Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Five Epitaphs from Kipling

Some of the tersest, bitterest, and most moving verse on the war is contained in his collection of 33 epitaphs. Here are five of my favorite.


My son was killed while laughing at some jest. I would I knew
What it was, and it might serve me in a time when jests are few.


I could not look on Death, which being known,
Men led me to him, blindfold and alone. 


Ah, would swift ships had never been, for then we ne’er had found,
These harsh Ægean rocks between, this little virgin drowned,
Whom neither spouse nor child shall mourn, but men she nursed through pain
And—certain keels for whose return the heathen look in vain. 


If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied. 


I could not dig: I dared not rob:
Therefore I lied to please the mob.
Now all my lies are proved untrue
And I must face the men I slew.
What tale shall serve me here among
Mine angry and defrauded young? 

The full collection of epitaphs can be found at the Kipling Society HERE


  1. I have treasured "The Dead Statesman" for many years and share it with every audience at various forums.

  2. Kipling is my favorite author of all time. Barrack Room Ballads remains my favorite.

  3. I've never read the VAD epitaph before, and as I'm writing my next blog post on a VAD poet (Carola Oman), this was very poignant . []

  4. It seems ‘epitaphs’ are in the spotlight, as we saw some by Housman a week or so ago (‘A Litmus Test War Poet’). I venture to offer a few more of his short war verses for interest:
    My dreams are of a field afar / And blood and smoke and shot. / There in their graves my comrades are, / In my grave I am not. // I too was taught the trade of man / And spelt the lesson plain; / But they, when I forgot and ran, / Remembered and remain.
    (2) Here are echoes of the closing lines of Owen’s “Strange Meeting”:
    I did not lose my heart in summer’s even, / When roses to the moonrise burst apart: / When plumes were under heel and lead was flying, / In blood and smoke and flame I lost my heart. // I lost it to a soldier and a foeman, / A chap that did not kill me, but he tried; / That took the sabre straight and took it striking / And laughed and kissed his hand to me and died.
    (3) Lastly two verses that could be written on the fly leaf of your copy of “Testament of Youth”:
    Ask me no more, for fear I should reply; / Others have held their tongues, and so can I; / Hundreds have died, and told no tale before: / Ask me no more, for fear I should reply - // How one was true and one was clean of stain / And one was braver than the heavens are high, / And one was fond of me: and all are slain. / Ask me no more, for fear I should reply.

  5. I have photographed many headstones from WW1/WW2 and the one I always remember is one with the wording at the base "An American Boy" This is in a Churchyard section to the Royal Air Force in the UK