Recessional

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The fifth in my ongoing series examining the poetry of Rudyard Kipling.   The other posts in the series may be read here, here , here and here.

Kipling is often denounced as a thoughtless imperialist.  That is a remarkable charge to make against the author of the poem Recessional.

More than once Kipling was offered honors from the British government, including the post of Poet Laureate of Great Britain, all of which he steadfastly refused.  On the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897 he composed one of his most powerful poems, Recessional, which perhaps helps explain why he never took up the post of Poet Laureate for the nation he so deeply loved.

God of our fathers, known of old—
Lord of our far-flung battle line—
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies—
The Captains and the Kings depart—
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Far-called our navies melt away—
On dune and headland sinks the fire—
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

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!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard—
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding calls not Thee to guard.
For frantic boast and foolish word,
Thy Mercy on Thy People, Lord!
Amen.

The poem opens with no patriotic effusion or praise of the Queen, but with a stark prayer to the God of our Fathers that Britain not forget something.  What?

God of our fathers, known of old—
Lord of our far-flung battle line—
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget.

Kipling doesn’t answer the question directly.  Instead, in a stanza of deathless beauty, he reminds us of the ephemeral rise and fall of nations being as nothing compared to a human soul turning in humility to God.

The tumult and the shouting dies—
The Captains and the Kings depart—
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Kipling next gazes into a future where the power of Great Britain is one with Nineveh and Tyre, and repeats the question yet again.

Far-called our navies melt away—
On dune and headland sinks the fire—
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Kipling finally answers the question:  Great Britain needs to remember not to abuse the power granted to it, or that power would swiftly vanish in the sight of God.  The phrase “lesser breeds without the law” is a reference to Germany, the rising power in Europe.

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!

Kipling ends the poem by asking God for mercy on Great Britain.  Kipling was not conventionally religious, but in this poem and others he shows a firm understanding that any nation, even his own beloved Great Britain, was as nothing when compared with God, and that people needed to be reminded of that fact.  With such an awareness, it is small wonder that Kipling refused all earthly honors from the hands of the country he loved.

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard—
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding calls not Thee to guard.
For frantic boast and foolish word,
Thy Mercy on Thy People, Lord!
Amen.

19 Responses to Recessional

  • Thank you!

    Reminds of my son’s commissioning as 2Lt, US Army Reserve, at Fordham University Chapel a few of years ago.

    The President Father made a fine speech and another seasoned Jesuit academic professor read this poem, “Recessional (A Victorian Ode)”, to the newly minted shave-tails and assembled family and friends.

    You are correct about looking beyond Kipling’s stereotype. He also penned “Mother o’ Mine”, and

    From ‘Epitaphs of the War 1914 – 1918’

    A SON
    My son was killed while laughing at some jest. I would I knew
    What it was, and it might serve me in a time when jests are few.

    AN ONLY SON
    I have slain none except my Mother.
    She (Blessing her slayer) died of grief for me.

    Kipling’s only son, John, was killed in the war with 2 Batt., Irish Guards. Kipling had pulled strings to obtain for the 17-year-old a billet as subaltern despite his weak eyesight.

    Back on point, here is one of my faves, a chapter heading in one of Kipling’s novels, “The Taking of Luntingpen.”

    So we loosed a bloomin’ volley,
    An’ we made the beggars cut,
    An’ when our pouch was emptied out.
    We used the bloomin’ butt,
    Ho! My!
    Don’t yer come anigh,
    When Tommy is a playin’ with the baynit an’ the butt.

    Pray for Victory.

  • My, my, Don…props for Kipling, who wrote one good poem, and trashing Thoreau all in one week. What’s next? Da Vinci was a 2nd rate thinker? : )

  • Thoreau, Joe, was not fit to clean Kipling’s pith helmet. If comparisons are always invidious, comparing Thoreau to Kipling is devastating for Thoreau.

  • Agree with Don. Just because most of Kipling’s poetry remains obscure to the broad public, does not mean he wrote just one good poem. The same is true of most poets, including for instance Frost and Kilmer who each only wrote only one poem known by anyone except for a tiny percentage of people however well-educated.

    Da Vinci differs from either Kipling or Thoreau in that he is neither under-rated (Kipling) or over-rated (Thoreau), but quite properly commonly regarded as a genius of the highest rank.

  • OK, Don, I’ll give a little. As a poet and story teller, Kipling was pretty to very good. And, who can forget these final lines:

    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!

  • Big of you Joe. That is one of my favorite poems of Kipling and indicates that rather than a simple Imperialist, Kipling was a fairly complicated poet and his poems often have several shades of meaning. For example:

    “An’ watch us till the bugles made “Retire.”
    An’ for all ‘is dirty ‘ide,
    ‘E was white, clear white, inside
    When ‘e went to tend the wounded under fire!”

