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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.

Carol Ann Duffy: Mrs Aesop

Dear God, I’m glad I’m not a poet. There are differences between writers—you might say A is better than B but not quite in the same class as C, but A and B are still readable—but a poet is in the top rank or nothing. And almost none of them make the top rank.

Is there, today, a better poet writing in English than Carol Ann Duffy? I don’t think so. I was reading last night through old Poetry Reviews (as you do, that’s right) and I came across this, which I had almost forgotten, published in 1999. How could anyone forget this?

If you prefer to hear the poet read it, she’s on YouTube here:

(PS: If I’m glad not to be a poet, I’m even more glad, now, not to be married to Aesop).


Mrs Aesop

By Christ, he could bore me for Purgatory. He was small
didn’t prepossess. So he tried to impress. Dead men,
Mrs Aesop, he’d say, tell no tales.
 Well, let me tell you now
that the bird in his hand shat on his sleeve,
never mind the two worth less in the bush. Tedious.
Going out was worst. He’d stand at our gate, look, then leap;
scour the hedgerows for a shy mouse, the fields
for a sly fox, the sky for one particular swallow
that couldn’t make a summer. The Jackdaw according to
him, envied the eagle

Donkeys, would, on the whole, prefer to be
On one appalling evening stroll, we passed an old hare
snoozing in a ditch – he stopped and made a note –
and then, about a mile further on, a tortoise, somebody’s pet,
creeping, slow as a marriage, up the road. Slow
but certain, Mrs Aesop, wins the race.
What race? What sour grapes? What silk purse,
sow’s ear, dog in a manger, what big fish? Some days
I could barely keep awake as the story droned on
towards the moral of itself. Action, Mrs A., speaks louder
than words.
 And that’s another thing, the sex
was diabolical. I gave him a fable one night
about a little cock that wouldn’t crow, a razor-sharp axe
with a heart blacker than the pot that called the kettle.
I’ll cut off your tail, all right, I said, to save my face.
That shut him up. I laughed last, longest.