Absentminded beggar

In Brief

The "absentminded beggar" appears numerous times in Ulysses as a reference to Britain's second Boer War (1899-1902). This poem, written by Rudyard Kipling and set to music by Sir Arthur Sullivan, raised an immense amount of money for soldiers and their families.

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Britain's rapid mobilization of reservists to wage the war brought terrible hardships on people: not only the risk of death or mutilation, but huge reductions in the wages men were earning, loss of support for their families back home, and often loss of their former jobs when they returned. Kipling wrote his patriotic poem in 1899 as part of a newspaper's campaign to raise money for the families. English men and women responded with an outpouring of humanitarian support, but to many Irish ears the song would have had a disagreeable timbre, since the war pitted the military might of the Empire against the Dutch citizen-soldiers of two south African republics—an unequal contest spurred by naked greed for the colonists' resources. Many Irish people sympathized with the nationalist aspirations of the Boer settlers and hoped that their resistance would weaken Britain's war-machine.

Stephen clearly thinks of the song as beating the drums of war when he introduces it to the verbal textures of the book. As Mr. Best praises Mallarmé's prose poem about Shakespeare's Hamlet, Stephen silently reflects that Best makes no mention of the work's central point: Hamlet is a "Sumptuous and stagnant exaggeration of murder." To drive home this point, he translates Mallarmé's "Le Distrait" (The Distracted or Absentminded One) as "the absentminded beggar." The great playwright, in other words, was very much an Englishman.

The Blooms reference the song less subversively. In Circe, Leopold coddles up to two nightmarish policemen by inventing a war history for himself: "My old dad too was a J. P. I'm as staunch a Britisher as you are, sir. I fought with the colours for king and country in the absentminded war under general Gough in the park and was disabled at Spion Kop and Bloemfontein, was mentioned in dispatches. I did all a white man could." Molly, who reveres the British armed forces, thinks of "father being in the army and my singing the absentminded beggar and wearing a brooch for Lord Roberts." Ithaca sends up these reverent attitudes, however, by reciting a testimonial for the Wonderworker, "the world's greatest remedy for rectal complaints," from an "absentminded beggar" in the army: "What a pity the government did not supply our men with wonderworkers during the South African campaign! What a relief it would have been!"

The complete text of Kipling's jingoistic lyric is as follows:

When you've shouted "Rule Britannia": when you've sung "God Save the Queen,"
When you've finished killing Kruger with your mouth:
Will you kindly drop a shilling in my little tambourine
For a gentleman in khaki ordered South?
He's an absent-minded beggar and his weaknesses are great:
But we and Paul must take him as we find him:
He is out on active service wiping something off a slate:
And he's left a lot of little things behind him!
Duke's son – cook's son – son of a hundred kings,
(Fifty thousand horse and foot going to Table Bay!)
Each of 'em doing his country's work (and who's to look after the things?)
Pass the hat for your credit's sake, and pay – pay – pay!

There are girls he married secret, asking no permission to,
For he knew he wouldn't get it if he did.
There is gas and coal and vittles, and the house-rent falling due,
And it's rather more than likely there's a kid.
There are girls he walked with casual, they'll be sorry now he's gone,
For an absent-minded beggar they will find him,
But it ain't the time for sermons with the winter coming on:
We must help the girl that Tommy's left behind him!
Cook's son – Duke's son – son of a belted Earl,
Son of a Lambeth publican – it's all the same to-day!
Each of 'em doing his country's work (and who's to look after the girl?)
Pass the hat for your credit's sake, and pay – pay – pay!

There are families by the thousands, far too proud to beg or speak:
And they'll put their sticks and bedding up the spout,
And they'll live on half o' nothing paid 'em punctual once a week,
'Cause the man that earned the wage is ordered out.
He's an absent-minded beggar, but he heard his country's call,
And his reg'ment didn't need to send to find him;
He chucked his job and joined it – so the task before us all
Is to help the home that Tommy's left behind him!
Duke's job – cook's job – gardener, baronet, groom -
Mews or palace or paper-shop – there's someone gone away!
Each of 'em doing his country's work (and who's to look after the room?)
Pass the hat for your credit's sake, and pay – pay – pay!

Let us manage so as later we can look him in the face,
And tell him what he'd very much prefer:
That, while he saved the Empire his employer saved his place,
And his mates (that's you and me) looked out for her.
He's an absent-minded beggar, and he may forget it all,
But we do not want his kiddies to remind him
That we sent 'em to the workhouse while their daddy hammered Paul,
So we'll help the homes that Tommy's left behind him!
Cook's home – Duke's home – home of a millionaire –
(Fifty thousand horse and foot going to Table Bay!)
Each of 'em doing his country's work (and what have you got to spare?)
Pass the hat for your credit's sake, and pay – pay – pay!

JH 2013
Poster for Arthur Sullivan's setting of the poem, featuring "A Gentleman in Khaki" by Richard Caton Woodville, Jr.
Album cover of Boer War songs by Rudyard Kipling.