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The Roman Centurion’s Song

[words Rudyard Kipling, music Peter Bellamy; notes on The Roman Centurion’s Song at the Kipling Society]

The Roman Centurion’s Song is a poem by Rudyard Kipling, first published in 1911 in his pamphlet Three Poems and shortly after as one of his twenty-three poems written for C.R.L. Fletcher’s A School History of England. In both of these books the poem carries as a lead-in title The Roman Centurion Speaks.

Peter Bellamy sang The Roman Centurion’s Song to his own music in 1989 on his last LP Rudyard Kipling Made Exceedingly Good Songs. He noted:

“Staying On”, Fourth Century style. Like Big Steamers, it was written for C.R.L. Fletcher’s A School History of England for which Kipling supplied a number if illustrative poems.

Jon Boden sang The Roman Centurion’s Song as the 7 April 2011 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day. He noted in his blog:

Kipling is often thought of as an imperialist snob, which indeed he was to some degree. But he was a very complicated, contradictory man who was also fascinated by the idea of the outsider becoming naturalised. He was himself always something of an outsider as an Anglo-Indian, never quite fitting in anywhere. This song, very much like Sir Richard’s Song, sums up that process and makes a strong case for home being where the heart is, not where the birth certificate or passport designates it.


The Roman Centurion’s Song

Roman Occupation of Britain, A.D. 300

Legate, I had the news last night—my cohort ordered home
By ships to Portus Itius and thence by road to Rome.
I’ve marched the companies aboard, the arms are stowed below:
Now let another take my sword. Command me not to go!

I’ve served in Britain forty years, from Vectis to the Wall,
I have none other home than this, nor any life at all.
Last night I did not understand, but, now the hour draws near
That calls me to my native land, I feel that land is here.

Here where men say my name was made, here where my work was done;
Here where my dearest dead are laid—my wife—my wife and son;
Here where time, custom, grief and toil, age, memory, service, love,
Have rooted me in British soil. Ah, how can I remove?

For me this land, that sea, these airs, those folk and fields surffice.
What purple Southern pomp can match our changeful Northern skies,
Black with December snows unshed or pearled with August haze—
The clanging arch of steel-grey March, or June’s long-lighted days?

You’ll follow widening Rhodanus till vine an olive lean
Aslant before the sunny breeze that sweeps Nemausus clean
To Arelate’s triple gate; but let me linger on,
Here where our stiff-necked British oaks confront Euroclydon!

You’ll take the old Aurelian Road through shore-descending pines
Where, blue as any peacock’s neck, the Tyrrhene Ocean shines.
You’ll go where laurel crowns are won, but—will you e’er forget
The scent of hawthorn in the sun, or bracken in the wet?

Let me work here for Britain’s sake—at any task you will—
A marsh to drain, a road to make or native troops to drill.
Some Western camp (I know the Pict) or granite Border keep,
Mid seas of heather derelict, where our old messmates sleep.

Legate, I come to you in tears—My cohort ordered home!
I’ve served in Britain forty years. What should I do in Rome?
Here is my heart, my soul, my mind—the only life I know.
I cannot leave it all behind. Command me not to go!