(notes by Philip Holberton)
In 1929 Kipling published in The Legion Book a poem called “The English Way” which seemed totally remote from contemporary political issues. It was written tin the form of a border ballad, and its opening lines announced its kinship with two famous examples of the genre – “The Battle of Otterburn” and “Chevy Chase.” These were, respectively, the Scottish and English versions of a battle fought in 1388 between the Scots, led by the Earl of Douglas, and the English, led by Sir Henry Percy, Shakespeare’s Hotspur. [Henry IV Part 1]In that ballad, Percy (Earl of Northumberland – the names are equivalent) is in exile in Scotland. Douglas invites him to a “shooting” but Douglas’ own sister warns him that her brother is planning treachery. In proof, she shows his chamberlain, by magic learnt from her mother, three English lords who are waiting in ambush:
“The English Way” has, however, only indirect connections with the traditional ballads. It opens “after” the battle of Otterburn, and departs from historical events and the earlier ballads in assuming that Percy has been killed in the battle.[Kipling does not actually mention “Chevy Chase” but he follows it, for in that version of the battle Percy was killed: Ed.] Percy's shade is addressed by a "witch-wife", who is also a Kipling addition, though the idea for her may have been picked up from a related poem, "Northumberland Betrayed by Douglas".
My mother, she was a witch woman,Keating continues:
And part of it she learned me;
She would let me see out of Lough Leven
What they did in London city.
The witch-wife questions Percy about the attitude of his men towards war, and is told that they are enormously brave, yet so modest that, off the battlefield, it would be difficult to recognise them as warriors at all::The title of “Et Dona Ferentes” (written in 1896) is a quotation from Virgil’s Aeneid: 'I fear the Greeks ... even when they bring gifts', and Kipling's poem ends with the line: 'But oh, beware my Country, when my Country grows polite!'We would not speak of steel or steed,Impressed by Percy's account, the witch-wife promises that the same qualities will characterise Englishmen for ever. It will be the "English way" to hide strength and determination beneath an outward display of complaints and indifference. "The English Way" is in effect a reworking, for the special conditions of the late 1920s, of earlier poems, such as "Et Dona Ferentes" and "The Puzzler". Then, as now, Kipling was warning potential enemies that they should not be misled by the English talk of pacifism, disarmament, and never becoming involved in another war: if the country should be threatened again, then the true spirit of England, epitomised by Percy and blessed by the witch-wife, would reassert itself.
Except to grudge the cost;
And he that had done the doughtiest deed
Would mock himself the most.
Their psychology is bovine, their outlook crude and raw,
They abandon vital matters to be tickled with a straw;
But the straw that they were tickled with, - the chaff that they were fed with –
They convert into a weaver’s beam to break their foeman’s head with.
And the end may be death in the heather[Verse 1 line 4 / Verse 2 line 1]
Or life on an Emperor’s throne
But whether the Eagles obey us
Or we go to the Ravens – alone …
Tidings to King Henry came[Verse 5]
Within as short a space,
That Percy of Northumberland
Was slain in Chevy Chase.
Now God be with him!” said our King,
“Since it will no better be
I trust I have within my realm
Five hundred as good as he!