In this poem Kipling is trying to reconcile his grief over losing his son John in the war (this is the most common interpretation, although some critics maintain he was not referring directly to his son) and his belief that military service was honorable, right, and necessary. There is a dialogue taking place between a parent wondering if there has been news of their child and a person answering who explains that there is nothing to assuage the parent’s anxiety and despair. At the end of the poem, these lines encourage the parent to reflect upon the valuable sacrifice made through allowing their son to be given up to the war effort; even though he might not be there in a corporeal sense, the young soldier will live on in memory, and will be valued for his contribution to the noble efforts of the British empire. The poem’s sadness of subject and tone coupled with its comforting message shows the complexity of Kipling’s view on the matter of war.
Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!
In one of Kipling’s most famous lines from one of his most famous poems, he articulates the idea that it does not matter what a man’s religion, race, or background are if he encounters another man possessing the same excellence of military might and character. Kamal and the Colonel’s son are two such men, different in their origins but similar in their nobility of spirit and possession of courage. They begin their relationship with a rivalry but end with a strong friendship that can be limited by no geographical means. This is one of several instances in Kipling's poetry where he clearly values and respects the "other"; he does not paint Kamal as a savage or as ignorant, but clearly finds him the superior man.
Take up the White Man's burden--
Send forth the best ye breed--
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild--
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.
These are some of the most famous lines in the English language; in fact, it might be better to deem them the most infamous lines in the English language. The poem has become synonymous with the imperialist endeavors of Britain and other nations, suggesting that the white, civilized races had a duty and an obligation to go into the dark places of the world and conquer their peoples, bringing them the morality, culture, and economic systems of the West while denigrating their own history and traditions. Kipling was guilty of this sentiment, but as the rest of the poem reveals, he did possess a more nuanced understanding of the colonial game. He counseled men who went abroad to be wary of pride, sloth, and overreaching ambition, as well as warned them that they were not likely to receive unfettered praise for their efforts.
Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!
As in "The White Man's Burden", Kipling was quick to counsel men regarding their overweening ambitions in the Empire's colonies. He wrote of the trappings of empire fading away - the navies disappearing, fires consuming everything, all of their rewards going the way of the ancient biblical cities now destroyed. Although not a religious man he brings God into the poem to indicate just how pendulous his warning is: men must be quick to remember that God is mightier than all their own works or ambitions, and that he can take from them at any moment the things they worked so hard to construct. Kipling evokes a harsh Old Testament God in this passage to hammer home the impending doom men face, especially if they become too careless with their words. This poem offers a compelling counterpart to the argument that Kipling was an arrogant imperialist, blithely promoting Britain's overseas empire without giving thought to the consequences.
We aren't no thin red 'eroes, nor we aren't no blackguards too,
But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you;
An' if sometimes our conduck isn't all your fancy paints,
Why, single men in barricks don't grow into plaster saints;
Kipling's several poems about the experiences of soldiers on the battlefield and at home are some of his most popular and his most memorable. These lines from "Tommy" indicate how soldiers were treated poorly in many cases when they came home from the war. They were also misunderstood, causing them no end of distress. The speaker of the poem urges his readers to understand that these young men (most of them poor and uneducated) were not heroes or "blackguards" - they were just normal kids sent off to fight for their country. They are not saints. They have seen things that they should not have seen at such a young age; their innocence is lost. They may not behave appropriately in some situations, but people should be understanding of them and not treat them poorly. People should also stop being hypocritical by criticizing the young Tommys when there is no war but feverishly supporting and lauding them when another conflict pops up.
So 'ere's to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, at your 'ome in the Soudan;
You're a pore benighted 'eathen but a first-class fightin' man;
An' 'ere's to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, with your 'ayrick 'ead of 'air —
You big black boundin' beggar — for you broke a British square!
