Sunday, 28 February 2010

Just not that into her ... and Kipling attribution

It's usually interesting to track aphorisms down to their original context; quite often the original has a very different spin from the conventional interpretation. I just ran into a couple.

"A woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke". This is frequently portrayed as an aphoristic opinion of Kipling, but it's actually a line from The Betrothed, one of Kipling's poems from his 1886 Departmental Ditties. These generally satirical poems were written when Kipling was moving in colonial society during his years in India, many referring to real people. The dedication to this poem refers to a "breach of promise case, circa 1885" where the lady said, "You must choose between me and your cigar".

Open the old cigar-box, get me a Cuba stout,
For things are running crossways, and Maggie and I are out.

We quarrelled about Havanas — we fought o'er a good cheroot,
And I know she is exacting, and she says I am a brute.

Open the old cigar-box — let me consider a space;
In the soft blue veil of the vapour musing on Maggie's face.

Maggie is pretty to look at — Maggie's a loving lass,
But the prettiest cheeks must wrinkle, the truest of loves must pass.

There's peace in a Larranaga, there's calm in a Henry Clay;
But the best cigar in an hour is finished and thrown away —

Thrown away for another as perfect and ripe and brown —
But I could not throw away Maggie for fear o' the talk o' the town!

Maggie, my wife at fifty — grey and dour and old —
With never another Maggie to purchase for love or gold!

And the light of Days that have Been the dark of the Days that Are,
And Love's torch stinking and stale, like the butt of a dead cigar —

The butt of a dead cigar you are bound to keep in your pocket —
With never a new one to light tho' it's charred and black to the socket!

Open the old cigar-box — let me consider a while.
Here is a mild Manila — there is a wifely smile.

Which is the better portion — bondage bought with a ring,
Or a harem of dusky beauties, fifty tied in a string?

Counsellors cunning and silent — comforters true and tried,
And never a one of the fifty to sneer at a rival bride?

Thought in the early morning, solace in time of woes,
Peace in the hush of the twilight, balm ere my eyelids close,

This will the fifty give me, asking nought in return,
With only a Suttee's passion — to do their duty and burn.

This will the fifty give me. When they are spent and dead,
Five times other fifties shall be my servants instead.

The furrows of far-off Java, the isles of the Spanish Main,
When they hear my harem is empty will send me my brides again.

I will take no heed to their raiment, nor food for their mouths withal,
So long as the gulls are nesting, so long as the showers fall.

I will scent 'em with best vanilla, with tea will I temper their hides,
And the Moor and the Mormon shall envy who read of the tale of my brides.

For Maggie has written a letter to give me my choice between
The wee little whimpering Love and the great god Nick o' Teen.

And I have been servant of Love for barely a twelvemonth clear,
But I have been Priest of Cabanas a matter of seven year;

And the gloom of my bachelor days is flecked with the cheery light
Of stums that I burned to Friendship and Pleasure and Work and Fight.

And I turn my eyes to the future that Maggie and I must prove,
But the only light on the marshes is the Will-o'-the-Wisp of Love.

Will it see me safe through my journey or leave me bogged in the mire?
Since a puff of tobacco can cloud it, shall I follow the fitful fire?

Open the old cigar-box — let me consider anew —
Old friends, and who is Maggie that I should abandon you?

A million surplus Maggies are willing to bear the yoke;
And a woman is only a woman, but a good Cigar is a Smoke.

Light me another Cuba — I hold to my first-sworn vows.
If Maggie will have no rival, I'll have no Maggie for Spouse!

See Wikisource for the full text of Departmental Ditties; and The New Readers' Guide to the works of Rudyard Kipling, a superb collection of texts and concordance on the works of Kipling.

Another interesting Kipling quotation from the same collection is:

The toad beneath the harrow knows
Exactly where each tooth-point goes.
The butterfly upon the road
Preaches contentment to that toad.

It's a very dark commentary on those who comment on suffering without engaging directly. The toad and harrow is an ancient metaphor, dating at least as far back as the fables of Odo of Cheriton (see The Harrow and the Road). Kipling's poem, however, is a more specific dig at the Pagett, M.P. of the title, who thinks the climate of India is an "Asian Solar Myth" until he experiences it. The commentary on the Kipling story The Enlightenments of Pagett, M.P. gives some suggestions as to the identity of Pagett.

It's interesting to see, pre-Internet, how rapidly attribution could be lost and become extremely difficult to trace. With this poem from an 1886 collection, as soon as July 1907 Notes & Queries featured a question from a John Pickford of Newbourne Rectory, Woodridge, asking about the origin of the toad-and-harrow quatrain, which had appeared in uncredited in an article by "A Looker-On", The White Man and the British Empire, in Macmillan's Magazine for February 1907. Similarly, The American Missionary, v. 68 - 1914, reproduced it credited as "Old Song". At times I wonder which is more hassle: pre-Internet when attribution could take years to trace; or post-Internet when attribution is easy to find, but buried in a mass of misattribution?

"Literature, from the very beginning, has had a single enemy, and that is the restriction of the expressed idea. It turns out, however, that freedom of expression sometimes presents a greater threat to an idea, because forbidden thoughts may circulate in secret, but what can be done when an important fact is lost in a flood of impostors, and the voice of truth becomes drowned out in an ungodly din? When that voice, though freely resounding, cannot be heard, because the technologies of information have led to a situation in which one can receive best the message of him who shouts the loudest, even when the most falsely?"

That one's not Kipling, but Stanislaw Lem, His Master's Voice.
- Ray


  1. > ...pre-Internet ...
    > or post-Internet ...

    "But there are benefits and there are benefits. Ants that encounter in their path a dead philosopher may make good use of him."

    (Also Lem, HMV)


  2. I admit my original quotation was more than a little rhetorical. For me, post-Internet is immeasurably superior. It's just a pet gripe of mine that bibliographic misinformation - which has always been with us - spreads so easily, and I keep running into people who ought to care but don't.