Apparently written towards the close of the surge of work which began in the latter part of 1902 and culminated in the 1903 publication of The Five Nations. Collected in I.V. 1919, D.V. 1940, the Sussex Edition vol. 33 and the Burwash Edition, vol. 26.
When it was collected Kipling added ‘After the South African War’ in parentheses below the title. The poem hovers between apparently dramatising a story from the Old Testament and airing a more controversial theme. The speaker tells us that in company with other men of experience he has exposed the lies told by the priests in the name of Rimmon but that for the sake of his father he will make a show of fear and respect.
This could be read as the voice of Naaman, the general, see 2 Kings 5,18 and the note below to Stanza 1. However, the cue which links the work to the Boer War suggests this disillusion is shared between Kipling and his intimates and contemporaries; they go along with religious observance but they have proved by their own experience that there is nothing behind the stories told by the priests.
The question remains, does this disillusion extend merely to the workings of the War Office, whose elderly generals might be seen as a priestly caste in the matter of war, or does it extend to the matter of religion itself?
In the latter case it would be particularly daring to use “Rimmon”, the name of the quintessential false god of the Old Testament, as a way of referring to the Christian religion. In the case of the poem “When the cock crew” Carrie his wife restrained Kipling, at least temporarily, from publishing such an attack on organised religion. Perhaps by the time he emphasised the fact that the poem was not an exercise in historical imagination but a statement of contemporary disillusion he no longer cared to screen himself, for he added the subscript which linked the poem with the war towards the end of his life. The Sussex Edition in which it first appeared was published after his death. On the other hand, the subscript might have been intended as a smokescreen veiling a direct attack on orthodox belief.
Notes on the text
(by Mary Hamer, drawing on various sources, in particular Ralph Durand, “A Handbook to the Poetry of Rudyard Kipling" 1914.)
[Title] See 2 Kings 5,18. After being cured of leprosy by the prophet Elisha, Naaman the Syrian was converted to belief in the God of Israel. Nevertheless, in view of his public position, he was allowed to continue to accompany his King in the worship of Rimmon. The parallel with Kipling, who also enjoyed an extremely visible identity as a public man, is obvious.
[Stanza 1] for my father’s sake it is not clear what is meant by pretending for his father’s sake. Kipling senior was no believer, either in God or the War Office. Rather, the motive for pretence might be the wish to preserve and maintain a moral and ethical tradition, one presided over by a king and handed down through many generations from father to son, a tradition Kipling unquestionably did put value on. Today many of us call such passing on of values by the name of patriarchy, and argue that a more inclusive vision would neither destabilise society nor destroy morality.
[Stanza 6] See 1 Kings 18,27.The prophet Elijah set up a contest with the priests of Baal, to see which god was powerful enough to light a fire under the sacrifice. When Baal failed to respond to their prayers Elijah mocked them with suggested explanations, as used here. Kipling takes these scandalously further with ‘or was drunk or had taken a mate’. The gashing and weeping are taken from the same source.
[Stanza 7] the censer swings ritual charcoal burner on a chain, like the enthroned image in this stanza, it suggests Roman Catholic ceremonies.
[Stanza 8] sacred ark the terminology suggests the Old Testament 'Ark of the Covenant', the wooden structure which housed the sacred scriptures of the Jews or the Ark found in synagogues today; no religion is exempt from Kipling’s furious attack. Stanza 2 seemed to set an Egyptian scene, while stanza 11 could be Hindu.
[Stanza 11] picket-pins pegs driven into the ground, used in tethering horses or in securing tents.