"Danny Deever" and "Tommy"

by Greshan Rasiah

Merchant Taylors' School, Northwood

[May 2011]

Rudyard Kipling was a pioneer in evincing the experiences of the common soldier, and it is indeed the case that his messages ring true today. His poems "Danny Deever" and "Tommy" brilliantly portray the trials and tribulations of a soldier which do not normally gain the public's full attention. The bitterly morbid experience of death in "Danny Deever" complements Kipling's notion in "Tommy" of the undeservedly low social status of the Private during peacetime given all that he has undergone. It is this cloud of ignorance and degradation through which the public so often perceive the ordinary soldier that Kipling seeks to eradicate.

"Tommy" is a critique of the demeaning manner in which the "red-coats" were treated by their fellow citizens during times of peace, in contrast to periods of war. By capturing the egotistic and almost callous attitude of civilians who "laughed at" the common Private, moreover from the viewpoint of a "Tommy" himself, Kipling seeks to kindle a sense of injustice in the reader at this iniquitous and unacceptable behaviour, and evoke pathos for the unmerited status of the ordinary soldier in the social hierarchy.

Tommy Atkins was the name used to refer to a British Private. The fact that the common soldier is not even referred to by their real name, but instead a collective one, has a dehumanising effect. In taking away a person's real name one robs them of their identity. In doing so, Kipling illustrates the fact that the treatment the ordinary soldier receives is based on stereotypical notions, and not on the character of the soldier himself. This concept is clearly demonstrated in the second stanza when the protagonist, despite being "as sober as could be", is not even granted the same seat in the theatre as a "drunk civilian". The juxtaposition of the two men and the undue treatment of the former serve to evince the inequality that the ordinary soldier underwent when not needed on the front line - a characteristic no society should accommodate.

Even the act of going into a "public 'ouse" to buy a "pint o' beer" is a privilege the common Private cannot fully enjoy during times of peace. The declamatory statement, "We serve no red-coats here", brilliantly captures the second class citizen status of the ordinary soldier - a concept Kipling wanted to see eliminated. The fact that the Private is "giggled" at (harshly suggesting a mindset of vindictive arrogance in the perpetrator) illustrates his status bereft of respect or eminence. The reader as a result feels a deep sense of sympathy and injustice at the unwarranted position of the Private in the society.

The poem is a ballad, a poetical form described by Stephen Fry in his The Ode Less Travelled as "pub poetry". This informal style of writing enables Kipling to truly encapsulate the ambience of the common soldier. Moreover, the ballad's irresistible lilt' eradicates any form of boundary that may exist between the reader and the protagonist, resulting in the proceeding content to seem conversational and almost universal. The reader can therefore relate to the fluctuating experiences of the soldier as both a "Saviour" and a "brute" much more readily and understand Kipling's desire to see their contemptuous treatment removed from the norms of society.Tommy is written in iambic heptameter. This is often said to mimic the marching of a battalion or indeed a drum roll. The meter may also represent the soldier monotonously trudging through life with this overwhelming sense of frustration (this being signified by the stressed syllables) at his unmerited treatment. The latter reading provides an explanation for Kipling's use of pyrrhic. The strictness and disciplined manner of the soldier is symbolised metrically by the constant use of iambic heptameter. However, in line eight the use of "O it's", which is pyrrhic, represents the protagonist struggling to control his frustration and being on the verge of losing his militaristic composure, symbolised metrically by the fact that the two unstressed syllables are on the verge of disrupting the strict meter of the poem. Yet the fundamental plea of the soldier is not to be treated in the "special" way that he is "when there's trouble in the wind". Instead the Private, rather movingly, claims that he and his fellow comrades are "most remarkable like you". It is this desire for the soldier to live in equality that permeates throughout Tommy, a right that all men and women are entitled to.

"Danny Deever" is a dialectic poem regarding subject matter that would have been almost unimaginable at the time, the execution of a British soldier for such an unpatriotic deed seems far from the content that would be expected of by the man George Orwell coined as the "prophet of British imperialism". Yet the purpose for this was to illustrate to the British public at home (sources claim that the poem is based on the execution of a Private Flaxman in India) of the many aspects of war that they were not aware of, and the disturbing consequences they could inflict on the common soldier.

From the physical reaction of a person whom one would expect to be familiar with the works of the military, the reader is able to understand the severity that the sight of death posses. The "Colour-Sergeant", despite being an experienced NCO, is described as turning "white" on "dreadin"' what he has "got to watch". It is no wonder then that the inexperienced men are so overwhelmed that they "fall down" to the ground. What makes the occasion all the more poignant for the young Private is that he knew the man to be executed. Files talks of how his "cot was right-'and cot to mine" and how he "drunk 'is beer a score o' times". The reader is therefore moved to feel pity at the loss and bereavement that the common soldier would have experienced whilst in action.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the entire ballad though is the meter, and how Kipling manipulates it in order to illustrate different mindsets. For the majority of the poem, lines are written in iambic heptameter. What is particularly intriguing about iambic heptameter its ability to be recited as alternating lines of tetrameter and trimeter - this after all would be more appropriate if the poem is to be sung, as Kipling often did with his, since it provides time for the performer to breath. In the case of Danny Deever, the first four lines of each verse are written as tetrameter followed by trimeter: "'What are the bugles blowin' for?' said Files-on-Parade." However, the proceeding three lines are for the most part written as trimeter followed by tetrameter: "For they're hangin' Danny Deever, you can hear the Dead March play". This metrical inversion signifies the change in tone of the voice of the Sergeant; his need to breathe earlier demonstrates his difficulty in managing the sight of "Danny fightin' 'ard for life". Moreover, the last line of each paragraph shifts into a new metrical foot; iambic pentameter. This, combined with the weak or feminine ending (that is a word with an unstressed final syllable) of "mornin"', superbly captures the Sergeant incapable of maintaining his normally disciplined composure (signified by the strict iambic heptameter) and succumbing the traumatic event - illustrated by the metrical shift to iambic pentameter.

The common soldier undergoes experiences that few civilians will ever be able to comprehend. The execution of a fellow comrade as in Donny Deever is without doubt phenomenally perturbing. Yet despite his privation, Tommy clearly illustrates how the ordinary soldier is scorned on by the very people he seeks to "guard". The notions that Kipling represents transcend the bounds of culture, gender, and time. They apply to the common soldier whether he be from the Colonial armies in India or whether she be from the frontline in Afghanistan. Surely, this achievement of universality is one to be marvelled at in itself. Yet it is his desire to ameliorate the life of the soldier that is most plausible. Kipling acts as a figurehead of the common soldier, encompassing their collective views and representing them to the citizen; fittingly gaining him the title of "champion of the ordinary soldier".

Greshan Rasiah

©Greshan Rasiah 2011 All rights reserved