In contemporary times, much criticism has been placed upon Rudyard Kipling for his support of British Imperialism; George Orwell went so far as to call him the “prophet of British Imperialism during its expansionist phase.” To be sure, a considerable portion of Kipling’s works were written in celebration and support of Imperial expansion, but it is short-sighted to simply label him as an Imperial propagandist or apologist. Two of his most oft-condemned poems, Recessional and The White Man’s Burden, actually were used by both sides of the colonial issue at the time.1 A reading of Recessional, taken in the context of the prevailing attitudes of the time, seems to indicate that it is a piece about hubris rather than a promotion of the Empire. And the “burden” that Kipling writes on, while patronizing, was indeed a genuine burden.2 The fact that the British Empire went far in alleviating famine and disease in the conquered territories should not be ignored. It is beyond a doubt, however, that Kipling was convinced of Britain’s superiority in the world. In For All We Have and Are, for instance, the reader is convinced with the last two lines, “What stands if Freedom fall?/Who dies if England live?” Kipling was not by far the most vociferous of the jingoists; having been somewhat of an outsider all for his life, he showed great sympathy for those whose lives were wasted in the expansion of the empire, and criticized the Imperial machinery that used them. His poetry as told by the common British soldiers show his ability maintain his status as poet laureate of the Empire while telling the stories of its victims, and at times, condemning it for the way it treated those soldiers.
Kipling published Barrack-Room Ballads in 1890, and it immediately gained him great success in England. A collection of poems written in the voice of a London cockney, they display Kipling’s remarkable breadth of understanding of soldiers and soldiering during the Victorian era. While reading The Young British Soldier one can perfectly picture a group of such men belting out the words of the song over mugs of beer:
When the ‘arf-made recruity goes out to the East
‘E acts like a babe an’ ‘e drinks like a beast,
An’ ‘e wonders because ‘e is frequent deceased
Ere ‘e fit for to serve as a soldier,
Here Kipling echoes the fatalistic humor that seems to infect every soldier in every war. More fatalism and the unwillingness to speak directly of the horrors of battle surface in The Widow’s Party:
…For half my comp’ny’s laying still
…We broke a King and we built a road–
A courthouse stands where the regiment goed.
And the river’s clean where the raw blood flowed
Not only does Kipling create a brutal contrast between the soldier’s description (a party) and the battle that actually took place, he injects a small amount of disgust that good young men died, all for the purpose of expanding the Empire into some godforsaken land that few in England had ever heard of. More of this veiled disgust surfaces in The Widow at Windsor, written as a British soldier who does not see the Empire as any kind of divine design:
We ‘ave bought ‘er the same with the sword ‘an the flame,
‘An we’ve salted it down with our bones.
(Poor beggars! — it’s blue with our bones!)
Take ‘old of the Wings o’ the Mornin’,
An’ flop round the earth till you’re dead;
But you won’t get away from the tune that they play
(Poor beggars! — it’s ‘ot over’ead!)
The theme that overrides in much of Kipling’s poetry, however, is his sympathy for the common soldier and his treatment by those he is serving. Tommy endures to this day as the best commentary on the relationship between the soldier and the non-combatant public:
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!
We aren’t no thin red ‘eroes, nor we aren’t no blackguards too,
But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you;
An’ if sometimes our conduck isn’t all your fancy paints,
Why, single men in barricks don’t grow into plaster saints;
For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Chuck ‘im 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 moves from this somewhat lighthearted complaint to outright scorn with The Last of the Light Brigade:
There were thrity million English who talked of England’s might,
There were twenty broken troopers who lacked a bed for the night.
They had neither food nor money, they had neither service nor trade;
They were only shiftless soldiers, the last of the Light Brigade.
The parallel between the plight of Kipling’s troopers and the homeless veterans in the United States today rings too true to overlook. In English society, enlisting in the army had generally been a last resort before going to the poor-house, and, as such, soldiers were not held in high esteem. With Barrack-Room Ballads, and with later writing, Kipling established himself as the “friend of the soldier,” and brought new insight to the public into the life of the soldier.
Kipling also brought a novel view in regard to the enemies of the Empire as well. He often portrayed the indigenous peoples that fought the British in the same manner as the “noble savage” as in The Ballad of East and West, or as unfortunate victims of circumstance. Referring to the Sudanese, Kipling writes in Fuzzy-Wuzzy:
Then ‘ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, an’ the missis an’ the kid;
Our orders was to break you, an’ of course we went an’ did.
We sloshed you with Martinis, an’ it wasn’t hardly fair;
But for all the odds agin’ you, Fuzzy-Wuz, you broke the square.
He also introduces the concept of respect for the enemies of the Empire, going so far as to state, “If we ‘adn’t lost some messmates we’d ‘elp you to deplore,” implying that, from the soldier’s view, respect for valiant conduct on the battlefield transcends any loyalty to the Crown. Another piece, Piet, also carries with it the idea that the British soldiers did not carry with them a great deal of loyalty to the Empire, rather, they were simply paid to do a job, and set about doing it. Along the way, they were impressed by the manner in which their adversaries performed their jobs:
…’E does not lose ‘is rifle an’ ‘e does not lose ‘is seat.
I’ve known a lot o’ people ride a dam’ sight worse than Piet.
Kipling moves from admiration to compassion as well, in a scene that could have come from our own Civil War:
I’ve ‘eard ‘im cryin’ from the ground
An’ skirmished out to look, an’ found,
Not only does Kipling write on respect for the Empire’s adversaries, but also for the “lesser breeds” that he refers to in Recessional. Gunga Din, arguably the most famous of all of Kipling’s poetry, describes a saintly water-bearer, who gives his life tending to the wounded. Kipling even compares him to Lazarus, sent down from Heaven to comfort the souls of the damned.3
Kipling does receive criticism for his poetry, and much of it is well-deserved. From a Twenty-first Century viewpoint, many of his ideas seem absolutely barbaric. It is true that much of his poetry does indeed espouse the ideals of Imperialism, subjugation, and racism, ideals that, even in Kipling’s time, had manifold opponents. Kipling would not have received the honors that he did from the Empire had he not furthered its ideology, so the reprobation he has received as Imperial propagandist is at least somewhat deserved. To completely condemn him as a relic of the past, however, is to deprive ourselves of the truly outstanding work that he has to offer. Kipling has given us a unique gift in his stories and poetry of the Victorian-era soldier. If the literary world can learn to look beyond the surface of Kipling as Imperial apologist, it can gain a great deal of insight into the experience of the colonial soldier.
Fitzgerald, Edward P. “Did France’s Colonial Empire Make Economic Sense?” The Journal of Economic History. V. 48, n. 2, pp. 373-85.
Howe, Irving (ed.) The Portable Kipling. New York: Penguin, 1982.
Kipling, Rudyard. Departmental Ditties and Ballads and Barrack-Room Ballads. New York: Doubleday, 1917.
Newsome, George. “‘Recessional’ and ‘The White Man’s Burden,'” Kipling Journal. September, 1990, pp. 13-27.
Rice, Elizabeth T. “Fuzzy-Wuz,” Kipling Journal. December, 1990, pp. 24-6.
Whitehead, John. “The ‘Barrack-Room Ballads’ as Treasure-Trove,” Kipling Journal. March, 1995, pp. 21-5.
1Newsom, p. 23, states that “The White Man’s Burden” was included in a pamphlet distributed by the Boston Anti-Imperialist League.
2Fitzgerald, p. 73, does a complete economic analysis of colonial empires and concludes that, at least economically, they were a losing proposition for the colonial masters.
3Whitehead, p. 25.