Rudyard Kipling: Poems

Rudyard Kipling: Poems Themes

Poor treatment of soldiers

Kipling was a proud Briton and believed that it was an honor to serve in the country's military. He regretted that he was unable to serve due to poor eyesight and he encouraged his own son to enlist. He touted the virtues of courage and fighting prowess, but, unlike many other leading intellectuals and public figures of his day, excoriated the British government for not taking care of the soldiers once they returned from the front. Several of his poems depict cruel treatment of veterans, from mocking and jeering and refusals of service to poor food, housing, and care. The veterans of the charge of the light brigade bitterly lament that they are sung about in Tennyson's famous poem but do not have a bed to sleep in for the night. The young "Tommy" is treated poorly; what compounds his misery is that as soon as Britain is in trouble again, he and his fellow soldiers will be lauded as heroes. Kipling gives voice to these aggrieved soldiers and tries to shame his countrymen for the way they treat those who have made it possible for them to go on living in comfort.

Respect for the "other"

It is certainly no surprise to detect the racism and notions of cultural supremacy in Kipling's poems about colonial subjects and Eastern peoples, but Kipling's poems are more nuanced than many readers suspect. Several of the verses express outright respect and admiration for native peoples. In the famous "Ballad of East and West" Kipling argues that the geographic extremities may never touch but that when mighty, noble men of either ends of the earth meet in good faith that they can transcend race, family, and religion. In "The Mother-Lodge" Kipling expresses his fondness for the Masonic lodge where men of all backgrounds spoke freely of their religion without judgment. "Gunga Din" is a soldier's expression of respect for the Indian water-carrier who saves his life. "Fuzzy-Wuzzy" concerns the Beja warriors that the British tangled with in the Mahdist War. The soldier narrating the poem explains that he admires the Fuzzy-Wuzzies for their fighting skill and would be happy to encounter them again. All of these poems deviate from the standard depiction of the "other" as simple-minded, unknowable, and/or savage. While these poems are not wholly free from tinges of racism, they are still notable for their more accepting and open-minded view of different races.

Masculinity and manhood

Most of Kipling's poems, either explicitly or implicitly, put forth notions of ideal masculine behavior and sentiments. "If-" and "The Thousandth Man" are the most blatant, but the stories of soldiers contain elements of this theme as well. For Kipling, a true product of the Victorian era with its stringent gender binaries, manhood meant several key characteristics; these included honesty, humility, perseverance, courage, stoicism, and, in many cases, fighting prowess. His men are willing to endure toil and strife and surmount terrible odds. They find glory in the pursuit of the British Empire's goals, whether on the battlefield or in the bureaucracy. They are the strong and silent type with a stiff upper lip. Kipling did not believe, though, that violence or pride or rage were good characteristics for the ideal man to possess; he also believed that they could be men of feelings and emotions, as long as those did not get in the way of their endeavors, whatever they might be. Kipling's men rule over their inferiors - women, children, native peoples - with a firm but kind, albeit patronizing, hand.

The lure of the East

Kipling's entrancement with India, the country of his birth, comes through quite conspicuously in his poems, particularly "Mandalay". He finds the climate, the girls, the scents, the animals, and the ease of life appealing, especially in contrast with the cold, rainy, and coarse world of London. This was not an uncommon sentiment in his time, and one that is rather understandable even today. The East is an exotic and beguiling place that stirs up men's blood and provides them an exciting yet languid counterpart to their dreary London existence. However, there is always a tinge of racism in these expressions of longing for the East; the people are always enigmatic, always alluring. They are merely objects to gaze upon in wonder rather than real people, and they receive Britons' disgust, pity, and desire to civilize, even if it is subtly suggested.

The dangers of Empire

Although Kipling has a negative reputation for his promulgation of the British Empire and its imperialist ambitions, he was not naive about the difficulties of empire-building and was aware of the dangers of hubris and ignorance when it came to enforcing the laws of the British colonies. "The White Man's Burden" in particular warns about the problems faced by those who devoted themselves to the colonial cause: they might face scorn or criticism; they must watch out for sloth and folly; they will face resistance from their "captive" peoples; they must realize that they may not garner the praise they expected; and they will be working extremely hard. "Recessional" also deals with this theme; in that poem Kipling warns not to forget about God when reaping the glory and treasures of Empire, and not to forget that all worldly possessions will fade into dust. These two poems are important warnings to those jingoistic politicians and adventurers blithely venturing into colonies without thought of the complexities of their endeavor.

The difficulty of soldiers' experience

Not only are soldiers treated poorly when they return to England, their experience at the front is difficult as well. While Kipling was no pacifist or advocate of extricating Britain from foreign entanglements, he did possess a very deep sympathy for the young men who were dying to preserve and promote the British Empire. In "Tommy", "Danny Deever", "Boots", and "Gentlemen-Rankers" in particular, Kipling shows life at the front as monotonous, depressing, and full of toil. Some soldiers, like Danny Deever, crack under pressure. Others drink or drug themselves into a stupor. Others are worn down mentally by the redundant, seemingly meaningless day-to-day marching. They are forced to grow up too fast and come to terms with things that are far more complicated than they are ready for. They are lost, listless, and feel themselves incapable of the traditional virtues of love, honor, and truth.

Courage and perseverance

Several of Kipling's poems present a situation of impossible odds, or situations where the mettle of men is tested almost beyond their capacity to endure. The men in these situations possess great courage and perseverance even though their fate looks dire. The men of Ulster trying to stand up to the English, the opposing Royalists and Parliamentarians in Edgehill, the empire-builders of "The White Man's Burden", and even King George V, faced with the horrors of WWI on his pilgrimage, are tested and challenged. The men of Ulster know that their cause is a difficult one and that all they have is their faith; the armies at Edgehill mourn that they must fight each other but do not shrink from such a conflict. All of these men possess nobility of spirit and do not give up or give in. These virtues are also enumerated in "If-" and "The Thousandth Man".