Like "The Ballad of East and West", Kipling expresses admiration for Eastern warriors, in this case the Sudanese fighters the British faced in the Mahdist conflict. The soldier narrating the poem cheers the Fuzzy-Wuzzies at the end of each stanza for their excellent fighting skills and the fact that they broke through the famed British infantry square formation. However, as these lines also suggest, the soldier's respect for the warriors is not without a heaping dose of racism and a degree of scorn for their notable appearance. The description of them is hardly flattering, and the nickname itself referring to their bushy hair is silly and reductive. The narrator thinks they are heathens and depicts them in a stupid manner, as a "big black boundin' beggar" - almost like a large shaggy dog leaping toward him. The poem is thus difficult for modern readers to embrace, for even though it acclaims the Fuzzy-Wuzzies' fighting skills, it does so in a rude and racist manner.
I am sick o' wastin' leather on these gritty pavin'-stones,
An' the blasted Henglish drizzle wakes the fever in my bones;
Tho' I walks with fifty 'ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand,
An' they talks a lot o' lovin', but wot do they understand?
In "Mandalay" the speaker of the poem, a soldier once stationed in Burma and now back in England, longs for the quiet, sultry ease of life in Mandalay. He paints a picture of warm weather, exotic animals, beautiful girls, and fragrant scents in the eastern paradise of Mandalay. He contrasts that with the cold, rainy, and harsh life in London he returns to. He compares his lovely, mostly-mute Burmese girl with the loud Chelsea housemaids back home, wishing he could get back East. The poem is certainly appealing in its evocation of a world enticing in its differences from home, but it is also rife with the contemporary ideals of imperialism and racism. The land of Mandalay is seen as only a pleasure-garden for the English, the Burmese girls silent objects of lust. It is a land that cries out for some civilizing hand to force it to yield its offerings. Of course, all of these ideas are put forth in a very subtle fashion, but nonetheless they are detectable.
An’ man on man got talkin’
Religion an’ the rest,
An’ every man comparin’
Of the God ‘e knew best.
Kipling joined the Freemasons at a very young age and was fervently dedicated to them for the rest of his life. He wrote this poem to express his regard for his lodge and the colorful characters that frequented it. One of the most famous lines from the poem depicts the group of men staying up late and talking about their religions with each other. There is no judgment, no fundamentalism. There is only camaraderie, open-mindedness, and the intimacy that comes from sharing deep thoughts and feelings with people you care about in a comfortable environment. Another reason why this line is significant is that it reinforces the fact that Kipling himself was not a religious man. He certainly possessed the Victorian era's cultural supremacist views as well as some racist and misogynist views, but he was not a strict Christian. His moral views may have been influenced by the tenets of Christianity to an extent, but they were also derived from societal constructs regarding upright conduct and virtues.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
One of Kipling's most famous - if not the most beloved - poems, "If-" is a paean to manhood and upright behavior. Inspired by his friend Leander Starr Jameson, "If-" is a message of self-reliance and fortitude in the face of severe doubt. Jameson led a failed eponymous raid in the Second Boer War and was arrested and put on trial despite having the tacit support of the British Colonial Secretary. These lines refer to his conduct throughout the trial, during which he kept silent about the extent of Britain's involvement and thus bore the brunt of the blame. Afterwards, Jameson was lionized in England. Kipling's poem is filled with what he called "counsels of perfection most easy to give" that speak to both Jameson's specific experience but also the larger fate of mankind; the poem is filled with the sort of fatherly advice commonly bestowed upon sons. The stoicism alluded to in these line fits perfectly with Kipling's celebration of the "stiff upper lip" seen in many of his poems.
And the next land he found, it was bare and hilly ground--
Where once the bread-corn grew,
But the fields were cankered and the water was defiled,
And the trees were riven through.
Written to commemorate King George V's visit to WWI cemeteries and battlefields in Flanders and Northern France, "The King's Pilgrimage" touches upon the toll of war inherent in its glory - the death of countless young men. Kipling employs striking natural imagery to depict the horrors of loss. In these lines, the King finds a once beautiful, lush cornfield is destroyed and corrupted; what used to give life and sustenance has been spoiled. In this poem, Kipling sought to pay tribute to the sacrifice made by English soldiers, including his own son John who died shortly after enlisting in WWI. Though he was loath to take such a public role, Kipling's commitment to honoring soldiers and his own personal sense of loss overrode his concerns.
Rudyard Kipling: Poems Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Rudyard Kipling: Poems is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.