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Featured Poem: The Way Through The Woods by Rudyard Kipling

Written by Lisa Spurgin, 25th October 2010

It’s happened, two months in advance. Last week I saw the year’s first Christmas tree erected, weighed with baubles and glittering with fairy lights. In mid-October. I think that has to be a record. I should probably mention that I spotted the symbol of the festive season not through the window of any regular home but in a bustling shopping centre, and admittedly that does change things somewhat; I’m fairly certain such centres of commerce would have these not-so-subtle reminders of Christmastime gracing us all year around if they could, to get the pounds rolling in. It did get me thinking however; as much as I do love Christmas, I do consider it a tad early to be getting into the festive spirit. Having the holiday shoved directly into your consciousness before the trees are bare and before it even properly gets underway takes it to the extreme somewhat. And there are a couple of other ‘holidays’ we need to get through before the C word can be uttered confidently; there’s the waving of sparklers, flying of rockets and spinning of Catherine-wheels of Bonfire Night and the spooking, scaring – and scrounging for sweets and treats – of Hallowe’en, which is just around the corner.

Though I have to say, I’m not quite sure when Hallowe’en became such a big event, akin almost (but not quite) to Christmas in terms of the sheer variety of decorative trimmings and general hoopla that is made about it. In years gone by, the most you could hope for was a few plastic masks that were scary only for how preposterous they looked, a cut up bed sheet and a smearing of tomato ketchup or any other easily procurable red liquid. Now you’re spoilt for choice, not just for costumes and themed apparel, but all array of glowing ghosts, life-size lycanthropes and statues of zombie brides or mummified corpses to grace your living room. Not that I’m the biggest fan of Hallowe’en – as a child, I went trick or treating the grand total of once and wasn’t in the slightest spooked by cupboard or under-the-bed monsters; in fact I am all in all more afraid of rather mundane occurrences in real life – it strikes me that now everything about the event is less ghoulish, more garish. After all, it’s pretty hard to be seriously freaked out by a fluorescent coloured witch. And that’s not even mentioning the not at all scary but extremely silly films that are termed ‘horror’ these days.

For those who are interested in getting a good scare, it’s always better to look towards literary fare for something that really will send a shiver down your spine. No need for excessive amounts of blood and gore, no OTT figures of fright running around. Just something subtle, psychological, something that won’t strike you immediately but will return to you in the dead of the night and make you stop still. Here’s something very much along those lines, an offering by Rudyard Kipling. So it’s not full of monsters, ghouls and other obviously terrifying creatures, but sometimes there just isn’t anything as scare-inducing as an old lost road through the woods…or is there even one to begin with?

The Way Through The Woods

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.

Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)

8 thoughts on “Featured Poem: The Way Through The Woods by Rudyard Kipling

Barb says:

Hi Lisa,

Have ‘tweeted’ Kipling poem . My twitter time line shows the tweet but TRO are not accredited as the source – seems a pity !

Sue Garner-Jones says:

Funny, I’ve never thought of this poem as frightening, Lisa: mysterious, yes.

I sense, rather, a longing for a way of life that is lost, a route back to where we once knew the way, or thought we did, a presence in absence.

In fact, in its time span, it coincides with not just the 70 years of a man’s life but also its connection with a post-Darwinian desire to recapture the numinous in nature. Look at how Kipling writes about nature, too, with the disturbance of man not ‘feared’ because his presence is unknown. There’s an ecological message there, surely?

Very beautinful and wistful but frightening? Not to my way of thinking.

‘Happy Hallowe’en’!

'a reader' says:

No, I think that there is definitely something, as Lisa quite rightly proposes, subtle and psychological in amongst the poem’s lines, visual movement and hearing resonance which, in time, has the hairs on the back of the neck standing up! Night more than day, as I’m sure a lot of us are in some way aware, seems to be when we catch up on and tune into our subconscious (as we like to call it) activity – ‘The misty solitudes’ heightened awareness and response to temperature drops – ‘when the night-air cools’.

Was the road there before the woods? Are the woods our own making simply to make us forget about something else? Do we in some way need them? What is it in our psyche that creates such a strange ethereal yet human and earthly place?

‘And now you would never know
There was once a road through the woods
Before they planted the trees.’………

‘As though they perfectly knew
The old lost road through the woods…
But there is no road through the woods.’

