‘Reginald’s Peace Poem’

“I’m writing a poem on Peace,”1 said Reginald, emerging from a sweeping operation through a tin of mixed biscuits, in whose depths a macaroon or two might yet be lurking.

“Something of the kind seems to have been attempted already,” said the Other.

“Oh, I know; but I may never have the chance again. Besides, I’ve got a new fountain pen. I don’t pretend to have gone on any very original lines; in writing about Peace the thing is to say what everybody else is saying, only to say it better. It begins with the usual ornithological emotion:

‘When the widgeon westward winging
Heard the folk Vereeniginging,2
Heard the shouting and the singing—’”

“Vereeniginging is good, but why widgeon?”

“Why not? Anything that winged westward would naturally begin with a w.”

“Need it wing westward?”

“The bird must go somewhere. You wouldn’t have it hang around and look foolish. Then I’ve brought in something about the heedless hartebeest3 galloping over the deserted veldt.”

“Of course you know it’s practically extinct in those regions?”

“I can’t help that, it gallops so nicely. I make it have all sorts of unexpected yearnings:

‘Mother, may I go and maffick,4
Tear around and hinder traffic?’

Of course you’ll say there would be no traffic worth bothering about on the bare and sun-scorched veldt, but there’s no other word that rhymes with maffick.”

“Seraphic?”

Reginald considered. “It might do, but I’ve got a lot about angels later on. You must have angels in a Peace poem; I know dreadfully little about their habits.”

“They can do unexpected things, like the hartebeest.”

“Of course. Then I turn on London, the City of Dreadful Nocturnes,5 resonant with hymns of joy and thanksgiving:

‘And the sleeper, eye unlidding,
Heard a voice for ever bidding
Much farewell to Dolly Gray;6
Turning weary on his truckle-
Bed he heard the honey-suckle
Lauded in apiarian lay.’

Longfellow7 at his best wrote nothing like that.”

“I agree with you.”

“I wish you wouldn’t. I’ve a sweet temper, but I can’t stand being agreed with. And I’m so worried about the aasvogel.”8

Reginald stared dismally at the biscuit-tin, which now presented an unattractive array of rejected cracknels.

“I believe,” he murmured, “if I could find a woman with an unsatisfied craving for cracknels, I should marry her.”

“What is the tragedy of the aasvogel?” asked the Other sympathetically.

“Oh, simply that there’s no rhyme for it. I thought about it all the time I was dressing—it’s dreadfully bad for one to think whilst one’s dressing—and all lunch-time, and I’m still hung up over it. I feel like those unfortunate automobilists who achieve an unenviable notoriety by coming to a hopeless stop with their cars in the most crowded thoroughfares. I’m afraid I shall have to drop the aasvogel, and it did give such lovely local colour to the thing.”

“Still you’ve got the heedless hartebeest.”

“And quite a decorative bit of moral admonition—when you’ve worried the meaning out:

‘Cease, War, thy bubbling madness that the wine shares,
And bid thy legions turn their swords to mine shares.’

Mine shares seems to fit the case better than ploughshares.9 There’s lots more about the blessings of Peace, shall I go on reading it?”

“If I must make a choice, I think I would rather they went on with the war.”


  1. The recently concluded Boer War (1899-1902).
  2. Vereeniging is a city in South Africa. At the time it was part of the Transvaal province. The city’s name derives from the Dutch for “union”. The Treaty of Vereeniging ended the Boer War.
  3. A type of large antelope.
  4. The town of Mefeking held out against a siege by the Boers for 215 days (1899—1900). News of its relief was greeted in Britain with such joy that it led to the coinage of a short-lived verbal noun ‘mafficking’, meaning ‘celebrating loudly and extravagantly’.
  5. Punning on the title of Scottish poet James Thomson’s long poem The City of Dreadful Night (1874). (Rudyard Kipling also wrote a ‘sketch’ with the same title, published 1888.) “Nocturnes” probably refers here not to musical pieces but to the paintings of night-time London by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), which attracted a great deal of criticism at the time.
  6. “Goodbye Dolly Gray” was a song written by Will D. Cobb (lyrics) and Paul Barnes (music), ventriloquising the feelings of a soldier going off to war. It was popular in the USA during the Spanish-American War of 1898 and (after a few changes to the lyrics) in the UK during the Boer War.
  7. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882), American poet.
  8. Vulture.
  9. A reference to “they shall beat their swords into plowshares” in Isaiah 2:3-4; control of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State brought with it the right to exploit their mineral riches, such as their gold and diamond mines.

