It was once more common than now for writers to begin each chapter of their novels with an epigraph, usually a quotation, often very well known, lifted from Shakespeare or the Bible or a poet. The epigraph's function was give a slight anticipation or to act somewhat like a chorus for what was to come in the next few pages. Sir Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper come to mind as masters of this stylistic usage.
STALKY & CO. (1899) by Rudyard Kipling is a fictional recreation of the author's five years (1878 - 1882) at a very special boarding school for boys, "United Services College, Westward Ho! Bideford, North Devon," England. In real life, Kipling the boy would add to his fictional counterpart "Beetle" one or two additional years at the College as well as compose from time to time fresh chapters and yarns to STALKY & CO. down the decades of his long writing career. But in 1899 when it first appeared, the novel about school days had only nine chapters. Not one of them is prefaced by an epigraph. But the book as a whole is launched first by a brief dedication to "Cormell Price, Headmaster, United Services College .. 1874 - 1894," followed by a remarkable poem of 13 stanzas, each made up of six short rhyming lines.
STALKY & CO. is one of my favorite Kipling books. I find myself returning to it over and over through the years. And each time I pause to savor this haunting introductory poem that begins with a quotation from Ecclesiasticus/Sirach 44.1 "Let us now praise famous men."
Rudyard Kipling's introductory poem praises the thinly disguised fictional teachers, dormitory supervisors and other real staff of his beloved United Services College. Those men, few if any married, did a hard, unsung job day in and day out in a dozen buildings spread along the bleak, cold Atlantic coast in north Devon:
"(Twelve bleak houses by the shore!
Seven summers by the shore!)
'Mid two hundred brothers."
Those men taught their boys the classics, mathematics, writing, history and something almost ineffably more, an esprit de corps. Their underlying message taught was that the boys (almost all destined for army or civil service in the British Empire -- but not near-sighted Kipling ) took with them into future careers was
"Man must finish off his work --
Right or Wrong, his daily work --
And without excuses."
To this end, the teachers did not ignore of play down student infractions. They spared not the rod,
"For the love they bore us."
In later memories of boys-become-adults, these Masters morph into "famous men,"
"Who declared it was best,
Safest, easiest, and best --
Expeditious, wise, and best --
To obey your orders."
The final chapter tells of a small reunion of "old boys" -- 15 years after graduation of the trio making up Stalky & Co. -- of still young fighting men and administrators now scattered throughout the Empire. In whatever role, they have uniformly and with a United Services College flair served their Queen very well, fighting against or diplomatically standing up to alien kings, serving well whatever lands and populations they ruled
("Save he serve, no man may rule").
Whatever the boys had learned by 16 or 17 or 18 at this military oriented boarding school, this they carried over very well and permanently engrained into their adult lives. And slowly it came to them how much they owed their teachers:
"Wherefore praise we famous men
From whose bays we borrow --
They that put aside To-day --
All the joys of their To-day --
And with toil of their To-day
Bought for us To-morrow!"
Meet Stalky & Co.: Beetle (Kipling) and his two favorite classmates, M'Turk, whose father owned thousands of acres in the west of Ireland and the group's leader, Stalky from army stock. The boys had other more normal names and we hear them spoken from time to time.
The first chapter of STALKY & CO. is called 'In Ambush.' It is summer, their fifth summer together, and they are building in the wild hill-sides behind the college their annual out of doors place of refuge, club house and smoking room, hidden from the eyes of vigilant masters. When one prim and proper Master who dislikes the three youngsters intensely tracks them down onto the estate of an Irish neighbor with large holdings, the boys turn the table. The landowner indignantly sends the trackers back to the College, tails between their legs. To the boys, by contrast, thanks to M'Turk's turning on the Irish brogue, the land owner gives permanent permission to roam his grounds at will.
The pattern is set: if other boys or unsympathetic masters try to take Stalky, M'Turk and Beetle to task or dare to make them change their ways, they do so at their peril. The boys will always take revenge and also make the punishment fit the offense. And they will emerge stronger than ever before.
In one story the three are at great pains to slip a slain rabbit above the ceiling of a dormitory of one of the masters who had sneered at one of them for being dirty. The subsequent odor became unbearable but was not traced by Masters to the three culprits. Mind you, nonetheless, a college servant did pretty well ferret out the facts. But he would not peach on Stalky & Co., because in his eyes the rude Master got what he deserved.
The Headmaster, based on Cormell Price, a beloved schooldays friend of Kipling's mother and her brother and sisters, as well as the college's roly-poly Anglican Chaplain (who also teaches French) are the two adults in the college with greatest appreciation of the worth of Stalky & Co. When forced as a matter of principle and school discipline to side with another Master against the boys, the Headmaster usually settles for a brief, promptly administered and thorough caning, which the boys greatly prefer to copying 500 lines of Vergil or Horace.
The Chaplain is a frequent visitor to the boys' study room/lounge and either coaxes them to do their best or, in one story, subtly empowers them to give two overgrown bullies of a new, frail lad a vicious dose of their own medicine. Foreign wars are going on throughout Stalky's company's" school years. News of derring-do or death of former students come in regularly.
Most of the students are preparing for the army or Indian Civil Service, after further and higher education. It is not clear whether either Masters or students remotely understand how what they are teaching or learning at United Services College will be vital to alumni success and happiness in later life. It is enough for all parties simply to be preparing either to pass examinations for admission to a higher follow-on national services academy or to qualify for a job as a newspaperman in Lahore, as was the case with Beetle/Kipling.
Any man in 2011 who has gone to an all boys school (day or boarding) will, I think, react favorably and with a sense of deja vu from his own life to the camaraderie and male bonding of STALKY & CO. Schoolboys form friendships with two or three others of that ilk. Together they size up and make fun of teachers whose strong points they may only grasp a decade later. Vivant Stalky, M'Turk and Beetle!