The Absent-Minded Beggar by Rudyard Kipling (1899)

Kipling’s response to the outbreak of the Boer War on 11 October 1899 was characteristically practical. Within days he had written what was to become one of his most successful poems, The Absent-Minded Beggar, designed to raise funds for the families of soldiers fighting in the Boer War.

Once set to music by Sir Arthur Sullivan and illustrated by artist Richard Caton Woodville, it became a popular sensation, the ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ of its time, raising the unheard-of sum of £250,000.

Richard Caton Woodville's illustration of The Absent-Minded Beggar

Richard Caton Woodville’s illustration of The Absent-Minded Beggar

As soon as the war broke out the Government started mobilising its Reservists, mostly ex-soldiers. For many poor families this meant disaster as they lost their sole breadwinner, who would probably be replaced at his job when he went off to war, with no guarantee of getting it back when he returned. As a wave of patriotism swept the country, many newspapers launched charitable fundraising efforts to benefit the Reservists and their dependents, including the popular and jingoistic Daily Mail.

This caught the attention of Rudyard Kipling who wrote The Absent-Minded Beggar on 16 October 1899 and sent the poem to the Mail’s proprietor, Alfred Harmsworth on 22 October, telling him to use it as he saw fit to raise money.

By 25 October Kipling was corresponding with Harmsworth about how to maximise revenue from the poem by having it recited at music halls. The poem was published in The Daily Mail on 31 October 1899 and was an immediate success. Maud Tree, the wife of actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree, recited it at the Palace Theatre every night before the main performance for fourteen months. Other performers recited it at music halls and elsewhere up and down the land, giving all the profits to the fund.

The country’s premier composer, Sir Arthur Sullivan, was asked to set the poem to music. (In 1897 Sullivan had agreed to compose music for Kipling’s poem Recessional, but never completed the setting.) Both Kipling and Sullivan gave all their fees go the charity. Within a few days leading graphic artist Richard Caton Woodville provided an illustration, titled ‘A Gentleman in Kharki’, showing a wounded but defiant British Tommy in battle, and this illustration was included in ‘art editions’ of the poem and song.

Sullivan wrote the music in four days and the first public performance was sung by John Coates, under Sullivan’s baton, at the Alhambra Theatre on 13 November 1899, to a ‘magnificent reception’. The song perfectly captured the jingoistic mood of the nation. The Daily Chronicle wrote that ‘It has not been often that the greatest of English writers and the greatest of English musicians have joined inspiring words and stirring melody in a song which expresses the heart feelings of the entire nation’. Can you think of any other time it has happened?

The poem, song and piano music sold in extraordinary numbers, as did all kinds of household items, postcards, memorabilia and other merchandise emblazoned, woven or engraved with the ‘Gentleman in Kharki’ figure, the poem itself, the sheet music, or humorous illustrations. 40 clerks were hired to answer 12,000 requests a day for copies of the poem, and it was included in 148,000 packets of cigarettes within two months of the first performance.

The Daily Mail‘s charitable fund was renamed the ‘Absent-Minded Beggar Fund’. Among other activities it met the soldiers on arrival in South Africa, welcomed them on their return to Britain and set up overseas centres to minister to the sick and wounded.

The poem’s success was not limited to Britain. Newspapers around the world published the poem, hundreds of thousands of copies were quickly sold internationally, and the song was sung widely in theatres and music halls abroad. Local ‘Absent Minded Beggar Relief Corps’ branches were opened in Trinidad, Cape Town, Ireland, New Zealand, China, India and numerous places throughout the world.

The fund eventually raised the unprecedented amount of more than £250,000. The Daily Mail asserted, ‘The history of the world can produce no parallel to the extraordinary record of this poem.’ In November Lord Salisbury had his secretary visit Kipling in Sussex to offer him a knighthood as a direct result of the song’s success, but he declined, as he declined all offers of State honours, which I find very admirable.

The Absent Minded Beggar

When you’ve shouted “Rule Britannia”: when you’ve sung “God Save the Queen”
When you’ve finished killing Kruger with your mouth:
Will you kindly drop a shilling in my little tambourine
For a gentleman in khaki ordered South?
He’s an absent-minded beggar and his weaknesses are great:
But we and Paul must take him as we find him:
He is out on active service wiping something off a slate:
And he’s left a lot of little things behind him!