    Is this a simple racist compliment, or is it a satire on the whole concept of race in judging a man rather than by judging a man by what he does? I rarely read anything written by Kipling without mulling over some passage like that.

  • Well noted Joe. I sometimes think there are as many interpretations of a Kipling piece as there are readers.

  • Some pithy Kipling quotes:

    God could not be everywhere, and therefore he made mothers.

    If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.

    A woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke.

    An ounce of mother is worth a pound of clergy.

    If you can keep your wits about you while all others are losing theirs, and blaming you. The world will be yours and everything in it, what’s more, you’ll be a man, my son.

    Down to Gehenna, or up to the Throne, He travels the fastest who travels alone.

    Read more: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/r/rudyard_kipling.html#ixzz1Oi9d0EMg

  • “Down to Gehenna, or up to the Throne, He travels the fastest who travels alone.”

    I was fond of that saying as a young unmarried man. After 29 years of marriage and 3 kids I might still agree with the Gehenna part! :)

    I also enjoyed this quote as a young man and I still do:

    “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the two 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, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth.”

  • Kipling is a very complex figure, despite the efforts to reduce him to a jingo. Fortunately, his works tend to burn their way into the brain despite the best efforts of his despisers.

    He was also right chuffed about having two towns in Michigan named for him, too:

    http://www.kiplinghouse.com/kipling.html

  • “Wise is the child who knows his sire,
    The ancient proverb ran,
    But wiser far the man who knows,
    Where and when his offspring grows,
    For who the mischief, would suppose
    I’ve sons in Michigan???

    Yet I am saved from midnight ills,
    That warp the soul of man,
    They do not make me walk the floor,
    Nor hammer at the Doctors door;
    They dear in wheat and iron ore.
    My Sons in Michigan.

    O, Tourist in the Pullman Car
    (By Cooks or Raymond’s Plan)
    Forgive a parent’s partial view;
    But maybe you have children too-
    So let me introduce to you
    My Sons in Michigan.”

    Rudyard Kipling

  • Although probably overrated and definitely overquoted, this remains my favorite Kipling poem:

    If you can keep your head when all about you
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
    If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too:
    If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
    Or being hated don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

    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;

    If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
    And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
    And never breathe a word about your loss:
    If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,
    And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

    If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
    If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much:
    If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
    Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

  • Semper Verde

    It’s as if Kipling knew me.

    “Single men in barracks don’t grow into plaster saints.”

    From “The Man Who Would Be King.”

    This Contract between me and you pursuing witnesseth in the name of God —Amen and so forth.

    (One) That me and you will settle this matter together; i.e. to be Kings of Kafiristan.

    (Two) That you and me will not, while this matter is being settled, look at any Liquor, nor any Woman black, white, or brown, so as to get mixed up with one or the other harmful.

    (Three) That we conduct ourselves with dignity and Discretion, and if one of us gets into trouble the other will stay by him.

    Signed by you and me this day.

    Peachey Taliaferro Carnehan.

    Daniel Dravot.

    Both Gentlemen at Large.

  • For sheer rollicking power, neatly disguising the shivving of summertime patriotism, you can’t beat “Tommy”:

    Yes, makin’ mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep
    Is cheaper than them uniforms, an’ they’re starvation cheap;
    An’ hustlin’ drunken soldiers when they’re goin’ large a bit
    Is five times better business than paradin’ in full kit.
    Then it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, ‘ow’s yer soul?”
    But it’s “Thin red line of ‘eroes” when the drums begin to roll,
    The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll,
    O it’s “Thin red line of ‘eroes” when the drums begin to roll.

  • Every time I see someone reading the NY Times or listen to Obama nonsense, I think of this from “If” above.

    “If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,”

    The following has been rattling around my brain since 11 Sep 2001.

    “The Earth gave up its dead that day,
    Into our camp he came,
    And said his say and went his way,
    And left our hearts aflame.

    “Keep tally – on the gun-butt score,
    The vengeance we must take,
    When God shall bring full reckoning,
    For our dead comrades’ sake!”

  • “For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!”
    But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot;
    An’ it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please;
    An’ Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool — you bet that Tommy sees!”

  • Kipling wrote an immediately affecting poem after his son’s death: It breaks one’s heart from the first line.


    “Have you news of my boy Jack?”
    Not this tide.
    “When d’you think that he’ll come back?”
    Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

    “Has any one else had word of him?”
    Not this tide.
    For what is sunk will hardly swim,
    Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

    “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.

    Then hold your head up all the more,
    This tide,
    And every tide;
    Because he was the son you bore,
    And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!

  • Indeed Ivan. I link below to my post on the death of Jack Kipling:

    http://the-american-catholic.com/2010/09/30/my-boy-jack/

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