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Rudyard Kipling

In 1897, Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee was held in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of her reign. Rudyard Kipling, who had previously turned down the post of Royal Poet Laureate (he disdained official honors), was hounded by a public who wanted to see their greatest bard craft a work memorializing the hallowed day. But Kipling was reluctant. At first he replied with a shrug; writing about the Queen, he said, was outside his “beat.” And anyway, he argued, shouldn’t the sitting poet laureate, the now-unknown Alfred Austin, do the honors?

It was only a few days before the celebration that Kipling sat down to compose what would become one of the most famous poems in the English language. The work bristled with the splendid self-satisfaction and imperial pomp which marked the Jubilee. Kipling titled it “The White Man’s Burden”.

But just as soon as he’d written it, Kipling consigned his “Burden” to the wastebasket. He would later rework and publish it in 1899 – this time as an ode to American imperialism, featuring the subtitle “The United States and the Philippine Islands” – but at that high moment in 1897, Kipling read the words with apprehension. There was in the air “a certain optimism that scared me,” Kipling would later recall, a sense that settled him into a more solemn, even brooding, mood.

Galvanized by this silent anxiety, Kipling wrote a replacement. A reminder. A step back and deep breath, a long look in the mirror. A Recessional, which Webster defines as, “a hymn sung while the clergy and choir process out of church at the end of a service.” Kipling’s “Recessional” would have been read at the close of the Jubilee as the royal procession was to depart, but that was not the only reason for its title. Kipling had originally called the poem “After” – a modest name which would have sufficed for this purpose – yet he also sought to infuse the text with a gravitas that, as his successor Philip Larkin would so keenly recognize, could only be found in the context of religious liturgy.

“Recessional” is imbued with language and a refrain fitting of a hymn. Kipling repeatedly entreats his countrymen to avoid imperialistic hubris, so as to be spared by a God who holds true dominion over all mankind. The poem would eventually be sung as a chorale on Anzac Day in Australia and New Zealand, but we will have to be content reading it.

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!

Some clarifications:

  • Here “awful” does not connote the negative set of emotions with which we associate the word today. Rather, just as the original meaning of “awesome” differed from its modern parlance, so too did “awful” once primarily refer to the emotion of awe.
  • “Dominion over palm and pine”: a nod to England’s possession of territories spanning the globe
  • “Ninevah and Tyre”: two fallen empires which may serve as warnings that earthly power is transient
  • The “Gentiles” here were the Germans and the Russians, two nations which embodied, at least to Kipling’s mind, godlessness and imperial hubris. In contrast, the British were ordained to be the “chosen” inheritors of the promise of the Biblical Jews.
  • “reeking tube and iron shard”: instruments of war which, like idols and smoking altars, represent the false gods of human power

Rudyard Kipling by Walter Stoneman, whole-plate glass negative, 1924

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A background on Rudyard Kipling’s 1897 poem “Recessional”.

This commentary is sourced from The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling by David Gilmour and Rudyard Kipling: A Life by Harry Ricketts, as well as the Kipling Society’s notes, written by Mary Hamer.