Rudyard Kipling: Poems

Rudyard Kipling: Poems Summary and Analysis of "Tommy"


The speaker says he went into a public house and ordered a beer, but was told that they served no red-coats there. The girls giggled and out in the street he said to himself that everyone makes fun of him until the band begins to play, and it becomes "Thank you, Mister Atkins".

He went into a theater completely sober and a drunken man was allowed to remain but he was not. He was told to go to the gallery or the music halls instead. However, when it comes time for fighting they are full of "Tommy this" and "Tommy that" and let him on a special train. When the troopship is on the tide, then it is a special train for Atkins.

It is cheaper to make fun of the uniforms that guard people when they sleep than the uniforms themselves, and it is easier to mock drunken soldiers than to let them parade in "full kit". When that happens, it is "Tommy this" and "Tommy that" and "Tommy, 'ow's yer soul?" When the drums roll, they are a line of heroes in red.

The speaker explains that they are not a thin red line of heroes, nor are they blackguards. They are simply single men no different than you. Even if their conduct is sometimes dicey, being a single man in a barrack does not train one to be a saint. While it is usually "Tommy, fall be'ind", when there is trouble in the wind it turns into "Please walk in front, sir".

Everyone talks about better food, schools, and fires for them, and the speaker says they would be happy to wait for extra rations if they were treated rationally. They only want it proved to their face that the "Widow's Uniform is not the soldier-man's disgrace".

It is usually said to chuck out Tommy the brute, but he is deemed the savior of the country when the guns start to shoot. It is "Tommy this" and "Tommy that" and anything else they please, but Tommy is certainly no fool and sees what is happening.


“Tommy” is one of Kipling’s most popular poems; it is included in Barrack-Room Ballads, and Other Verses. It is similar to “Gentlemen-Rankers”, “The Last of the Light Brigade,” and “Danny Deever” in particular, with its emphases on the difficulties of a soldier’s life, especially once back at home. The name “Tommy” does not refer to a specific individual but rather the nickname for British soldiers –Tommy Atkins. Atkins means “little son of red earth” and may refer to the red uniforms worn by the soldiers. Although used as early as 1743, the term was primarily associated with the soldiers in WWI. Kipling also uses the nickname in “Fuzzy-Wuzzy”: “An ‘appy day with Fuzzy on the rush / Will last an ‘ealthy Tommy for a year”.

“Tommy” was a popular poem during its own era because of the use of the vernacular and because of the fresh way the soldier was written about. The poem continues to be brought up in the press even in the modern era when soldiers or military-related individuals suffer ill treatment when they return to the home front. A poem written by Peter Pindar in 2003 entitled “Tommy in the 21st Century” features these lines: “Yes, it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ spend less on defence, / But who walks the streets of Basra when the air is getting tense? / When the air is getting tense, boys, from Kabul to Kosovo / Who’ll say goodbye to wife and kids, and shoulder pack and go?”

"Tommy" was almost titled “The Queen’s Uniform”, which refers to a line from the poem: “Don’t mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face / The Widow’s Uniform is not the solider-man’s disgrace”. This is a reference to Queen Victoria, the Widow of Windsor, and the uniform her soldiers wore.

The poem has five stanzas, each with eight lines; the first four lines of the stanzas are in rhyming couplets, and the second are also in rhyming couplets in a chorus. Each stanza begins by detailing the terrible ways in which young soldiers were treated during peacetime: they were refused service in bars, they were mocked, they were not allowed in theaters, and they were refused a lot of the bare necessities of existence such as “better food for us, an’ schools, an’ fires, an’ all”. They are met with contempt while the common drunk manages to be tolerated.

All of this changes, however, once the country goes to war. Tommy is then celebrated and thanked. People are concerned with his wellbeing and his soul, and deem him and his fellow soldiers a “Thin red line of heroes” and the “Saviour of ‘is country”. A note on the phrase “thin red line”: the famous reporter for the Times, William Howard Russell, wrote of the 93rd Highlanders’ deep line that repulsed the Russian cavalry at the Battle of Balaklava (the same battle as the charge of the light brigade), referring to them as “that line red streak topped with a line of steel.” It was shortened subsequently to “thin red line” and entered the lexicon as a description for heroic British defense.

Tommy, the poem’s speaker, tries to mediate between these binaries of lout and hero; he explains that “We aren’t no thin red ‘eroes, nor we aren’t no blackguards too, / But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you”. If their behavior occasionally does tend toward the raucous, people must remember, “single men in barricks don’t grow into plaster saints”. Tommy is painfully aware of the hypocrisy complicates his life. Kipling does an excellent job of defending the young soldiers who took up the noble task of defending their country and of arguing for their humanity and frailty even while acknowledging their courage and fighting prowess.