“The Vampyre” by Rudyard Kipling


I should say right up front that I don’t understand this poem. Because I can make so little sense of it, I don’t like it. I have read it and reread it, and broken it down logically and grammatically, and still have reached no satisfying conclusion on the natures of the narrator (a “fool” he calls himself) and the strange, possibly evil woman he “calls his lady fair.” Nor do I understand the various parenthetical statements. It is frustrating. I have yet to figure out who the vampire of the title is, although I am assured that the monster must be there, because the poem is first in a collection entitled Rudyard Kipling’s Tales of Horror & Fantasy, with an introduction by Neil Gaiman (ed., Stephen Jones. New York: Fall River Press, 2010).

If you can explicate this poem for me, please do!

Rudyard Kipling (1865 – 1936)

The Vampyre

A fool there was and he made his prayer
(Even as you and I!)
To a rag and a bone and a hank of hair,
(We called her the woman who did not care),
But the fool he called her his lady fair–
(Even as you and I!)

Oh the years we waste and the tears we waste,
And the work of our head and hand,
Belong to the woman who did not know
(And now we know that she never could know)
And did not understand!

A fool there was and his goods he spent,
(Even as you and I!)
Honor and faith and a sure intent
But a fool must follow his natural bent
(And it wasn’t the least what the lady meant),
(Even as you and I!)

Oh the toil we lost and the spoil we lost
And the excellent things we planned
Belong to the woman who didn’t know why
(And now we know she never knew why)
And did not understand!

The fool we stripped to his foolish hide,
(Even as you and I!)
Which she might have seen when she threw him aside–
(But it isn’t on record the lady tried)
So some of him lived but the most of him died–
(Even as you and I!)

‘And it isn’t the shame and it isn’t the blame
That stings like a white hot brand–

It’s coming to know that she never knew why
(Seeing at last she could never know why)
And never could understand!’

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Author: David

I’m a young Christian American reader writer dreamer wanderer walker flier listener talker scholar adventurer musician word-magician romantic critic religious idealist optipessimist man.

12 thoughts on ““The Vampyre” by Rudyard Kipling”

  1. Huh. Interesting. It seems to be a take on the Medieval trope of Chivalric love and “Lady Fair” who does not even know that her lover exists – because the silly man won’t approach her – but is blamed for him becoming like the living dead. But *why* he is writing this I have no idea: this vampirism is his own fault.

    1. That could be it, quite possibly. I guess he wasted away into vampirism because of lovesickness? That’d be an odd spin on the old legend, but perhaps in keeping with a Gothic-romantic tradition. But what are we to make of “the fool we stripped to his foolish hide”? Who is “we”? I dunno. *throws up hands* I like poetry to be more readily comprehensible than this.

  2. Having little background in medieval tropes or Gothic traditions, I can only say how it strikes me: that the fool’s “natural bent” was, perhaps, blood-sucking rather than what might have been expected (which I suppose to be conventional sexual lusts); he was punished for that appetite by being stripped and left in sunlight (that being fatal to traditional vampires, if memory serves); and the burning of the light hurt less than the lady’s rejection. And the onlooker who narrates reflects on how everyone else suffers, if less literally, from their own unrequited affections.

    As for the lady herself, I am bewildered on account of the relic of the first verse. Alack.

    1. That’s as good an interpretation as ours, certainly. It accounts for the vampirism a little better. *scratches head* Oh well, maybe some Kipling scholar somewhere knows what he meant.

  3. Is the lady the Vampyre then? Being described as rather corpse-like and unknowing and inhuman . . . . and so has the opposite effect as Dante’s Beatrice?

    Ah! This so so confusing! Kipling usually had a straight forward moral, but here he is somewhat annoyingly convoluted. Meh.

  4. Ok, here goes.

    The Woman is the Vampyre. She is an uncaring woman though she may be oblivious to the effect she’s had on her victim.

    The Victim isn’t the author but an unknown (to us) acquaintance of the author.

    The author is reporting the plight of the victim, a man in love with a woman who knowingly or unknowingly does not return his affection.

    The victim strives mightily for her affection to no avail and wastes away pining for her and drifts to his ruin.

    The repeated line (Even as You and I) refer to the effect that women have on men in general. Men have a habit of doing foolish things in the name of women.

    She is never aware (or is to her amusement) of the ruin she has caused her victim which is apparent, and apparently familiar, to the author.

    The Vampyre motif is dramatic license of a type often used in victorian poetry. The principles are all quite normal.

    Also note that not a single name is given. The poem lends itself to any similar circumstance.

    The “relic” is the woman. The author is letting us know that she is quite common and unremarkable to you or I despite being the victims “Lady Fair” “A rag (her dress), a bone (her frail frame), and a hank of hair (her hair).

    I would like to suggest an old silent film based on the poem called “A Fool there was”. Seeing it will explain all.

    I mean this in the nicest possible way. I envy your not understanding the poem. It denotes the missing of some rather unfortunate misadventures at a woman’s hands on your part. Bravo.

    Sincerely Vargr

    1. You got it right, a straight forward interpretation of the poem. I never encountered such an uncaring vamp, but being a woman myself, maybe that’s understandable. Somebody wrote a poetic response – similar situation, rhyme and meter – about a woman entranced by an uncaring man. Now, that I have experienced. As Kipling says, “Even as you and I.” I wonder if he himself did fall for a “vampire” and wrote the poem as a cynical observer after the disillusionment..

  5. Thanks for the analysis. It makes lots of sense, and perhaps that is all Kipling really meant — certainly that’s the interpretation A Fool There Was (1915) seems to take; from its IMDb description, it seems to be the film responsible for making the term “vamp” synonymous with femme fatale. I haven’t seen it, but I do like silent movies.

    Line 3 still seems odd in this non-fantasy context; perhaps Kipling is commenting on the moral quality of the woman. She may be seductive, but because her body is being used for evil purposes, it’s only worth being called “a bone and a hank of hair.” Something like that.

    Don’t necessarily assume that, just because I found Kipling’s poem a little opaque. I haven’t been so unfortunate as the Victim, but one’s understanding of a poem isn’t predicated completely on one’s life experiences.

    I do appreciate your analysis, though. It is very helpful!

    All the best,

    1. Thanks for the comment. The poem very well may be inspired by Stoker’s novel; I wouldn’t be surprised in the least. I just found the wording of the poem to be confusing, and so I and the other commentators were trying to work out what Kipling himself was trying to say. Thanks again!

  6. I’m in the process of reading (almost through) Dracula, and I fail to see a resemblance, so I wonder what kind of inspiration that could have afforded, if it was so.
    The poem struck me in a similar way to Tim Etsy… that the woman is the unwitting “vampyre” and the fool is the victim that she did not intend to “suck dry.” I can’t say I like the poem, but my dislike doesn’t come from a feeling of not understanding it. I dislike it for the hints that this is the way of all women. Maybe I read too much into it, but “even as you and I” seems to indicate that Woman, rather than a woman, is the Vampyre. A rather insulting thought if that was intended.

    1. I felt the same way, and so did the woman who wrote the response, same rhyme scheme and meter, but from the point of view of a lady entranced by an uncaring man. The role of “vampire” fits both sexes.

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