Wednesday, May 18, 2011

high on the Hurrum Hills

I like verse anthologies. I generally read them through, skimming over entries that don't grab my attention, but also trying to read with fresh eyes ones that have painful familarity. It's surprising how often these books contain things both new and admirable. A couple years back I reproduced some poems of this latter sort from Minorities, a notebook of verse which T.E. Lawrence wrote for himself and carried about in the Arabian deserts. The anthology that's currently on my nightstand is Seven ages : poetry for a lifetime, edited by David Owen (London: Michael Joseph, 1992). It's done in sections after the Shakespeare poem.* I've just begun the fourth, the soldier, and was pleased there to find Kipling's "A Code of Morals".
"A Code of Morals"
Lest you should think this story true
I merely mention I
Evolved it lately. 'Tis a most
Unmitigated misstatement.
Now Jones had left his new-wed bride to keep his house in order,
And hied away to the Hurrum Hills above the Afghan border,
To sit on a rock with a heliograph; but ere he left he taught
His wife the working of the Code that sets the miles at naught.

And Love had made him very sage, as Nature made her fair;
So Cupid and Apollo linked , per heliograph, the pair.
At dawn, across the Hurrum Hills, he flashed her counsel wise -
At e'en, the dying sunset bore her husband's homilies.

He warned her 'gainst seductive youths in scarlet clad and gold,
As much as 'gainst the blandishments paternal of the old;
But kept his gravest warnings for (hereby the ditty hangs)
That snowy-haired Lothario, Lieutenant-General Bangs.

'T'was General Bangs, with Aide and Staff, who tittupped on the way,
When they beheld a heliograph tempestuously at play.
They thought of Border risings, and of stations sacked and burnt -
So stopped to take the message down - and this is what they learnt -

"Dash dot dot, dot, dot dash, dot dash dot" twice. The General swore.
"Was ever General Officer addressed as 'dear' before?
"'My Love,' i' faith! 'My Duck,' Gadzooks! 'My darling popsy-wop!'
"Spirit of great Lord Wolseley, who is on that mountain top?"

The artless Aide-de-camp was mute, the gilded Staff were still,
As, dumb with pent-up mirth, they booked that message from the hill;
For clear as summer lightning-flare, the husband's warning ran: -
"Don't dance or ride with General Bangs -- a most immoral man."

[At dawn, across the Hurrum Hills, he flashed her counsel wise -
But, howsoever Love be blind, the world at large hath eyes.]
With damnatory dot and dash he heliographed his wife
Some interesting details of the General's private life.

The artless Aide-de-camp was mute, the shining Staff were still,
And red and ever redder grew the General's shaven gill.
And this is what he said at last (his feelings matter not): -
"I think we've tapped a private line. Hi! Threes about there! Trot!"

All honour unto Bangs, for ne'er did Jones thereafter know
By word or act official who read off that helio.
But the tale is on the Frontier, and from Michni to Mooltan
They know the worthy General as "that most immoral man."
About which you might wish to know:
First printed in Civil and Military Gazette, April 6th, 1886, the poem appeared in the New York Tribune on July 6th, 1890. We do not know whether this light-hearted piece was based on a true story, or whether Kipling, intrigued by the possibilities of intercepting heliograph messages, simply made up the incident. The heading suggests the latter, but his readers in Simla or Lahore may have known otherwise. The original heading ('...‘Tis my nineth...') implies that most of his verses were his own inventions, but in fact much of their appeal was that they echoed the scandals and rumours of the day. -- "A Code of Morals" (notes edited by Roberta Baldi)

{Heliograph being used by British soldiers during the Boer War, from the Illustrated London News, 1879; source:}

{William Mulready, The Seven Ages of Man (1838); source:}


Some sources:

Heliograph, article in wikipedia

notes on "A Code of Morals" by Roberta Baldi

What Are The "Seven Ages Of Man"?

William Mulready. The Seven Ages of Man. 1838.



* Here's what Shakespeare wrote:
At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
Then, the whining schoolboy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden, and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice
In fair round belly, with good capon lin'd,
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws, and modern instances,
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose, and pouch on side,
His youthful hose well sav'd, a world too wide,
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again towards childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
-- The Seven Ages of Man, William Shakespeare

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