I’m not so sure that the words’ presence’ and ‘absence’ can be so clearly defined. I’m not so sure I would like them to be either…..scaarryy!!!

Sue Garner-Jones says:

Oh, yes, definitely ‘subtle and psychological’, dear ‘reader’, I agree, but just not ‘scary’ for me and really about a sense of loss.

What I mean by ‘presence’ and ‘absence’ is that we take ownership of a perceived loss, even though, paradoxically, what we have ‘lost’, may never have existed, like the ‘road’: I think that’s rather lovely, not ‘scary’, as it means we at least have the elusive longing, nostalgia, if you like. So, yes, I’d say we do ‘need the woods’ – even without the ‘lost road’.

In fact, we couldn’t actually know the ‘road’ as I see it because it is a mystery and treasured as such; in a world where ‘facts, facts and acres of facts’, as Forster says, rule, then what cannot be known is in the ‘misty solitudes’. Also, there is that ‘as though’ they knew, which is fantastic in the true, elusive sense of the word. The animals are not afraid, either, and animals are always afraid of ‘scary’ ghosts!

(Kipling writes about this a lot, of course, see his really scary story ‘They’, for example.)

As you may have guessed, I’m rather fond of this poem, sorry for going on, and thanks for posting it, Lisa.

Who do you think ‘the keeper’ is, btw?

'a reader' says:

Interesting reply! Thanks – yes it is lovely, haunting even (no pun intended there). My ideas of presence and absence are possibly a little different from yours – which is a good thing just as in reading groups people’s ideas, thoughts, interpretations and feelings about a book or poem would differ.

For me the scary, here anyway, is beautiful, haunting and complex. I find it exciting to realise I’m pushing the boundaries of reality. The keeper is again something I’m sure everyone would differ upon. I feel it might be something to do with myself, but perhaps only in connection with something else – something maybe mystical if that is the correct word.

Lisa says:

Well, I certainly couldn’t have imagined that when I rather innocently picked out this poem to feature that it would cause such a stir! But I am glad has done so. Just testament to the fact that poetry provokes so many varied responses in people (and it’s fabulous that it does – things would be quite boring otherwise).

I think perhaps frightening or scary weren’t the best words I could have used to describe what I feel about the poem. Eerie, haunting, unsettling – yes. There’s an air of uncertainty about the scenario and the road/wood being described, and I’ve always found that its the not knowing, or at least not being completely sure of the existence of something – rather than being confronted with say, a monster or spirit or whatever other scary creature you can consider – to be more discomforting than anything else. The whole idea of your mind possibly playing tricks on you – was the road there, was it just an illusion? That element of doubt is what gives it the chill factor for me (as well as some very evocative description)

However I can see the matter from quite the opposite direction; as much as the mind can play tricks, it can also create much good in conjuring up places visited long past, or places we have never actually been to but are a fantasy land, a comforting alternative to reality (which as I’ve said, is probably a scarier place than anywhere else we or any poet can dream up!). Then the not knowing isn’t unsettling but instead something quite positive (and maybe slightly sad, if we’re longing for somewhere that doesn’t exist, or hasn’t done so in a while)

So from that perspective, maybe this poem could be a good ‘comfort blanket’ to be read after you’ve experienced all the chills and thrills of Hallowe’en instead of being the thing that induces them…! Depends on how you look at it.

Sue Garner-Jones says:

I would just like to thank you again for posting this, Lisa, and for all your posts, I enjoy them very much. Thanks for your reply, too, ‘reader’, you’ve made me think differently about ‘the keeper’ as previously I’d seen him as an image of a god-like, pagan, protector of nature, I think.

Kipling’s just brilliant, though, and this poem’s mysterious ‘other’ presence reminds me of Walter de la Mare’s ‘Listeners’, too. I think that’s very spooky but touching and odd, too – all the things I like in literature, in fact – it’s the not being sure that makes it fun!

This is a superb example of the power of poetry, as you say, Lisa, and I agree that it’s great to exchange views like this and not everyone can get ‘out and about’ – how about a GIR chat online (I’d be happy to be involved) – any takers?

'a reader' says:

Sounds good to me Sue!! I’m always missing things owing to work shifts/patterns.

Anyone else then?

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