Jack Barrett went to Quetta

It’s strange how sometimes we (that is to say, I – but I doubt that you’re any different) only want to read something new and contemporary while at other times we go back to what I suppose is the mental comfort food of books we have loved in the past. That’s certainly the mood I was in when I picked up Rudyard Kipling’s Collected Poems. I stuck to the early stuff, before he became the laureate of Empire, not because I don’t like his later work but because that was the mood I happened to be in. And I came across The Story of Uriah.
I’ve loved this poem since I was seventeen and in the first year of the Sixth Form and it was painstakingly explained to the English A-level class. If you know the background, pass on to the end where you will find the poem; if not, this might touch you as it did me all those years ago.
The title comes from the Book of Samuel which tells how David wanted Bathsheba so much and so illicitly that he sent her husband, Uriah the Hittite, to die in battle. Kipling leaves us in no doubt that that is the background to his tale because, as well as calling the poem The Story of Uriah, he quotes the words, “Now there were two men in one city; the one rich and the other poor” and the Bible tells us that the prophet Nathan used these words to begin a parable with which he rebuked David for arranging Uriah’s death. In that parable, the rich man has an abundance of domestic livestock while the poor man has only a single lamb, yet when a visitor needs to be entertained it is the poor man’s lamb that the rich man feeds him on. When David expressed disgust at the rich man’s actions, Nathan said, ‘You are that man.’ We are not, then, in any doubt about the poem’s subject.
And nor were Kipling’s fellow-expatriates when he published The Story of Uriah in The Civil and Military Gazette on March 3rd, 1886 because a quote from the time says, ‘Those who had known the real “Jack Barrett”, good fellow that he was, and the vile superior and faithless wife who sent him “on duty” to his death, felt the heat of the spirit which inspired Kipling’s verse in a way that gave those few lines an imperishable force.’
So that’s why I like it. And here it is:

Jack Barrett went to Quetta
Because they told him to.
He left his wife at Simla
On three-fourths his monthly screw.
Jack Barrett died at Quetta
Ere the next month’s pay he drew.

Jack Barrett went to Quetta.
He didn’t understand
The reason of his transfer
From the pleasant mountain-land.
The season was September,
And it killed him out of hand.

Jack Barrett went to Quetta
And there gave up the ghost,
Attempting two men’s duty
In that very healthy post;
And Mrs. Barrett mourned for him
Five lively months at most.

Jack Barrett’s bones at Quetta
Enjoy profound repose;
But I shouldn’t be astonished
If now his spirit knows
The reason of his transfer
From the Himalayan snows.

And, when the Last Great Bugle Call
Adown the Hurnai throbs,
And the last grim joke is entered
In the big black Book of Jobs.
And Quetta graveyards give again
Their victims to the air,
I shouldn’t like to be the man
Who sent Jack Barrett there.

I’d really like to know how Jack Barrett’s wife and her powerful lover felt at seeing their infamy displayed for all to see, but if anyone recorded that story I have yet to find it.

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2 Comments on “Jack Barrett went to Quetta”

  1. sfhopkins
    December 19, 2014 at 6:51 am #

    Nice piece. I didn’t know the Samuel story properly–I’d heard of Uriah the Hittite, but I always supposed he was a baddy and when I think about it I can see that the reason for that is Dickens’s use of the name. Uriah Heep was such a nasty oleaginous hypocritical creep I assumed Dickens took the name from his biblical predecessor. Obviously not.

  2. jlmandrill
    December 19, 2014 at 2:05 pm #

    Hi, Suzie. My assumption would be that Dickens knew a Uriah who was–as you describe Heep–an oleaginous creep and used the name for that purpose. Bathsheba is of course another name that pops up in literature, in her case in Far From the Madding Crowd. I saw the 1967 film version when it first came out and Bathsheba for me will forever be Julie Christie.

    Is Julie Christie the English actress who drinks her own wee? I can’t be sure but I really think she might be. What Hardy (or Kipling) would have made of that I can’t imagine.

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