(notes by Roger Ayers)
notes on the text
From many points on the horizon rose pillars of smoke. By every pathway open [to Augsburg] his terrified subjects implored from their prince either protection or peace. [Winston Churchill, Marlborough, his Life and Times, Harrap, London, 1933].However, a little over a century later, when Wellington was fighting the French on the territory of Britain's allies Portugal and Spain, plundering by Allied troops after the battle of Vittoria, 1813, so enraged him that he wrote in a despatch to Earl Bathurst:
It is quite impossible for me or any other man to command a British army under the existing system. We have in the service the scum of the earth as common soldiers ….And one of Wellinton's Generals, Maj.Gen Frederick Philipse Robinson, who served in the Peninsular 1812-1814, wrote in 1813:
... wherever we move devastation marks our steps; the Portuguese are an army of thieves, the Spaniards have no feeling for their countrymen and our soldiers would be worse than either were it not for the severe discipline.This severe discipline was the strict punishment of what was becoming known as 'looting', from the Hindustani word lut, to rob, since it was in India that it flourished in the first half of the 19th Century.
The Sikhs and Gurkhas were by far the most proficient plunderers, because they instinctively knew where to look for the most valuable loot. The European soldiers did not understand the business, and articles that might have proved a fortune to many were readily parted with for a few rupees for cash or a bottle of grog.It must be remembered that, despite Wellington's efforts, looting in the aftermath of a battle had had a long tradition and that ‘official looting’ of enemy treasure or valuable equipment, for which a British soldier or sailor could receive prize money, was only forbidden in the 1860s. It seems unlikely that Kipling had access to Forbes-Mitchell’s reminiscences three years before they were published, but he appears to have met at least one soldier who had gained the experience that his comrades had lacked in 1858.
If you've ever stole a pheasant-egg be'ind the keeper's back,is in the same spirit as the lines:
As me and my companions was setting out a snareThis is from the popular ballad, “The Lincolnshire Poacher”, (or Northamptonshire in some versions) a 'celebrated comic song' which had 'extolled the joys of poaching for over one hundred years' [Journal of the Folk-Song Society Vol.1, No.3, 1901].
'Twas then we spied the gamekeeper, for him we didn't care..
... in order to show that he or she has moved firmly out of the world of everyday common-sense discourse and into that of comic fantasy, a space where it is possible to play verbally with the forbidden, indeed even at times with the obscene, the blasphemous and the violent but only on condition that all hint of seriousness is excluded.As a consequence of this technique, the poem lacks a formal structure. The five stanzas are basically each of two quatrains, as are the refrains or 'choruses' to the first and last verses, They are, however broken by inserted directions, '(Cornet)' and '(Chorus)', which have to be omitted in order to get the lines to scan, and similarly inserted musical notations (ff) and (fff) which cannot be verbalised, although to apply them and increase the volume when reading aloud would be entirely in accord with Kipling's intentions when writing them.
We can see Kipling using a bizarre, baroque, exaggerated form of synthetic cockney for just this purpose in the outrageous comic verses of his poem "Loot" which could not possibly be written in standard English because of the danger that someone might take it seriously. Kipling's usual humorous technique of ironic comment and apparent endorsement where he casts doubt by appearing to agree is far too mild and ambiguous a method to work here. Nothing short of farce will do.