The poem is dedicated to “L’Envoi to ‘The Seven Seas’”.
The narrator writes that when Earth’s last picture is painted, and all the tubes of paint dried up, and all the colors faded, and all the young critics are dead, then they will rest. They need to rest for a long, long time and will do so until God – “the Master of All Good Workmen” – will put them to work again.
Those who were good will be happy again and sit in a “golden chair” where a huge, “ten-league canvas” will stretch out before them to splash paint upon with “comets’ hair” brushes. They will use the real saints, such as Magdalene, Peter, and Paul, and will work for a long time and not grow fatigued.
Then only God, the Master, can praise them or blame them. They do not work for money or fame, but only the delight in working. Each will draw what he sees for the “God of Things as / They are!”
This poem was composed in 1892 when Kipling was 27 years old. This was the year that he was married, settled down in the United States for a time, and saw the birth of his first child, Josephine. The poem is known well by Kipling scholars but not as well by the general public. It is a more traditional English poem, written in flowery Victorian language and full of religious themes and imagery. It is structured in six rhyming couplets in one narrative stanza.
The poem’s subject is that of Armageddon, the end of days. It is depicted in a lovely metaphor about painting and artistic creation. The end of the world comes when all of the paintings are painted, and there is only rest for the artists. Those “that were good” will be happy in heaven and “shall sit in a golden chair”. There they can paint forever, drawing the “real saints” and never tire of their labor. God will be the only one who praises or critiques them; the only reason they will work is for pleasure, not for money or fame. This is an idyllic vision of the eternal life with God and the angels and saints in heaven that men should aspire and look forward to.
Kipling’s religion is often a subject for biographers and scholars. He described himself as a “God-fearing Christian atheist.” One scholar wrote in an article on Kipling and war memorials to the dead, “Kipling’s religious views were uncertain. His father, although a descendent of generations of Methodist Ministers, was a non-believer. The Archbishop of Canterbury, in a remarkable Address to the Kipling Society at Burwash Church in 2006, said that Kipling in any orthodox sense did not believe in Jesus. Perhaps Kipling’s views changed over the course of his life, but my feeling is that as a freemason he believed in a god but not necessarily the god of the Christian church. Masons believe in a supreme ruler of the universe but this may be a Christian or a Jewish or a Mohammedan god or other deity. My feeling is that Kipling was not a Christian and this is why he did not use the language of Christianity in his epitaphs. I think he was a deist believing in God, but not an agnostic or an atheist.” (Aidin)
Indeed, while some of his poems do have religious themes, such as this one and “Recessional,” religion is not an overarching concern of his throughout his oeuvre. His poems may be “traditional” and rooted in nationalist, imperialist, and orthodox views of the British Empire, but they are also at times earthy, coarse, bleak, angry, and ambiguous. Many of the war poems seem to leave God out altogether, focusing on the earthly reality of physical and mental suffering.
The poems about imperialism mostly do not couch their messages in religious terms. Kipling also shows respect for other religions, particularly in “The Mother-Lodge” where he describes the men from all backgrounds and faiths staying up late and talking about their various religions in an open and sympathetic forum. In his article on Kipling, his novel Kim, and religion, Kipling scholar James M. Thrall quotes another prominent scholar: “Freemasonry, Carrington notes, offered ‘a system which gratified both [Kipling's] craving for a world-religion and his devotion to the secret bond that unites . . . the men who bear the burden of the world's work’ (54). In ‘caste-ridden India,’ Freemasonry was, he adds, ‘the only ground on which adherents of different religions could meet “on the level” ‘(55).”