourselves (French.)

[line 45] Au quatrième on the fourth floor.


©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2017 All rights reserved