Duke’s son – cook’s son – son of a hundred kings,
(Fifty thousand horse and foot going to Table Bay!)
Each of ’em doing his country’s work (and who’s to look after the things?)
Pass the hat for your credit’s sake, and pay – pay – pay!

There are girls he married secret, asking no permission to,
For he knew he wouldn’t get it if he did.
There is gas and coal and vittles, and the house-rent falling due,
And it’s rather more than likely there’s a kid.
There are girls he walked with casual, they’ll be sorry now he’s gone,
For an absent-minded beggar they will find him,
But it ain’t the time for sermons with the winter coming on:
We must help the girl that Tommy’s left behind him!

Cook’s son – Duke’s son – son of a belted Earl,
Son of a Lambeth publican – it’s all the same to-day!
Each of ’em doing his country’s work (and who’s to look after the girl?)
Pass the hat for your credit’s sake, and pay – pay – pay!

There are families by the thousands, far too proud to beg or speak:
And they’ll put their sticks and bedding up the spout,
And they’ll live on half o’ nothing paid ’em punctual once a week,
‘Cause the man that earned the wage is ordered out.
He’s an absent-minded beggar, but he heard his country’s call,
And his reg’ment didn’t need to send to find him;
He chucked his job and joined it – so the task before us all
Is to help the home that Tommy’s left behind him!

Duke’s job – cook’s job – gardener, baronet, groom –
Mews or palace or paper-shop – there’s someone gone away!
Each of ’em doing his country’s work (and who’s to look after the room?)
Pass the hat for your credit’s sake, and pay – pay – pay!

Let us manage so as later we can look him in the face,
And tell him what he’d very much prefer:
That, while he saved the Empire his employer saved his place,
And his mates (that’s you and me) looked out for her.
He’s an absent-minded beggar, and he may forget it all,
But we do not want his kiddies to remind him
That we sent ’em to the workhouse while their daddy hammered Paul,
So we’ll help the homes that Tommy’s left behind him!

Cook’s home – Duke’s home – home of a millionaire –
(Fifty thousand horse and foot going to Table Bay!)
Each of ’em doing his country’s work (and what have you got to spare?)
Pass the hat for your credit’s sake, and pay – pay – pay!

The video

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Barrack Room Ballads by Rudyard Kipling (1892)

Kipling’s reputation leapt even higher on the publication in 1892 of the Barrack Room Ballads (known as ‘series 1’, since he ended up publishing a further set or ‘series 2’ in 1896).

It took me just over 40 minutes to read the 21 short poems in this book and, wow, what a punch they still pack! I love music hall songs, and so I love the voice and ballad form of these poems. I love the Cockney spelling, I love the humour which shines out of every line, the cheekiness of the soldier, and the cheekiness of Kipling’s romanticising the soldier. My favourite is Fuzzy Wuzzy, which I’ve read out numerous times to the kids (these poems being designed to recite, boom or chant out loud). There is energy and enthusiasm and verbal felicity, there is something to entertain, in every poem.

‘E rushes at the smoke when we let drive,
An’, before we know, ‘e’s ‘ackin’ at our ‘ead;
‘E’s all ‘ot sand an’ ginger when alive,
An’ ‘e’s generally shammin’ when ‘e’s dead.
‘E’s a daisy, ‘e’s a ducky, ‘e’s a lamb!
‘E’s a injia-rubber idiot on the spree,
‘E’s the on’y thing that doesn’t give a damn
For a Regiment o’ British Infantree!

For their late-Victorian audience, they also made their mark by giving ‘official’, published voice to the little-heard-from Tommy, the ordinary soldier, the backbone of the Army which policed the greatest Empire the world has ever seen. Their boisterous confidence of form and tone, their geographic sweep, their underdogs’ point of view, combined to make a great hit and Kipling into a literary sensation.

Contemporary relevance

These poems from the late 1880s refer to Britain’s ongoing wars in the Sudan, in Afghanistan and in Burma where we were attempting to bring Peace and Civilisation. I open today’s paper (May 2012) and read that civil war is once again threatening in Sudan, the Americans are finally considering ending their 10 year occupation of Afghamistan, and the Burmese military have only just allowed the first fair elections in a generation to their oppressed population. Kipling may seem like a buffoon to us now, but we’re not doing an exactly brilliant job of solving the problems his generation struggled with.

A video

I’ve found musical versions of some of the ballads, sung by the (then) world-famous Australian bass-baritone, Peter Dawson. I defy you not to smile!

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