The best Kipling poems selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) was a tireless experimenter with the short story form, a novelist, a writer who could entertain children and adults alike with such books as The Jungle Book, Plain Tales from the Hills, The Just So Stories, Puck of Pook’s Hill, and countless others. But as well as being a prolific author of fiction, Rudyard Kipling was also a hugely popular poet. But what are Kipling’s very best poems?
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 …
This poem was first published in Kipling’s volume of short stories and poems, Rewards and Fairies, in 1910, it has become one of Kipling’s best-known poems, and was even voted the UK’s favourite poem of all time in a poll of 1995. According to Kipling in his autobiography, Something of Myself (1937), the origins of ‘If—’ lie in the failed Jameson raid of 1895-6, when the British colonial statesman Leander Starr Jameson led a raid against the South African (Boer) Republic over the New Year weekend. Jameson intended to rouse the British expatriates living in the Transvaal to rise up against the Boer government, but his fellow Brits showed no inclination to revolt. Stoicism looms large in Kipling’s poem – that is, the acknowledgment that, whilst you cannot always prevent bad things from happening to you, you can deal with them in a good way.
You may talk o’ gin and beer
When you’re quartered safe out ’ere,
An’ you’re sent to penny-fights an’ Aldershot it;
But when it comes to slaughter
You will do your work on water,
An’ you’ll lick the bloomin’ boots of ’im that’s got it …
One of Kipling’s best-known poems, ‘Gunga Din’ was first published in 1890 and focuses on an Indian water-bearer who saves the speaker’s life (the speaker being a British soldier serving in India) and is thus ‘a better man than I am’, as the resounding close of the poem has it. ‘Din’, by the way, should probably be pronounced ‘deen’, given the words Kipling rhymes the name with…
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!
Although this poem is not now on the lips of many people, aside from diehard Kipling fans, one phrase from ‘Recessional’ is heard and read every year: ‘lest we forget’, the phrase used every Remembrance Sunday to commemorate those soldiers who died in war, comes from this poem, which Kipling wrote for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897.
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 …
A controversial poem used in 1899 during the Philippine–American War (1899–1902), ‘The White Man’s Burden’ earns its place on this list because it is one of Kipling’s most widely discussed and debated poems. The poem sees Kipling urging America to seize colonial control in the Philippines, although he had originally written it in 1897 – like ‘Recessional’, it was a poem about the British Empire written to ‘celebrate’ the Diamond Jubilee.
When the Himalayan peasant meets the he-bear in his pride,
He shouts to scare the monster, who will often turn aside.
But the she-bear thus accosted rends the peasant tooth and nail.
For the female of the species is more deadly than the male …
This 1911 poem is well-known for its line, ‘the female of the species is more deadly than the male’. Focusing, as we might expect from a Kipling poem, on animals as well as humans – the Himalayan bear and the cobra are both mentioned – Kipling concludes that women are deadlier than men in many cases. Misogynistic fear or feminist affirmation of women’s power? As with the race issue with Kipling, readers remain divided.
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.
Published in 1919, one year after the end of the First World War, these poems were inspired by The Greek Anthology, a collection of short anonymous poems (including many epitaphs designed for memorial inscriptions on tombs) dating as far back as the sixth century BC. One of the most oft-quoted poems from Kipling’s ‘Epitaphs’ is ‘Common Form’: ‘If any question why we died, / Tell them, because our fathers lied.’
They shut the road through the woods
Seventy years ago.
Weather and rain have undone it again,
And now you would never know
There was once a road through the woods
Before they planted the trees.
It is underneath the coppice and heath,
And the thin anemones …
This poem sees a road through the woods being rediscovered, and the old significance of it being unearthed. Kipling’s poem is laden with symbolism: does this woodland road suggest a link to our own past (and our childhood), or to a collective past, which can now barely be revisited? Part of the poem’s power lies in its ambiguity.
If I were hanged on the highest hill,
Mother o’ mine, O mother o’ mine!
I know whose love would follow me still,
Mother o’ mine, O mother o’ mine!
This poem had a curious origin: the poem was published as a dedication to Kipling’s 1892 book The Light That Failed. Because of the less-than-happy ending of that book, Kipling probably added ‘Mother o’ Mine’ to the beginning of the book as a way of saying sorry to his mother for having displeased her; she’d have preferred the happy ending. ‘Mother o’ Mine’ deserves its place in this list of greatest Kipling poems purely because this is one of the sweetest author-mother stories in all of English verse!
There is sorrow enough in the natural way
From men and women to fill our day;
And when we are certain of sorrow in store,
Why do we always arrange for more?
Brothers and sisters, I bid you beware
Of giving your heart to a dog to tear …
In his 1899 story ‘Garm – a Hostage’, Rudyard Kipling outlined how his dog, Vixen, would sleep in his bed with him at night. Kipling was a dog-lover, who enjoyed a close bond with the animals throughout his life. As Andrew Lycett observes in his superb biography Rudyard Kipling, Kipling’s dogs often took on the role of the woman in his life. So it should come as little surprise that Kipling wrote a poem in praise of the bond between men and dogs. ‘The Power of the Dog’ suggests that dogs have such a hold over men that they can, indeed, break a man’s heart as a woman can: ‘So why in – Heaven (before we are there) / Should we give our hearts to a dog to tear?’
Our England is a garden that is full of stately views,
Of borders, beds and shrubberies and lawns and avenues,
With statues on the terraces and peacocks strutting by;
But the Glory of the Garden lies in more than meets the eye …
So begins this classic poem about English gardens from one of the most popular poets of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Kipling extols the virtue of hard work involved in cultivating a garden, rather than ‘sitting in the shade’.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.