The ballad tells the tale of Kamal, an Afghan warrior and raider, and a raid he made on a horse that belonged to an English colonel.
The introduction to the poem says that East is East and West is West and the two shall never meet until Judgment Day, but that when two strong men stand face to face, it does not matter where they come from because geography and breed and birth no longer matter.
Kamal and his twenty men are trying to raise the border-side. Kamal has taken the Colonel's horse right out of the stable and rode her away. The Colonel's son asked if any of his men knew where Kamal hides, and Mohammed Khan replied that if one knew where the morning mist was, they would find Kamal. He might be near Fort Bukloh because he has to pass it on the way to his residence, so it is possible to cut him off before he gets to the Tongue of Jagai. If he is past the Tongue, then avoid that grisly plain full of Kamal's men.
After Mohammad finished speaking, the Colonel's son mounted his horse; the son's horse is fearsome with "the heart of Hell and the head of a / gallows-tree". He made it to the Fort and stayed there briefly to dine. He left quickly and rode until he saw his father's missing mare at the Tongue of Jagai. Kamal was on her back, and the Colonel's son fired twice but missed.
Kamal replied that the man shot like a soldier and summoned him to show how he could ride. The Colonel's son's horse let up like "a stag of ten" but Kamal's stolen mare was like a "barren doe". There was a rock on both the right and the left and a thorn in between.
The men rode past the moon into the dawn. The dun – the Colonel's son's horse – rode like a wounded bull but the mare was like fawn. The dun finally fell, and Kamal turned his horse back and pulled the Colonel's son free. He kicked the pistol out of his enemy's hand and told him that he was only allowed to run so far because he let him. He explained that his own men lined the whole course and if he had raised his hand they would have killed the Colonel's son instantly.
The Colonel's son answers Kamal scornfully, but Kamal disregards this and helps him to his feet. He tells the young man not to talk of dogs when "wolf and grey wolf / meet". The Colonel's son, impressed by Kamal, spontaneously offers him his father's mare. The mare runs to the Colonel's son and Kamal notes that she loves the younger man best, and decides to let the mare return to him, as well as giving him his saddle, his saddle-cloth, and his silver stirrups. Kamal also calls his own son and gives him to the Colonel's son. He introduces his son, who looks like a "lance / in rest", and tells the boy that the Colonel's son is his master and that he must ride at his left side until Death or Kamal cuts the ties. The boy must defend his new master and it is his fate to protect him. He should be a tough trooper and ascend to Ressaldar, even though he himself will probably be hanged as a traitor.
Kamal and the Colonel's son look at each other and find no fault. They have taken the Oath of the Brother-in-Blood. The Colonel's son rides the mare and Kamal's son takes the dun. They return to Fort Bukloh, and as they draw closer twenty swords flash in warning. The Colonel's son calls for them to lower their steel because while last night they had struck at a "Border thief – to-night 'tis a man / of the Guides!"
The refrain from the beginning of the poem regarding East and West and strong men meeting is repeated.
One of Kipling’s most famous and complex poems, “The Ballad of East and West”, was published in three magazines in December 1889 and is usually collected in Barrack-Room Ballads, and Other Verses. It was first called “Kamal” after the Afghan warrior, but Kipling changed it to the more epic title it now possesses. The poem has attained fame for the opening line of “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall / meet” as well as, critic William Flesch writes, "its attitude (a complexity that has room for a great deal of sentimentality), the extremely high technical sheen, the light touch of its versification, and the absorbing interest of the story it tells.”
The poem is in the style of a border ballad, an Anglo-Scottish poetic form that featured recurring motifs but usually lacked a chorus, and oftentimes took up the subject of raids or battles. "Ballad" is organized in rhyming heptameters.
That story concerns two equally-matched warriors, one an Afghan raider and the other a British officer, a Colonel’s son, and their rivalry that turns into great mutual respect and admiration. The plot is relatively simple, with Kamal stealing the Colonel’s horse and riding it into enemy territory; the Colonel’s son courageously follows him, firing on Kamal when he glimpses him ahead. He misses, and Kamal taunts him. The Colonel’s son rides until his own horse collapses, and Kamal approaches him and tells him that he is only alive because Kamal has allowed him to live. Exhausted and apparently bested, the Colonel’s son demands the stolen mare back. Kamal is impressed and helps the British officer to his feet. The Colonel’s son decides to bequeath the mare to Kamal in honor of his fighting prowess, but Kamal sees that the mare prefers the other man and gently returns the horse. Kamal then gives the Colonel’s son his own son as an assistant, and the men pledge their honor and fealty to one another, recognizing their similarities within their differences.
The theme of the poem is that even though the two ends of the earth cannot meet, men of each territory can put aside their differences of nationality, race, background, and religion and appreciate each other’s universal qualities of bravery, nobility, and rectitude. The line regarding East and West is derived from Psalm 103:12: “Look how wide also is the east from the west: so far hath he set our sins from us”.
There seems to be an Oedipal element to the poem in that the Colonel's son is trying to prove himself to his father by getting the mare back. The mare being female is significant, as is the praising on Kamal's part of the son's mother as a "dam of lances" (fierce warriors). Another important element in the poem is the ritual of gifting, which comes after the two men begin to realize how much they have in common and how much they value the other's courage and might. This practice of gift-giving was tremendously revealing of the true measure and capacity of a man. Kamal's final gift of his own son is very important, for, as Flesch writes, "he sets himself up as a truer father, a more equal, more capable father than the Colonel is."
A final significant element is the presence, as many critics and readers have noted, of an element of homoeroticism in the men's encounter. This is not easily dismissed, but as Flesch writes, "one should also recognize that the [homoerotic] bond is itself a metaphor for something else – for the possibility of a sublime transcultural or omnicultural moment of communication and understanding of just the kind of powerful gesture that the poem itself makes vivid for readers everywhere."