The sixteenth in my ongoing series examining the poetry of Rudyard Kipling. The other posts in the series may be read here, here , here , here, here , here, here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here and here.
One of the great passions in the life of Kipling was English history. Runnymede was one of several poems on English history he wrote for A School History of England (1911). Another great passion of his was liberty, and in the poem Runnymede, Kipling combined both of these passions. Whenever in English history some great struggle has arisen since 1215 the cry of Magna Carta has usually been raised. The basis of English liberty, the Great Charter has an honored place both in English and American history. To look at Magna Carta with a modern eye is initially to be disappointed, since much of it deals with disputes between his barons and King John which, at first glance, lacks any contemporary relevance. However, the binding of the power of the government, and the restriction of the scope and power of the State, is of crucial importance today, as it is in all times and places. There are passages additionally that do have a contemporary resonance:
(38) In future no official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported statement, without producing credible witnesses to the truth of it.
(39) No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.
(40) To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.
It is no accident that Saint Thomas More referred to the passage in Magna Carta that guarantees the liberty of the Church in his speech after his trial:
That Law was even contrary to the Laws and Statutes of the Kingdom yet unrepealed, as might evidently be seen by Magna Charta, wherein are these Words; Ecclesia Anglicana libera sit, & habet omnia jura integra, & libertates suas illcesas: And it is contrary also to that sacred Oath which the King’s Majesty himself, and every other Christian Prince, always take with great Solemnity, at their Coronations.
It will be a sad day indeed when Magna Carta is forgotten. Here is the text of Kipling’s poem:
At Runnymede, At Runnymede,
What say the reeds at Runnymede?
The lissom reeds that give and take,
That bend so far, but never break,
They keep the sleepy Thames awake
With tales of John at Runnymede.
At Runnymede, at Runnymede,
Oh, hear the reeds at Runnymede:–
“You mustn’t sell, delay, deny,
A freeman’s right or liberty.
It makes the stubborn Englishry,
We saw ’em roused at Runnymede!
“When through our ranks the Barons came,
With little thought of praise or blame,
But resolute to pay a game,
They lumbered up to Runnymede;
And there they launched in solid time
The first attack on Right Divine–
The curt, uncompromising ‘Sign!’
That settled John at Runnymede.
“At Runnymede, at Runnymede,
Your rights were won at Runnymede!
No freeman shall be fined or bound,
Or dispossessed or freehold ground,
Except by lawful judgment found
And passed upon him by his peers.
Forget not, after all these years,
The Charter Signed at Runnymede.”
And still when Mob or Monarch lays
Too rude hand on English ways,
The whisper wakes, the shudder plays,
Across the reeds at Runnymede.
And Tames, that knows the moods of kings,
And crowds and priests and suchlike things,
Rolls deep and dreadful as he brings
Their warning down from Runnymede!