The poem depicts King George V's May 1922 visit to war cemeteries in France to honor the dead from WWI.
The speaker begins by saying our King went on a pilgrimage to offer his prayers and vows to those who gave up their futures so we might have ours. There was no ostentation or showiness, just the ocean on either side of the ships. When he got to the first land of "shoal and banky ground" where the seas began, a pale tide hearkened the mouth of the harbor where the death-ships entered. There was no gull or wave that could not speak to the bodies that were "buckled in the life-buoy's ring / That slid from swell to swell".
The speaker intones that all that they had they gave and they will never return, as they are the ones who have no graves where hearts mourn.
At the next land the King found a place where cities once stood, but it is now overgrown with thistle and bulrush after the flood. No blade of grass or star in the sky could have avoided seeing a spirit pass and feel its agony.
At the next land the King saw open and hilly terrain that was once home to bread-corn but now was filled with dirty water and broken trees. No paved highway or quiet path in the wood had not borne the weight of "broken clay" or was sodden with blood.
The speaker intones that the dead put aside their mother and father and their "nearer love"; one hundred thousand of them died in nameless graves.
The last land the King traveled to was "fair and level" and featured a large stone with a sword placed on the bosom of a cross to designate the reality that "high and low are one". All of the grass and trees and spring flowers and the gentlemen from all lands knew him to be King.
The speaker intones that it was between the Nieuport sands and the place where the Four Red Rivers began where five hundred thousand gentlemen had died to serve their King.
The dead gave everything they had in faith. No knowledge that could reach them in their graves could make them doubt their sacrifice unless it was made known to them that "we they redeemed denied their blood / And mocked the gains it won".
"The King's Pilgrimage", 1922, like "Edgehill Fight", "The Last of the Light Brigade" and "Ulster", commemorates an actual historical event – King George V's visit to WWI cemeteries and battlefields in Flanders and Northern France. The King was accompanied by the famous Field Marshal Haig and a small number of other officials. These memorials were being formally established by the Imperial War Graves Commission (later called the Commonwealth War Graves Commission). Kipling wrote this poem to be published at the end of the tour; he also wrote a speech for the King that was delivered with very few changes. An illustrated book with the poem and the speech was published at the end of the pilgrimage. It featured text by Frank Fox describing the tour and included several photographs. For some time it was assumed that Kipling was the author of the text in the book.
The poem was initially published May 15th, 1922 in The Times and the New York World. It also appeared as an epigraph in the book previously mentioned, and was included in The Silent Cities, a 1929 guide to war cemeteries and memorials in France and Flanders.
Kipling was by this time a very famous poet, but was usually loath to accept a very public role. However, he did accept an invitation to become a member of the Imperial War Graves Commission in 1917. The Commission was to make sure that the war dead were buried close to where they fell and that all would be treated equally. The King's pilgrimage intended to verify that this was truly happening. Kipling was able to attend some of the events along the pilgrimage.
The poem may refer to a specific event, but it reflects the recurring theme in Kipling's verse of the need to honor soldiers. Though written much later than "My Boy Jack", it expresses the same idea of young soldiers valiantly giving up their lives for those who remain behind. It is also similar to "The Last of the Light Brigade" and "Tommy" in that Kipling asserts that soldiers are not to be marginalized or ignored but should be treated with the immense respect they deserve.
Kipling's poetic skills are in full force here. He creates image after image of loss, barrenness, and grief. The razed cities, ravaged lands, dirty water, broken trees, and dead fields speak to the sacrifice made by English soldiers. Nature reflects the destruction of human life that WWI caused. Kipling's poem has been compared to T.S. Eliot's famous poem "The Wasteland" and has also been viewed through the lens of a chivalric quest.