Rudyard Kipling (1865 – 1936) was an English author who wrote some of the most well known short stories, novels and poems. He worked in India for seven years from 1882 to 1889, and the influence of his time in the east can be seen in many of his works. Kipling’s clarity of style, his use of colloquial language, and the way in which he used rhythm and rhyme, are considered major innovations in poetry and went on to have an influence on following generations of poets. However, he is also known for his support of British imperialism and several of his works are seen as being emblematic of Eurocentric racism. In 1907, Rudyard Kipling was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature at the age of 42, making him the youngest person to receive the award. Know about the poetry of Kipling through his 10 most famous poems including Recessional, Mandalay, If and The White Man’s Burden.
#10 My Boy Jack
The Battle of Jutland was fought in 1916 during the First World War between the British Royal Navy and the Imperial German Navy. This poem was included as a prelude to a story in Kipling’s book Sea Warfare about the Battle of Jutland. In it, Kipling uses the imagery of the sea and nature to explore the grief felt by a parent due to the loss of a child in wartime. My Boy Jack promotes patriotism and stoic bravery in the face of death; and it became one of the most popular of the war-verses. There is speculation whether the poem is related to the death of Rudyard’s son John Kipling at the Battle of Loos in 1915; but most consider this to be improbable.
“Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?”
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind —
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.
#9 Gunga Din
This poem is written from the point of view of a British soldier in India at a time when India was ruled by the British Empire. Gunga Din, the titular character of the poem, is an Indian water-carrier of a British regiment. The soldier considers the European colonizers as superior and the native people of India as inferior. He and his fellow comrades frequently mistreat Gunga Din threatening and abusing him. During a fight between the British and the Indian natives, Gunga Din saves the narrator’s life but is shot and killed himself. In the final three lines of the poem, the soldier regrets the abuse he dealt to Din and admits that Din is the better man of the two. Gunga Din is one of Kipling’s most famous poems and it inspired a 1939 Hollywood film with the same title.
An’ I’ll get a swig in hell from Gunga Din!
Yes, Din! Din! Din!
You Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din!
Though I’ve belted you and flayed you,
By the livin’ Gawd that made you,
You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!
Rudyard Kipling worked in India for seven years from 1882 to 1889. This poem was written in 1890, a year after he had returned to England. The Mandalay referred to in the poem was the last royal capital of Myanmar (Burma) and is currently the second-largest city in the country. It was a part of British India at the time. The poem Mandalay is inspired by Kipling’s visit to Burma on his way home to England. In it, a soldier of the British Empire, now discharged and back in London, looks back with nostalgia and longing at his life in Burma and Asia’s exoticism in comparison to the cold, damp and foggy climates; and the social disciplines and conventions of UK and Northern Europe.
Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst;
For the temple-bells are callin’, an’ it’s there that I would be —
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea;
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay,
With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay!
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!
The narrator of this poem is Tommy Atkins, a generic slang name for a common British soldier. He talks about the respectful way he is treated when he is needed to fight in a war and presents the stark contrast of the poor treatment he receives when he is not required to fight. Tommy rejects this duality stating that he and his fellow soldiers are neither the “heroes” they are made out to be during war; and neither the “blackguards” they are perceived as in peacetime. Tommy was an influential poem; and it raised public awareness and debate in Britain about the need for a change in attitude of the public regarding their treatment of British soldiers.
I went into a theatre as sober as could be,
They gave a drunk civilian room, but ‘adn’t none for me;
They sent me to the gallery or round the music-‘alls,
But when it comes to fightin’, Lord! they’ll shove me in the stalls!
For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, wait outside”;
But it’s “Special train for Atkins” when the trooper’s on the tide,
The troopship’s on the tide, my boys, the troopship’s on the tide,
O it’s “Special train for Atkins” when the trooper’s on the tide.
