Literature

A Short Analysis of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Recessional’

Although the phrase ‘lest we forget’ is now closely associated with Remembrance Sunday and war remembrance more generally, it actually originated in a poem written almost twenty years before the outbreak of the First World War: Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Recessional’. Before we offer a summary and analysis of ‘Recessional’, here’s the text of the poem:

Recessional

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!

‘Recessional’: summary

Kipling wrote ‘Recessional’ on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Although Kipling is often viewed as a flag-waver for imperialism, his views were more complex than such a view suggests, and this political poem goes against the celebratory mood of the Jubilee, reminding readers that the British Empire is trivial and transient in the face of the permanence of God:

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!

In the first stanza, Kipling addresses God directly, calling him ‘God of our fathers, known of old’ and ‘Lord of our far-flung battle-line’: at the time Kipling was writing, the British Empire covered around a quarter of the globe, so it certainly was ‘far-flung’ in terms of its imperial possessions which it had to claim, and keep, by force, and in its dominion stretching over ‘palm and pine’.

God has an ‘awful Hand’: ‘awful’ is being used here in its older, original sense, namely ‘awe-inspiring’. Kipling asks God to ‘be with us yet’: not to desert his human creation. People are in danger of forgetting who really has ‘Dominion’ (a decidedly Biblical word) over the world: God, not man.

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!

In this second stanza, Kipling says that when empires fade, and the army captains and the kings have died, one thing remains: the sacrifice Christ made on the Cross.

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!

In the third stanza, Kipling turns his attention from the army to the navy: the ‘fire’ (gunfire) the navies make against other nations misses the mark, and the once-great naval force that is Britain is diminished (it was said that King Alfred the Great, when he wasn’t burning cakes, invented the English navy; this was the inspiration for the famous patriotic song ‘Rule Britannia’, where that embodiment of Britain, Britannia, is called upon to ‘rule the waves’). Britain’s ‘pomp’ and greatness are no more: like Nineveh and Tyre, ancient civilisations of the past, it will die away to nothing. Nineveh, which stood in what is now Iraq, was once the largest city in the world, and served as the capital of the Assyrian empire; Tyre, in modern-day Lebanon, was one of the metropolises of the Phoenicians, traders and empire-builders of the ancient world.

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!

In the next stanza, Kipling argues that it is important to have God ‘in awe’: to be in awe of God’s power and superior might. It is important that the British, in their desire for more power around the world, don’t start forgetting this, as ‘Gentiles’ or ‘less breeds’ who do not follow God’s Law would do. (‘Gentile’ usually refers to someone who isn’t Jewish, but the word has been used, by extension, to refer to anyone who is not of Israeli heritage; and since Christianity had its roots in the Jewish Torah and the story of Moses, Kipling appears to be using ‘Gentile’ to mean ‘someone who does not follow the Judeo-Christian faith’.)

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!

The final stanza of ‘Recessional’ continues the argument of the previous stanza: the ‘heathen heart’ of one who does not follow God (‘heathen’ is another word that has been used to mean simply ‘one who is not Christian’) and simply follows the law of battle (the ‘reeking tube’ of the gun and the ‘iron shard’ of shrapnel?) is doomed to fail with its ‘frantic boast’ and ‘foolish word’, and is simply dust founded on dust, death founded on more death, an empire founded on ashes – weak foundations indeed. Kipling concludes ‘Recessional’ with a call for God to have mercy on his people – Christians, and specifically, in this context, good British Christians.

‘Recessional’: analysis

Kipling wrote ‘Recessional’ for the Diamond Jubilee in 1897, the event marking 60 years since Queen Victoria acceded to the British throne in 1837. During her long reign – she would die four years later, in early 1901 – Britain had grown into an international superpower, with imperial possessions all over the globe (especially Africa, India, and parts of the Pacific and Caribbean). Following the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and the dissolution of the East India Company, the British raj was founded in India, and Victoria was named Empress of India in 1876.

‘Recessional’ is not anti-imperialistic as such, but the poem does see Kipling sounding a cautionary note about the dangers of losing one’s sense of moral (Christian) superiority while the Brits are out and about fighting and shooting. Of course, to modern readers the poem still poses problems in terms of its (conditional) endorsement of the imperial mission, but it is noteworthy for refusing to celebrate unreservedly the spoils and triumphs of empire. There is an implicit awareness of the fact that material greed is leading Britain to lose sight of its spiritual responsibility.

We noted above Kipling’s use of the term ‘Gentile’, and the Old Testament flavour to this word in the context of ‘Recessional’. And indeed the famous phrase the poem spawned – perhaps the most famous of all Kipling’s quotations, even though few who utter it every year are probably aware that it came from his poem – was not entirely original to Kipling, and instead had its origins in the Book of Deuteronomy. In Deuteronomy 6:12, we find: ‘Then beware lest thou forget the Lord, which brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.’ So ‘lest thou forget’ became the more collective ‘lest we forget’, with Kipling exhorting his fellow man to remember God’s sacrifice and teaching while Britain is off conquering the world.

‘Recessional’: poetic metre and rhyme scheme

‘Recessional’ is written in six-line stanzas rhymed ababcc. In each stanza, the c rhyme is on the same two words, ‘yet’ and ‘forget’, so that each stanza can conclude with the refrain ‘lest we forget’. The exception is the final stanza, which ends on the ‘rhyme’ (technically, an eye-rhyme) on ‘word’ and ‘Lord’ (a fitting couplet, since ‘the Word’ was a Biblical term for God: ‘In the beginning was the Word’).

The metre of ‘Recessional’ is iambic tetrameter, which means that each line comprises four iambs. An iamb is a metrical foot comprising two syllables: an unstressed one followed by a stressed one. We’ve highlighted the stressed syllables in capitals in the final stanza below, and divided up the iambs with a / symbol:

For HEA- / then HEART / that PUTS / her TRUST
In REEK- / ing TUBE / and IR- / on SHARD,
All VAL- / iant DUST / that BUILDS / on DUST,
And GUARD- / ing, CALLS / not THEE / to GUARD,
For FRAN- / tic BOAST / and FOOL- / ish WORD—
Thy MER- / cy ON / Thy PEO- / ple, LORD!

Image: via Wikimedia Commons.

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