‘Reginald’s Peace Poem’ by Saki (H.H. Munro), taken from Reginald (public domain). Notes © 2019-20 Bruce Gaston. No reproduction without permission.

More on Patriotism in the City

I did some more digging on the topic of “the City, where the patriotism comes from” (‘Reginald on Worries’) after posting about it last week and it seems that my suspicions were correct. The City (meaning, when capitalised, the financial and business district of London) was very active patriotically, especially at the time of the Boer War:

In December 1899, the City decided to subsidize, equip, train, and send to South Africa a volunteer force to fight in the Boer War […] The lord mayor, Sir Alfred J. Newton, Bart., was the moving spirit behind this enterprise. On December 21 the Court of Common Council of the City of London agreed, at his urging, to provide £25,000 toward the regiment, henceforth to be known as the City Imperial Volunteers, or CIV, which would number 1,000 men. Something like fifty City companies contributed an additional £34,000, while individual City gentlemen found yet another £55,000 for the project. The entire sum of £114,000 was raised within days. Simultaneously three great shipping families, Wilson, Currie, and Evans, announced that they would transport the volunteers to South Africa free of charge. It took only three weeks for the volunteers, all Londoners, all bachelors, many employed in the City itself, and numbering 1,550 in the end, to be registered, medically certified, trained, and sent off to Africa.

The social composition of the CIV suggests that a surprising number of London’s gentlemanly capitalists were prepared to fight and die for empire. Forty-four employees of London’s leading banks volunteered, according to one count, fifty-two according to another, including “a very good percentage of Bank of England officers.” Twenty-one lawyers from the Inns of Court served. Something like two hundred brokers, jobbers, and clerks at the Stock Exchange served as well. “The Stock Exchange has had some very nasty things said about it,” boasted the Financial Times of January 15, but “what other similar body of private individuals in the country has sent anything like so large a proportion?”

It was not only the elite of the City who volunteered, however, but rather a broad cross section of its working population.

[…]

Common sense suggests, and research confirms almost immediately, that the empire tugged not only at purse strings but at heartstrings too. Men were unlikely to volunteer for service in South Africa and to risk their lives solely for their profit margins. They fought and died for something better, something larger.

They accepted British rationales for the conflict at face value and repeated them to one another. “We have been forced to the arbitrament of war,” declared the lord mayor to five hundred CIVs at their swearing-in ceremony, ”and we shall not sheathe the sword until our supremacy in South Africa is established – a supremacy which will be universally welcomed as securing in that country equality before the law to all nationalities, and, in consequence, real freedom in its best and only true sense.” Some may have fought, in part, because they believed that British rule in South Africa would benefit the Africans themselves. “In time, by God’s blessing, we may hope to be enabled to extend the benefits of peace, justice and mercy throughout all the dark places of the earth,” said one gentlemanly capitalist. More common was the statement of Lord Gifford to the shareholders of the Bechuanaland Exploration Company: the war would assure “equal rights to all white men.” This would be “true liberty as we understand it.”

But to many in the City the empire stood for more than political principles; it stood for something mystical, based upon blood ties which united the Anglo-Saxon race. “The British Empire is no mere name, no congeries of independent peoples bound together only by the fact that they choose to colour all their lands pink on the map,” boasted the Financial Times of June 1, 1900. Rather the empire was an organic whole, a family, as the “magnificent enthusiasm with which the colonies have thrown themselves into the fight [against the Boers] and have clamoured for the forefront in the battlefield” demonstrated.

[…]

On numerous occasions the City turned out as one to greet returning soldiers or sailors from South Africa, suspending business to wave flags and national emblems, to cheer and sing “Rule Britannia” and “God Save the Queen,” above all, it would appear, to drink. When the City learned that Lord Dundonald’s troops finally had broken the Boer siege of Ladysmith, for example, “by one o’clock the whole of the year’s stock of champagne was sold out [at Mabey’s restaurant] and other restaurants enjoyed a similar experience.” Upon the relief of Mafeking, the stock exchange devoted three full days to celebrations. Its members arranged even for a movie camera to record these activities, so that later generations could witness the intensity of gentlemanly capitalism’s patriotic and imperial sentiment.

The extracts above are taken from London 1900: The Imperial Metropolis, pp. 85-92, by Jonathan Schneer (which I recommend as an interesting read).