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Sunday, May 02, 2021

Rudyard Kipling's "The Old Issue"

In his Youngstown concurrence, Justice Jackson quoted the following verse from Rudyard Kipling: "Leave to live by no man's leave, underneath the Law." (Jackson quoted the same verse in his opening statement at Nuremberg.) The poem is called "The Old Issue," but was called "The King" in some publications. Kipling wrote the poem in 1899 just before the outbreak of the Second Boer War and implied that the Boers supported despotism while Britain supported liberty. I don't think that this was true, and the Boer War was sort of like the Crimean War--pointless. Nevertheless, the poem is interesting because Kipling talked at length about the abuses of executive power, which was, of course, the issue in Youngstown

At the end of the first stanza, Kipling invoked Magna Carta: "It is the King--the King we schooled aforetime!/(Trumpets in the marshes-in the eyot at Runnymede." Then in the second stanza he alluded to the execution of Charles I: "It is the King--inexorable Trumpets--(Trumpets round the scaffold at the dawning by Whitehall.")

Then he comes to his central theme about England's long and painful fight to restrain royal power:

All we have of freedom, all we use or know--
This our fathers bought for us long and long ago.
Ancient Right unnoticed as the breath we draw--
Leave to live by no man's leave, underneath the Law.
Lance and torch and tumult, steel and grey-goose wing
Wrenched it, inch and ell and all, slowly from the king.

Till our fathers 'stablished,, after bloody years,          
How our King is one with us, first among his peers. 

So they bought us freedom-not at little cost--         
Wherefore must we watch the King, lest our gain be lost."

. . .

Here is naught unproven--here is naught to learn,
It is written what shall fall if the King return
He shall mark our goings, question whence we came,
Set his guards about us, as in Freedom's name.

He shall take a tribute, toll of all our ware;
He shall change our gold for arms--arms we may not bear.

He shall break his Judges if they cross his word;
He shall rule above the Law calling on the Lord.

He shall peep and mutter; and the night shall bring
Watchers 'neath our window, lest we mock the King --

Hate and all division; hosts of hurrying spies;
Money poured in secret, carrion breeding flies.

Strangers of his counsel, hirelings of his pay,
These shall deal our Justice: sell-deny-delay.

We shall drink dishonour, we shall eat abuse
For the Land we look to--for the Tongue we use.

We shall take our station, dirt beneath his feet,
While his hired captains jeer us in the street.

Cruel in the shadow, crafty in the sun,
Far beyond his borders shall his teachings run.

Sloven, sullen, savage, secret, uncontrolled,
Laying on a new land evil of the old--

Long-forgotten bondage, dwarfing heart and brain--
All our fathers died to loose he shall bind again.

I have a couple of observations thus far. First, there is there reference to "arms we may not bear," which implies a right to bear arms that the King will take away. Second, there is the claim that the King would be above the Law. Third, there is the fear that free speech (the right to mock the King) will disappear. Fourth, there is another reference to Magna Carta in the line about no "sell-deny-delay" of Justice.

Perhaps there is more to uncover here, but this is my first attempt to understand "The Old Issue."

Posted by Gerard Magliocca on May 2, 2021 at 09:15 PM | Permalink


I notice some confusion about the reference to the RKBA in the poem. It is worth noting that England did not have gun control laws until the threat of socialist revolution in the early 20th century around 1920 as I recall. The NRA was invented in England in the tradition of laws requiring yeomen to train with longbows. It was imitated in the US by American Generals who thought it was a good idea. The average Victorian was as devoted to the RKBA as any member of the NRA in the use. What reduced gun violence in England was an unarmed constabulary. The English were so sensitive to royal arrogance that they would not allow an armed police force swaggering through their neighborhoods, so for decades they had an armed populace and an unarmed constabulary. As people saw the police going about their routine business without guns, guns seemed less and less important. Criminals felt less need for guns and knew that shooting an unarmed officer was not good for them. So that is how England actually reduced gun violence. There have been a lot of studies of gun control laws and not a single one has ever shown any effect on normal criminal gun violence. On the contrary, they seem to cause mass shootings by wrapping guns in an aura of power and fear which make them attractive to emotionally disturbed individuals.

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