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A Pict Song -- Rudyard Kipling

(Poem #493) A Pict Song
 Rome never looks where she treads.
   Always her heavy hooves fall
 On our stomachs, our hearts or our heads;
   And Rome never heeds when we bawl.
 Her sentries pass on -- that is all,
   And we gather behind them in hordes,
 And plot to reconquer the Wall,
   With only our tongues for our swords.

 We are the Little Folk -- we!
   Too little to love or to hate.
 Leave us alone and you'll see
   How we can drag down the State!
 We are the worm in the wood!
   We are the rot at the root!
 We are the taint in the blood!
   We are the thorn in the foot!

 Mistletoe killing an oak --
   Rats gnawing cables in two --
 Moths making holes in a cloak --
   How they must love what they do!
 Yes -- and we Little Folk too,
   We are busy as they --
 Working our works out of view --
   Watch, and you'll see it some day!

 No indeed! We are not strong,
   But we know Peoples that are.
 Yes, and we'll guide them along
   To smash and destroy you in War!
 We shall be slaves just the same?
   Yes, we have always been slaves,
 But you -- you will die of the shame,
   And then we shall dance on your graves!

   We are the Little Folk, we, etc.
-- Rudyard Kipling
        (from "The Winged Hats", Puck of Pook's Hill)

Yet another perspective on the Roman Empire - this time from the outside.
For all its glory and romance, ancient Rome could in a very real sense be
seen as an imperialistic aggressor, riding roughshod over a multitude of
other nations and cultures:

  "Rome was not the first state of organized gangsterdom, nor was it the
  last; but it was the only one that managed to bamboozle posterity into an
  almost universal admiration." -- Petr Beckmann

Of course, the truth (as always) lies somewhere in between; nonetheless it
is undeniable that most of the popular writing on the period is from the
Roman point of view. They were, after all, the victors.

Kipling has surely written his share of pro-Roman fiction and poetry;
however, one of his particular talents is the ability to write from a wide
number of viewpoints, some of them diametrically opposed, and handle each
with the same sympathy and facility. (This is most evident in his large
body of work set in the time of the British Empire). I believe this was in
large part due to his ability to look at people, cultures and nations in
their own right, and appreciate them for their own, internally consistent,
virtues, transcending in the process the (inevitably unfair) tendency to
measure them against the rigid yardstick of one particular worldview.
A recurrent theme in his works is the look at one culture as seen through
the prejudices of another, a turn of mind doubtless engendered by his own
multicultural background - indeed, I find it amazing how often he is accused
of Jingoism and of subscription to an unthinking 'British superiority'

Today's poem is from my favourite Kipling book, "Puck of Pook's Hill", a
brilliant (and ingeniously interconnected) series of tales tracing the
history of Britain from the Roman invasion up to the Magna Carta[1]. As
Thomas has mentioned earlier, one of the nicest features of Kipling's books
is his practice of starting and ending each chapter with a poem - ranging
from the direct to the tangential, these poems add greatly to the depth and
colour of the stories, as well as being wonderful standalone poetry.

The whole depiction (npi) of the Picts, both in the poem and the
accompanying story, is interesting, in that most books portray them as
savages, barely worth a mention except as the stereotypical barbaric enemy.
It is even more interesting in that the story is from the Roman point of
view, dealing with the Viking invasion to which the last verse of the poem
refers, and that neither Rome nor the Picts are portrayed as the 'bad guys'.

The poem does a beautiful job of lending a voice to an oppressed people,
fierce but powerless; proud, but with a very different notion of pride - the
lines "We shall be slaves just the same? / Yes, we have always been slaves"
are particularly poignant, and sum up the plight of the Picts perfectly.

[1] the sequel, Rewards and Fairies, while a good book in its own right,
sadly failed to recapture the magic of the original.


Not much to say about the construction - note the unobtrusive use of
alliteration, though, and the preponderance of long vowels. The latter seem
to give the poem a plaintive tinge, but I may be influenced by Leslie Fish's
setting of the poem to music, which accentuates them to good effect.


Kipling is one of my favourite poets, and has rather unsurprisingly featured
heavily in the past. Check out the archive:
[broken link]

See, in particular, poem #143,
my favourite poem from "Puck of Pook's Hill" and further evidence of
Kipling's range and diversity of subjects.

And in case I haven't made it clear enough, you are *strongly* urged to get
hold of and read "Puck of Pook's Hill"

Kipling biography: poem #17

Leslie Fish's album "Cold Iron", which sets a number of Kipling's poems to
music, is sadly out of print. In the unlikely event that you stumble across
a copy, grab it. (Her third Kipling album, 'Our Fathers of Old' looks set to
be rereleased - see [broken link]

The dominant feature in the history of Roman-Pict interaction was, of course,
Hadrian's wall. The following site is a nice overview of the subject:
[broken link]

The Beckmann quote I picked up from a thread on alt.quotations; someone
rebutted it with the Commando scene from the hilarious Monty Python sketch
'The Life of Brian'. Here it is, for the sake of completeness:
[broken link]

And of course, the Romans-as-bad-guys idea reached its apotheosis in the
Asterix comics :) Check out
if you're unfamiliar with the strip; longtime fans might enjoy the Annotated
Asterix at [broken link]


This has been an unusually fun theme to do, and one close to my heart (as
the length of the commentaries probably indicates <g>). There was, as can be
imagined, no shortage of candidate poems; I chose three that I felt
presented radically different aspects of the legend that was Ancient Rome.

It is rather revealing that all three have a military cast to them - true,
Rome was also renowned for its engineering works, but if anyone has written
an Ode to an Aqueduct I've yet to come across it. (I have seen a few 'Roman
Road' poems but they didn't really fit the spirit of the theme.)

On Themes:

We usually announce themes explicitly at the start of the week, so if you
have poem suggestions, do send them in. In particular, it'd be really nice
to extend a theme with a fourth, guest poem, so if a particular theme
catches your imagination or calls a favourite poem to mind, do write up a
few comments and send it in.


p.s. A gratuitous Latin phrase is the sine qua non of a true Ancient Rome

32 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Lars Marius Garshol said...

This poem has also been set to music by Billy Bragg on the album
'William Bloke'. Quite interesting to hear Kipling sung in a
punk-rock style by a socialist singer/song-writer in heavy northern
English accent. In fact, to me the poem acquires a different meaning
when sung by Bragg.

--Lars M.

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