“The Beginnings”

I’ve noticed that The Beginnings, a WWI poem by Rudyard Kipling, is rather popular on the Net. Googling its first line, “It was not part of their blood,” yields over 122,000 results. For comparison, I’ve searched for three random first lines and titles: “Stop all the clocks” (W. H. Auden, ≈136k results); “Miniver Cheevy” (E. A. Robinson, 35k); and Astronomy+Housman (A. E. Housman, obviously; 59k).

For a poem not generally considered a creative success, either in absolute terms or relative to other works by the author, it’s quite an impressive count. Unfortunately for my experiment, the number of links ultimately returned by Google is orders of magnitude lower than the search engine’s preliminary estimate. Still, if this estimate has any significance, it assigns The Beginnings an unexpectedly high rank.

Clicking on the links on the first two pages, I saw that most of the sites reproduced a modified version of Kipling’s poem. (I leave the question of these sites’ politics to the reader – caveat lector!) “The English” gave way to “The Saxon,” and the title became “The Wrath of the Awakened Saxon.” The term “Saxon” by itself sounds superficially Kiplingian – see Norman and Saxon. However, once the singular “Saxon” has replaced the plural “English,” the first stanza becomes grammatically awkward. What does “their” refer to now?

Far more interesting are the origin and meaning of the original poem. Published in 1917, it was a heartfelt piece of anti-German propaganda, subjectively honest but objectively deceitful. Kipling started hating the Hun well before the great war. He had a peculiar gift of personal aversion to the Empire’s enemies, so his political ditties rang sincere. Which does not mean true: Tommy Atkins did not hate Fritz Ackermann as much as Kipling wanted him to – not nearly.

There was also the fact that Kipling’s son John went missing in action near Loos in northwestern France in September 1915. John, like Rudyard, suffered from poor eyesight. At the start of WWI, he tried to enlist twice but was rejected both times because of his myopia. His father then arranged a commission for him. Was it essential for Germany’s defeat that every 17-year-old Englishman with thick eyeglasses should join the fighting in the trenches?

Back to the poem itself – uninteresting as it seems to me, it remains the work of a master.  Out of instinct or foresight, Kipling avoided naming names and listing misdeeds, making the poem abstract enough to suddenly become ambiguous outside its original WWI context. Actually, even within the WWI framework but without Kipling’s Teutonophobia in the background, it could read as a complex statement about the English rather than an attack on their adversaries. Then the poem would be a fitting coda to Mary Postgate, the excellent short story that precedes it in A Diversity of Creatures.


  1. The reason you’re seeing this poem everywhere is because it’s been adopted as a sort of anthem by alt-righters and white nationalists. The “wrath of the awakened Saxon” is something they see, or wish to see, in the white population of their own countries in response to various multicultural outrages.

    I don’t know why they change “English” to “Saxon.” But I think it’s possible they’re trying to evoke some sort of pan-Germanic ideology, which would be richly ironic in view of Kipling’s own feelings about Germans.

    • I wonder if more changes are made to the poem over time and if it ends up completely bastardized.

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