The speaker calls out to God, the Lord of their battle-line under whose hand they hold power over the land. He calls for the "Lord God of Hosts" to be with them "lest they forget".
As the din and shouting fade away and the captains and kings leave, there is only God's ancient sacrifice left. The refrain of "Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet, / Lest we forget –lest we forget!" is repeated.
Their navies return home, the fire of war goes out, and all the pomp and luster of yore is "one with Nineveh and Tyre". The speaker calls for God, the "Judge of Nations", to spare them "lest they forget".
If the men are drunk with power and start speaking rashly and wildly without heeding God, such as the Gentiles or other base breeds do, then again, the speaker implores, "Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet, / Lest we forget –lest we forget!"
The "heathen heart" will trust in the instruments of war, but it is only like dust falling upon dust. The speaker calls for the Lord to show mercy upon his people, despite their silly boasting and insipid words.
"Recessional" was written for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897, which celebrated the 60th anniversary of her reign. The poem is well-known for the biblical phrase "Lest we forget" (see Deuteronomy 6:12) repeated throughout the poem which quickly became a mainstay of memorials and headstones. "The White Man's Burden" was initially composed for this event, but Kipling wrote and offered "Recessional" instead; the former poem was modified and sent to Theodore Roosevelt two years later in regards to America's involvement in the Philippines.
It is one of Kipling's more enigmatic and cerebral poems. Kipling had written of the Jubilee that he had "a certain optimism that scared me" about Britain's global prospects. There had recently been problems in South Africa that would expand into even greater difficulties; a raid into Afrikan territories to inspire British workers to revolt against the Boers in South Africa had failed, leaving the leader imprisoned and many British dead. Kipling wrote of this poem in his autobiography, saying it was in the nature of a nuzzur-wazu, or an averter of the evil eye.
The poem is five stanzas of six lines each, composed of rhyming couplets. The last couplet repeats at the end of each stanza, reinforcing the message that Kipling intended to convey. The title suggests the departure of the clergy and the choir at the end of a service through the nave of a church. While scholars concur that Kipling was not a particularly religious man, he was very aware of the sacred nature of religious texts and processions in English history. The title and its allusion add solemnity and gravitas to the message Kipling wishes to convey: the English should be careful of imperialistic hubris, be wary of jingoism, and understand that their earthly conquests pale in comparison with the mighty works of God.
Kipling warns of a time when all of the "pomp of yesterday" fades away. The navies are gone, the "reeking tube and iron shard" have turned to "valiant dust that builds upon dust". These sublunary marvels and achievements are meaningless in the face of time and God. Men should be wary of their pride and their boasting, and should strive instead for "[a] humble and contrite heart". He cites fallen empires of Nineveh and Tyre as a warning that decline is inevitable.
He writes a curious line about the Gentiles: "If, drunk with sight of power, we loose / Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe, / Such boastings as the Gentiles use, / Or lesser breeds without the Law –". The Gentiles here are conceived as the non-Jews – i.e., those without the special civilization and status of the biblical Jews. The Gentiles in the poem are those of Kipling's own world – perhaps the Russians or the Germans – who he felt were uncivilized in their values. Most scholars do not think he was referring to the subject peoples of Britain's imperial game.
When considered in light of Kipling's other works on the British Empire and imperialism, particularly "The White Man's Burden", the uniqueness of this poem is evident. The scholar William Flesch writes, "Kipling's jingoism is complex and takes the form of establishing and praising a culture of grateful memory of sacrifice (the obligation to such memory is at the heart of all his greatest poems)... The world as Kipling was troubled by it was a world of very fragile standing, that military might would do nothing to secure, and it is this sense of the world that makes this poem a powerful and necessary countercurrent to the jingoism of the jubilee that both attracted and troubled Kipling."