"Three favourite
Kipling poems"



by Rachel Lewis



St Paul's Girls' School
Brook Green, London W6





[May 2011]


Two of my three favourite Kipling poems, ""Gunga Din"" and "We and They", are ones whose attitudes I was astonished to find in poetry that comes from such a different time to our own. I was surprised by how much I agreed with their sentiments. Thus these poems reminded me of poetry's ability to share how we see the world, even across centuries. My third choice is "If—". Incredibly, when I chose the poem I was utterly oblivious of its renown. However, knowledge of its fame does not make me appreciate it any less. Poems are great when they are famous. "If—" has become so well-loved that it is a part of our culture. My chosen poems each take very different voices, demonstrating the breadth of Kipling's skill. And all three are a masterful blend of the serious and the amusing, done in such a way that the serious message or poignant moment is made more powerful by the ridiculous element and vice versa.

I enjoy reading "Gunga Din" for its strong narrative and incredibly characterful speaker, who has a story created purely by a monologue that brings another character, Gunga Din, to life as well. Kipling alters the spelling of words to mimic the speaker's accent: 'of' becomes ' 'o', 'heat' becomes ' 'eat' etc. He also uses colloquial phrases and profanities such as 'wopped' and 'bloomin'. This style of speech gives the speaker a strong, memorable personality. And the Indian slang, which is incomprehensible to most readers, makes the narrative intriguing, exotic and gives it a certain authenticity. Idiomatic speech and description in this poem bring a place and identity I might never otherwise have heard to life. By giving the narrator of "Gunga Din" such a distinct voice, Kipling has preserved something of a vanished country, British India. The poem also creates an exciting narrative. its plot could be that of a story: the narrator opens with an opinion, describes the setting and the main character, brings in the action (the battle), works to a climax and ends half in tragedy, half in comedy. I find this coherent story one of the most enjoyable things about the poem. And the speaker's relationship with Gunga Din is my favourite aspect of that story. Insults are followed by high praise: 'is dirty hide', juxtaposed with 'white, clear white, inside'. This occurs again in lines 10-11, Gunga Din is 'Of [...] the blackfaced crew', (both a literal and derogatory description) and 'The finest man I knew'. These contrasts reveal the complexity of the speaker's feelings towards Din, a lowly water-carrier who saved his life. The description of Din when he saves the speaker - 'our good old, grinnin', gruntin' Gunga Din' - uses matter-of-fact language to convey the soldier's rough, emotional joy. And the prosaic way in which Gunga Din's death is related only adds to the pathos of the event, which is then tempered by the amusing suggestion of where the two characters will meet again. However, it was the Imperial soldier's acknowledgement that Gunga Din is the 'better man' that surprised me. It struck me as very open-minded for its time. That message still applies today - it makes the reader consider how they view the people who work for them. So I love this poem for its story to make you smile and cry, the point it makes and how it captures a time and a place so vividly.

Despite "We and They" being aimed at children, it, like "Gunga Din", combines entertaining, lyrical telling with a moral point. It is a teaching poem, mocking of the ridiculous notions of 'we' and 'they'. Kipling definitely takes the voice of 'We', not 'They', which he might have tried to do - consider the Indian slang in "Gunga Din". Typically English phrases such as 'simply disgusting' and 'over the way' make the poem accessible and familiar to children, as does the light-hearted neologism 'kitcheny'. The very personal tone of address, which includes the reader in 'we' and addresses them as 'you', makes the poem engaging. Hyperbolic exclamations (e.g. 'utterly ignorant They!') are amusing and dramatic. And the phrase '(Isn't it scandalous?)', in parentheses and full of sibilants, sounds both conspiratorial and comical, thus further engaging the reader. Kipling also includes jokes, such as the play on words 'Their full dress is un-' and the line 'They like Their friends for tea', where Kipling's matter-of-fact turn of phrase contrasts with his meaning amusingly. Jokes both entertain the reader and force them to think, as their meaning is not immediately obvious.

The regular rhythm is chant-like, especially in the first four lines, where rhythm makes this received wisdom sound like dogma that children swallow and chant back. The simple ABABCDCD etc. rhyme scheme recalls a nursery rhyme and is suitable for reading aloud. Kipling has essentially written a new nursery rhyme, by using/parodying the style. Does he too want children to parrot his ideas? I think this poem is almost satirical of nursery rhymes, which are conveyors of traditional wisdom. We and They aims to break down the barriers of narrow-mindedness: 'But' is the key word that distinguishes the narrator as a voice separate to what 'Father [...] say'. Thus the poem is suited to its target audience without patronising them. Kipling carefully places words to reinforce his message, which I again feel is unusually open-minded for its time. The poem is full of anaphora, with 'they' and 'we', and their associated effects, occupying the same points in the rhythm. Lines 4-5 are just one example:

...And They live over the sea
While We live over the way...
These structures suggest that We and They are interchangeable and that there are parallels between the lives of both. So when Kipling repeats the argument in the last stanza, after all the comparison showing how 'We' and 'They' are interchangeable terms, it seems very closed-minded. And the closing statement of the poem - 'We are only a sort of They' - is a profoundly important one. If everyone truly understood that, there would be no more war in the world.

The poem "If—" has a different but equally significant message. What it says most strongly to me is how hard it is to be a good person and how much we ask of our heroes and ourselves. But it also inspires the reader to be as great as humans can be. In If, Kipling emphasises the importance of our actions in defining who we are. The poem is full of verbs -'If you can...' begins ten of the thirty-two lines in the poem. This repetition of the beginning of a conditional sentence creates a kind of cumulatio, building up how much we ask of people. Verbs are turned around in the same line - e.g. 'being hated [...] hating'. The change in sound is small, emphasising the fine line between being hated and hating. And the word order suggests how one can lead to the other - further examples are 'dream' leading to 'dreams'(9) and 'think' to 'thoughts'. These natural progressions are separated by negatives (e.g. 'and not'), showing that to be 'a Man' we must struggle against our natural inclinations. This poem also has a narrative aspect. It emotionally involves the reader in brief stories which create excitement and make its suggestions less abstract. The enjambment between lines 1819:

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss
And lose...
creates tension, as the reader wonders what the result will be, and pathos for the 'character', when they lose. Enjambment is used again to emotionally involve the reader in lines 23-24:

...hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will...
We wonder how one can endure with nothing, which emphasises the answer-'Will' - in the next line. Thus the reader is inspired to admire those who 'can'. And as these examples are unspecific and addressed to 'You', everyone can identify with them. Finally, there is a humorous side to this poem. The last line is almost a punch-line. Kipling, by piling up challenges we must overcome just to be worthy of the title 'Man', points out the ridiculousness of what we ask, as well as asking us whether we can rise to the challenge. We also wonder whether the speaker of the poem, the one who is judging, has done all that he is asking of us.

For the reasons I have explained above, I love each of these poems individually-their characters, humour and power made them stand out from other Kipling poems that I have read. However, I love them collectively for what they all have in common. In each, Kipling has skilfully conveyed an important idea persuasively, and, more impressively, in an accessible, entertaining way. These three poems contain thoughts that, despite being personal to a nineteenth century journalist from colonial Bombay, resonate with everyone, even today, and are, of course, beautifully expressed.


Rachel Lewis



©Eachel Lewis 2011 All rights reserved