I came across this poem in Gene Wolfe’s masterful four-volume work The Book of the New Sun, where he uses its opening stanza to preface (and in some respects, to set the scene for) the fourth book in the series. Apparently, Kipling wrote the poem as part of a cycle of poems for A School History of England in 1911, and it bears the subtitle ‘The Fifteenth Century’ because it closes a chapter in that collection covering the period from 1377 to 1485 (or from Richard II to Richard III).
Kipling’s religious beliefs were idiosyncratic and slightly opaque (he famously described himself, at the age of forty-two, as a ‘God-fearing Christian atheist’), and so I would not want to attribute anything to his poetry which was not intended by the author himself. However, his self-description (and the environment – imperial British India – in which he was brought up) certainly suggests that he would have been at the very least conversant in Christian language and themes, and so an interpretation of his poetry which attempts to find such imagery therein would not necessarily be committing an act of interpretative violence. It may be an incorrect reading, but not a completely forced or unwarranted one.
With this in mind, I have to say that I see the following poem as having a decidedly pentecostal flavour to it, and so as being most appropriate for reading the day after we have celebrated that particular feast. The image of Holy Spirit as wind is a familiar one, even to those with only a passing familiarity with Scripture, and so it is hard not to make such associations when reading a poem that not only has the operations of the wind (a term capitalised by Kipling) as its primary concern, but also puts these operations in the context of the rising sun (which is ‘called’ by the Wind), and ends with fetters being broken and the souls of humanity being instilled with a sense of affirmative hope and joy.
Overall there is indeed a great sense of hope to this beautiful poem, with its preponderant imagery of night passing and dawn breaking, refreshment and annunciation, and which I cannot help associating with Pentecost, telling as it does of the sense of hope and joy we receive from the Holy Spirit, who leads us to a new dawn in Christ. As I have said already, I have no idea at all whether this is anything close to what Kipling intended, but the pentecostal connection certainly doesn’t detract from the essential mood of the piece, and regardless of the author’s intention, I think it provides a wonderful means for meditation on the illuminating and enlivening power of the Spirit:
At two o’clock in the morning, if you open your window and listen,
You will hear the feet of the Wind that is going to call the sun.
And the trees in the shadow rustle and the trees in the moonlight glisten,
And though it is deep, dark night, you feel that the night is done.
So do the cows in the field. They graze for an hour and lie down,
Dozing and chewing the cud; or a bird in the ivy wakes,
Chirrups one note and is still, and the restless Wind strays on,
Fidgeting far down the road, till, softly, the darkness breaks.
Back comes the Wind full strength with a blow like an angel’s wing,
Gentle but waking the world, as he shouts: “The Sun! The Sun!”
And the light floods over the fields and the birds begin to sing,
And the Wind dies down in the grass. It is day and his work is done.
So when the world is asleep, and there seems no hope of her waking
Out of some long, bad dream that makes her mutter and moan,
Suddenly, all men arise to the noise of fetters breaking,
And every one smiles at his neighbour and tells him his soul is his own!