This poem was written for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, which celebrated 60 years of her reign. The British Empire held tremendous power at the time and the occasion led to a great deal of boasting about the strength and greatness of the empire. Kipling’s poem, which contains five stanzas of six lines each, went against the celebratory mood of the time. It instead argued against jingoism; warned about the impermanent nature of all empires; and emphasized that worldly accomplishments were nothing in comparison to the eternal nature of God. A recessional is a hymn or piece of music and this poem follows the tradition of the English hymn.
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—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!
#5 Six Honest Serving Men
This poem follows Kipling’s well known story The Elephant’s Child, which narrates the tale of a little elephant with insatiable curiosity. The speaker of the poem begins by saying that he keeps six honest serving men: “What and Why and When And How and Where and Who”. He says that he gives them rest but knows a small person who “keeps ten million serving-men, who get no rest at all!” The poem is usually interpreted as stressing on the importance of inquisitiveness; and how it varies among adults and children. The six honest serving men of the poem have been influential in journalism, where they are known as the five Ws and an H. Students in the field are recommended to know how to make Kipling’s six honest men work for them. Kipling’s men are also used in marketing as a problem solving tool to analyse what customers want.
I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
I send them over land and sea,
I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,
I give them all a rest.
#4 The Gods of the Copybook Headings
Rarely used now, a copybook is an exercise book to practice a language. At the top of its pages is a copybook heading, such as a short proverb, and the rest of the page is blank except for horizontal rulings. The student is expected to copy the heading on the lines below for practice. The title of this work refers to the copybook headings at the time which praised virtues such as honesty or fair dealing. Kipling’s poem is built on a series of sayings, well-known to British and American readers. It focuses on “age-old, unfashionable wisdom” that he saw as having been forgotten by society. The Gods of the Copybook Headings remains among Kipling’s most popular poems.
In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “If you don’t work you die.”
#3 The Ballad of East and West
In this ballad, an Afghan chieftain named Kamal raids into British territory and during the raid steals the mare of the colonel. The Colonel’s son follows him into enemy territory whereupon Kamal knocks his pistol out of his hand and reveals that the colonel’s son and his men have all along been surrounded by Kamal’s men. The Colonel’s son, however, defiantly responds by promising vengeance. His jesting defiance wins over Kamal and he gives back the mare. The colonel’s son gives Kamal his pistols in return and Kamal tells his only son to be the guide of the Englishmen. The Ballad of East and West was a huge success on its release and it continues to be popular. The opening lines of the ballad are especially renowned. They are also often quoted to ascribe racism to Kipling though there is little in this poem that suggests that.
Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!
#2 The White Man’s Burden
In 1898, United States went to war against Spain on the pretext that it wanted to liberate Cuba from Spanish control. However, after winning the war it was awarded Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. This departed from America’s policy of isolationism and made it an imperialist country. Kipling’s poem was written to address the American colonization of the Philippine Islands. It justified imperialism as a noble enterprise; assigned superiority to the white race and presented the other races as inferior; and proposed that the white man had the moral obligation to civilize the rest of the world. The uncivilized non-whites are thus the “White Man’s Burden”. The White Man’s Burden is one of the most controversial poems ever written. There are several works which counter it and present the actual facts about colonization. The poem is often cited as the most solid evidence to establish that Rudyard Kipling was a racist and a prophet of imperialism.
Take up the White Man’s burden,
Send forth the best ye breed
Go bind your sons to exile,
to serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.
By far the most famous poem of Rudyard Kipling, If—, presents a set of situations and the ideal behaviour a person should adopt when he encounters them. It acclaims Victorian-era stoicism and displaying fortitude in the face of adversity. The person Kipling had in mind while writing this verse was his friend Sir Leander Starr Jameson, who incidentally was betrayed and imprisoned by the British Government. The poem doesn’t have a physical setting but is often seen as a father giving the most valuable lesson of life to his son. The lines of the poem are hugely popular; and the third and fourth lines of its second stanza are written on the wall of the players’ entrance to the Centre Court of the Wimbledon Championship. If— is one of the most well-known poems in the English language and it was voted the favourite poem of Britain in a 1995 BBC poll.
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools: