Friday, 13 July 2012

Rudyard Kipling's 'The Way Through the Woods': Is There a Road?


They shut the road through the woods
Seventy years ago.
Weather and rain have undone it again,
And now you would never know
There was once a road through the woods
Before they planted the trees.
It is underneath the coppice and heath
And the thin anemones.
Only the keeper sees
That, where the ring-dove broods,
And the badgers roll at ease,
There was once a road through the woods.

Yet, if you enter the woods
Of a summer evening late,
When the night-air cools on the trout-ringed pools
Where the otter whistles his mate,
(They fear not men in the woods,
Because they see so few.)
You will hear the beat of a horse's feet,
And the swish of a skirt in the dew,
Steadily cantering through
The misty solitudes,
As though they perfectly knew
The old lost road through the woods ...
But there is no road through the woods.

I took the above picture on a visit home to Canada (not this year's visit, but the year before.) Not quite the English woods that Kipling was no doubt describing, but it seemed right for the poem, anyway.

I reminded myself of this poem when I was writing my last entry on Conan Doyle and mentioned Kipling. As I mentioned, I'm not a big fan of Kipling, but there is something that I really love and that touches me intensely, about this poem. I suppose that it could bear a variety of interpretations, but I really don't see it as a poem about ghosts. I do believe that places can carry imprints of past events, but mainly (for me) this is a poem about memory. In 'The Way Through the Woods' it could be either ancestral memory, or distant childhood memory - "They shut the road through the woods/Seventy years ago." It reminds me that Kipling was one of those writers (and simply one of those human beings) whose life spanned particularly changeable times; his dates are 1865-1936.

The poem also made me think of certain childhood memories, particularly visiting my grandmother in Finland, until she died when I was fifteen. I know very well that she is gone and that huge changes have taken place in the house and the woods and the roads where I used to walk. I've even seen some of them. But I also know that there are memories which are as vivid as present reality and that nothing can ever change those. "There is no road through the woods" - but there is, still.


  1. I am very interested in the nature of memory. Is it merely data stored in our brains which vanishes along with them one day? Or do our brains merely function like computer modems, not storing memories, but giving us access to to something 'stored' in a non-material way? Or is 'memory' something else entirely? I incline to think this last, and so Kipling's poem is especially interesting to me. By the way, Britain's present Queen, if I remember correctly, recalls having dinner with Rudyard Kipling when she was a child, when he was her parents' guest.

    1. I wonder similar things about memory... It is both scientific and spiritual, for sure. It is brain data but also more, far more. I do believe in ancestral memory but couldn't quite explain why.

      Your anecdote about Kipling having met Queen Elizabeth II - that's exactly what I mean about Kipling having spanned time periods, even more so than I thought! Victorian, Edwardian, even having met the modern Elizabeth... At my workplace, I had a bit of a debate with a colleague about whether Kipling belonged more to the 19th or 20th centuries. She was inclined to think 20th, I to think 19th - my feelings on the matter had to do with where his sensibilities lay. (Though I'm hardly qualified to comment definitively!) But much like Joseph Conrad, his dates and experiences make this hard to determine, though to me Conrad is more modern.