For the want of a nail

A friend rang me earlier to ask whether I rememberer a poem which was a variation on the ‘For a want of a nail’ verse; he thought the poem was either by Kipling or Thomas hardy, and replaced the word ‘shell’ for nail and brought it up to date to reflect the times at the beginning of World War 1.

I immediately recognized it and said straight away I thought it was Kipling, and told him I’d find it and send it to him… well, I can’t find it! I can find plenty of information on the original poem but nothing connecting a version to either Kipling or Hardy. I will keep looking however, but it’s a bit of a mystery.

For want of a nail the shoe was lost,
for want of a shoe the horse was lost,
for want of a horse the knight was lost,
for want of a knight the battle was lost,
for want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
So a kingdom was lost—all for want of a nail.

This is the traditional rhyme, and there have been all sorts of other versions, and extended versions too; it is said that Benjamin Franklin first wrote it, but actually it seems to be older than that. The story of the lost shoe-nail might also be connected with Richard III’s defeat at the battle of Bosworth. There is also a French proverb with a similar horse and shoe connection which dates back to the beginning of the sixteenth century, and the English poet George Herbert uses the image as well in the 1600’s.

The actual idea, of a little event having repercussions far beyond the importance of the original thing which happened, must go back thousands of years, but I guess we would think of it these days as an example of the butterfly effect, named as such by Edward Lorenz in the 1960’s. The nail-shoe idea crops up in countless stories, poems, songs novels, films, including works by Robert Sobel, Mary McCarthy, Stephen King, Zbigniew Herbert, Todd Rundgren and Tom Waits.

Meanwhile, back to searching through all of Kipling’s poems (didn’t he write a lot!) trying to find ‘For the loss of a shell…’

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