(notes by Philip Holberton
and John Radcliffe)
The Kaiser, the Devil himself, could expect from Kipling even less sympathy than the Pope (whom he had just castigated in “A Song at Cock-Crow”: Ed.). "A Death Bed" was based on a report that the deposed Kaiser was dying of throat cancer. The poem interweaves three voices – those of the Kaiser, his doctors, and a commentator who makes the crucial judgement that this slow painful death is appropriate for the man who has been responsible for the death of so many other people:Background
Some die shouting in gas or fire,"A Death Bed" is Browningesque in its callous flirtation with a subject "on the dangerous edge of things" (“Bishop Bloughram’s Apology", l. 395.), the voices that never communicate with each other, and the final throwaway line.
Some die silent, by shell and shot.
Some die desperate, caught on the wire.
Some die suddenly. This will not.
Rudyard dismissed anyone who dabbled in peace proposals. They had all been infected with a German cancer that needed to be excised – an idea he took to its literal, distasteful conclusion in his poem “A Death Bed.” ... But Rudyard’s gloating insistence that only a slow death from throat cancer was good enough for the Kaiser was sadistic and nasty.Angus Wilson (pp. 301-2) also views the poem with revulsion – 'verses more revolting to me than anything else Kipling ever wrote'. But he is clear-sighted enough to see it as an expression of the widespread anti-German feeling of the time, of which he himself has childhood memories (he was born in 1913):
He [Kipling] was spokesman of very very many middle-class homes (as I can vouch for from my own memory of my family home when I was four and five years old, where anti-Germanism was an hysteria, where my mother ordered my twice-wounded brother out of the house because he expressed doubts about German barbarity; and my father told me at five how the splendid Aussies had not taken prisoners but crucified the Germans they captured, because of German wickedness to the Belgian women).Kipling and cancer
It was for such violent British feeling that he spoke. And he also spoke for himself. One of the most dreadful of all Kipling's expressions of hate is his poem of 1918 written on a rumour that the Kaiser was dying of cancer of the throat. The poem has extra overtones of horror, when we remember that it was exactly this disease that Kipling had feared so much as the family malady.
We have his word for it elsewhere that he regarded cancer of the throat as the “family complaint”Kipling himself, suffering frequent pain from undiagnosed duodenal ulcers in the last twenty years of his life, clearly feared cancer. In his last collection, Limits and Renewals, Castorley in "Dayspring Mishandled" dies painfully of the disease, and in "Unprofessional" he describes a group of researchers tracing links between the strange tides in cancer cells in human bodies and the movements of the heavenly bodies far beyond the earth. See also his "Hymn to Physical Pain" in the same collection.