Sunday, September 16, 2007

Recessional by Rudyard Kipling


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 boasting 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!
--Rudyard Kipling

I really like Rudyard Kipling's poetry. Here is a man who knows the value of just the right word, and has a great ear for finding it. I think that's the reason his Just So Stories are so consistently popular. They have a rhythm and cadence that's almost poetry. Take this line from The Elephant's Child "to the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees, and find out."

Many people read his poems and say that he's imperialist, racist, jingoist, etc. I personally feel that he's something else. Perhaps nationalist comes close to being the right word. He wants the best for his nation, and believes that God wants it too. He doesn't say, "my nation, right or wrong," but, "my nation had better do right." You don't have to read much of his work (try Gunga-Din for starters) to see that he thinks that it's what a man does, rather than the color of his skin, that makes him worthwhile. I don't think that he believes that simply conquering a country, enslaving the natives, and taking all the natural resources you can get is the right thing for his nation (on practical as well as moral grounds).

He is, however, unapologetically religious, and that's what this poem is about. For whatever reason, God blessed England and America (Kipling lived in both places, and though this poem was written for Queen Victoria's Jubilee, it, and other poems written at the time were directed at both audiences) with the military and economic power to make and maintain colonial empires. Kipling is warning them that if they forget that it was His power, not their own, that they'll be likely to lose it.

There are plenty of instances of this happening in the Old Testament (see the Babylonian captivity), but I really like a section in the Book of Mormon where some brothers start warning each other about the same thing:
Alma 26:10 And it came to pass that when Ammon had said these words, his brother Aaron rebuked him, saying: Ammon, I fear that thy joy doth carry thee away unto boasting.
11 But Ammon said unto him: I do not boast in my own strength, nor in my own wisdom; but behold, my joy is full, yea, my heart is brim with joy, and I will rejoice in my God.
12 Yea, I know that I am nothing; as to my strength I am weak; therefore I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God, for in his strength I can do all things; yea, behold, many mighty miracles we have wrought in this land, for which we will praise his name forever.
13 Behold, how many thousands of our brethren has he loosed from the pains of hell; and they are brought to sing redeeming love, and this because of the power of his word which is in us, therefore have we not great reason to rejoice?
14 Yea, we have reason to praise him forever, for he is the Most High God, and has loosed our brethren from the chains of hell.

The issues Kipling addresses in this and other poems are as pressing today as they were when he wrote them. America and England are still fighting in pretty much the same parts of the world for pretty much the same reasons. Today, more than ever, we need to hear words, "Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet, Lest we forget - lest we forget!"


  1. I really like the majesty this poem has. It fits in a genre with the Battle Hymn and God Speed the Right. But it's hard to defend Kipling from charges of racism-- "lesser breeds" (from this poem) simply means he believes one race of human is superior to another. (I don't see any other possible interpretation. ) I find myself continually surprised by this as I read history and literature-- that someone can be brilliantly insightful in many areas, and yet believe something almost universally accepted as morally wrong today. To some extent this makes me want to hold my own moral judgements in check; but about something like slavery I can't just say, "well, to each his own."


  2. I dunno, when I read it, I notice that he says, "without the law" immediately after "lesser breeds." To me, this implies that with the law (knowledge of God), they wouldn't be lesser anymore. It sounds to me like he's differentiating between them and the "Gentiles" who in this context must be people who have heard the general ideas of the gospel but ignore or deny God's hand in events, boasting in their own strength (whereas the lesser breeds are those "heathens" who haven't even heard of the concepts, and so can't even pay them lip-service) .

    I also believe that he often used racist terms in their common forms for ironic effect (again, see Gunga-Din). Here, I think he's saying something like, "Yeah, we call all those people we conquered 'lesser breeds' because they weren't fortunate enough to be raised Christian, but then we (who should know better) boast about how great we are, and we frankly need to be forgiven for the attitudes in our heathen hearts."

    I will readily agree that he was far from politically correct in many (if not most) of his works that mention other races. I'll even agree that he thought that certain groups of men were more likely to be worthwhile than others (he liked the common soldiers better than the aristocratic officers for example), but I personally can't believe that he honestly thought one race of men superior to another.

  3. I find the same concerns in reading Church history and journals. PPPratt can be very romantic in one sentence and a real chauvinist in the next : yet we know he absolutely adored Thankful, "the beloved wife of his youth." I would imagine that almost all the famous people we admire in history had some jingoist, racist, or imperialistic ideas or attitudes: maybe one thing we love about them is that they are on a path to revealed truth ahead of others of their day. Let us hope the same could be said about us.

  4. That's something Lesli mentioned to me. It's less important what we
    can say about people from the past than trying to figure out what
    things are taken for granted today that will be seen as appalling in
    the future. (What?! People were dying of malaria while you were still alive? Why didn't you do something about it? Okay, they were far away, but you knew about it didn't you? This was after the invention of the telephone, right?)

  5. Well... if I can believe it (that he was being ironic) about anyone from that century, I could believe it about Kipling. He was so far ahead of his time. His science fiction is written from the point of view of characters within a future world who take that world for granted, without chunks of exposition for the reader. It would be at least a generation before anyone else tried doing that in SF, and not as skillfully.
    So, in your opinion, is "White Man's Burden" also saying the opposite of what it means?