This poem expresses a soldier's longing for the exoticism of the East, particularly Burma.
The speaker muses on a Burmese girl sitting by the sea at the Moulmein Pagoda who is thinking of him. The wind is in the palm trees and the temple bells are calling him back to Mandalay. They want him back there with the flotilla where the paddles clank from Rangoon to Mandalay, and the fishes play, and dawn breaks like thunder.
She wore a yellow petticoat and a green cap and her name was Supi-yaw-lat. He first saw her smoking a cheroot and kissing a heathen idol's foot made out of mud, called the "Great Gawd Budd". She loved the idols, and he kissed her there in front of it on the road to Mandalay.
The mist was on the rice-fields and the sun was fading into the horizon while she played the banjo and sang. She put her arm on his shoulder and her cheek against his while they watched the steamers on the river and the elephants piling up teak in the creek. She was afraid to speak in such a heavy, drowsy silence.
This is all behind the speaker, though. There are no buses from the Bank to Mandalay, and here in London he is reminded of another soldier's comment that once you have heard the call of the East you will never hear anything else. Only the smells of spicy garlic and the sunshine and the palm trees on the road to Mandalay will remain, haunting you.
The speaker says he is tired of walking around on the paved London streets and feeling the "blasted English drizzle" on his face and the fever in his bones. He might walk with many housemaids, but they understand nothing. They have grubby faces and are ignorant; the sweetest maid in the land was on the road to Mandalay.
He desires to be shipped east of the Suez, a land with no Ten Commandments. The bells call him where he wants to be – near the Pagoda, looking at the sea, and on the road to Mandalay with the flotilla and the playing fishes and the dawn breaking like thunder.
Published in the famous collection Barrack-Room Ballads, and Other Verses (1892), “Mandalay” is one of the most popular of Rudyard Kipling’s poems; indeed, it often inspires mixed feelings of longing for the same idyllic, exotic locale experienced by the poet’s speaker and disgust and guilt at being sucked into the poet’s imperialist vision. The poem is a tantalizing depiction of a beautiful and languid Orient, yet it is infused with the subtle racism and social Darwinist ideals of the British during the late 19th/early 20th century.
The subject is the capital city of Burma, a British protectorate at the time. The "Moulmein Pagoda" refers to the present-day Mawlamyine in southeastern Burma on the Gulf of Martaban. British troops traveled up or down the Irrawaddy River by paddle steamers run by the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company. Kipling wrote his poem in March or April of 1890 when he was 24; he had recently come home to England after seven years in India, traveling from Calcutta to Japan, then to San Francisco and across the United States. He visited Rangoon after Calcutta and wrote of the Burmese women: “I love the Burman with the blind favouritism born of first impression. When I die I will be a Burman … and I will always walk about with a pretty almond-coloured girl who shall laugh and jest too, as a young maiden ought…”
He also wrote, upon climbing up to a pagoda in Rangoon: “I should better remember what that pagoda was like had I not fallen deeply and irrevocably in love with a Burmese girl at the foot of the first flight of steps. Only the fact of the steamer starting next noon prevented me from staying at Moulmein forever ... Leaving this far too lovely maiden I went up the steps... The hillside ... was ablaze with pagodas—from a gorgeous golden and vermilion beauty to a delicate grey stone one just completed. . .Far above my head there was a faint tinkle as of golden bells, and a talking of the breezes in the tops of the toddy palms…”
In the poem a young man details his awe for both the natural beauty of the land and for the beauty of a particular Burmese girl. In regards to the former, he writes of a “lazy” land where the wind rustles through the palm trees. One can hear the splish-splash of paddles in the river and watch the flying fish leap. The smell of garlic lingers in the air. There is always a bright dawn that burns off the morning mist. The girl embodies the desirable traits of “exotic” women: she is pretty, simple-minded in her devotion to her religion, quiet, and easy to be around. She has no real identity other than as a source of fascination for the young man. As mentioned, the poem is problematic because it idealizes the imperialist experience. In reality, the British who were in Burma were not there as travelers or adventure-seekers; they were there to pilfer and oppress. Burma was a colonial holding and its people were under British control. Racism was rampant, and even though in this poem the girl is admired and lusted after, she is still only an exotic object and someone to be “civilized” by the British.
The great strength of the poem is in its comparison of Mandalay with London; for, after all, the contrast between warmer climes and the dark, dank city does resonate with modern readers, regardless of the poem’s imperialist slant. Kipling describes London as a place of “gritty pavin’-stones” where the “blasted English drizzle wakes the fever in my bones”. The women there babble but understand nothing. They have a “beefy face an’ grubby ‘and”. The poem is also known for its melodic nature; it has been adapted for song on a few occasions.
A couple of the terms used in the poem bear some explanation. A cheroot was an open-ended cigar with a wrapping made from a betel nut palm. The “Great Gawd Budd” in reference to the Burmese girl’s religion was the British soldier’s idea of Buddha. “Kulla-lo-lo” was a Burmese expression for “Hello, stranger”. “Hathis pilin’ teak” referred to elephants piling up teakwood. Theebaw was the last king of Burma, deposed by the British in 1885.