The Absent-Minded Beggar

Broadly speaking, a “book” is a collection of printed pages set into a binding, a “pamphlet” are those same printed pages without a binding, and “ephemera” are single-sheet or single page documents which are not meant to be preserved. In practice, the lines between book-pamphlet-ephemera can be murky, especially with a publisher like Paul Elder who produced such a wide range of output.

The Absent-Minded Beggar is a piece that exists in that murky boundary between “pamphlet” and “ephemera.” It’s just a single, large, folded sheet, containing three of Rudyard Kipling’s poems. On the other hand, the front is laid out as a formal title page. The example pictured here was included as a supplement to the April 1900 edition of Personal Impressions magazine (Vol. 1, No. 2). It’s not known whether there were other versions of this title issued separately.

Pages 2 and 3 of “The Absent-Minded Beggar,” containing the title poem, and the poem “Bobs”

Kipling published “The Absent-Minded Beggar” just five months previously, on 31 October 1899, in London’s Daily Mail newspaper. The Second Boer War had started three weeks before, and the British government had called up the Army Reserve. Army pay, however, was much less than the men could earn at their regular jobs, and the drop in salary forced many families into poverty. Not only that, but there were no laws guaranteeing the reservists’ would still have their jobs when the war ended. Kipling’s poem was intended to raise money for the reservists and their families. With that in mind, Kipling and the Daily Mail‘s owner, Alfred Harmsworth, hired the famous composer Sir Arthur Sullivan to set the poem to music. The immediate popularity of the poem and song were such that the Daily Mail‘s “Absent Minded Beggar Fund” raised over £250,000. Kipling was offered a knighthood, but declined.

Page 4 of “The Absent-Minded Beggar,” containing the poem “Recessional”

The other two poems in the piece are also well-known. “Bobs” was the affectionate nickname of Field Marshal Frederick Sleigh Roberts (1832-1914), one of the most successful British military commanders of the era when the British Empire was at its zenith. He was a short man, hence the first line “There’s a little red-faced man, which is Bobs.”

Kipling composed “Recessional” in 1897 for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. It was first published in The Times on 17 July 1897. The refrain “lest we forget” was taken from Deuteronomy 6:12, “Then beware lest thou forget the Lord which brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt.”