Recessional

 

 

The fifth in my ongoing series examining the poetry of Rudyard Kipling.   The other posts in the series may be read here, here , here and here.

Kipling is often denounced as a thoughtless imperialist.  That is a remarkable charge to make against the author of the poem Recessional.

More than once Kipling was offered honors from the British government, including the post of Poet Laureate of Great Britain, all of which he steadfastly refused.  On the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897 he composed one of his most powerful poems, Recessional, which perhaps helps explain why he never took up the post of Poet Laureate for the nation he so deeply loved.

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!
Amen.

The poem opens with no patriotic effusion or praise of the Queen, but with a stark prayer to the God of our Fathers that Britain not forget something.  What?

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.

Kipling doesn’t answer the question directly.  Instead, in a stanza of deathless beauty, he reminds us of the ephemeral rise and fall of nations being as nothing compared to a human soul turning in humility to God.

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!

Kipling next gazes into a future where the power of Great Britain is one with Nineveh and Tyre, and repeats the question yet again.

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!

Kipling finally answers the question:  Great Britain needs to remember not to abuse the power granted to it, or that power would swiftly vanish in the sight of God.  The phrase “lesser breeds without the law” is a reference to Germany, the rising power in Europe.

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!

Kipling ends the poem by asking God for mercy on Great Britain.  Kipling was not conventionally religious, but in this poem and others he shows a firm understanding that any nation, even his own beloved Great Britain, was as nothing when compared with God, and that people needed to be reminded of that fact.  With such an awareness, it is small wonder that Kipling refused all earthly honors from the hands of the country he loved.

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!
Amen.

Published in: on June 9, 2011 at 5:30 am  Comments (4)  
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4 Comments

  1. Having just stumbled on your page, I wish to thank you for helping to start my day with a sense of reverence and awe. I have loved Kipling’s poetry since my youth, for more than 1/2 a century. With your commentary , I would hope that many visitors will also stumble across this page and read it with thought. In viewing our country today, we are lost in pride and too often are found guilty of letting the prideful tongue loose. Heaven help us, also, Lest we forget, lest we forget.

  2. Kipling was a very wise man as well as a poet of genius Steven, and both qualities tend to be always in short supply in this vale of tears.

  3. One of Kipling’s best. It’s in the Mormon hymnbook, but deserves a better tune than the one it has.

    In the spirit of the poem, I think, is this contrast between the London victory crowds after WWI and WWII. The WWI crowd chanted “Who won the war? We won the war!” The WWII crowd gathered in front of where Mr. Churchill was and chanted ‘This is your victory.” To which he replied, “No, it is yours.”

  4. Churchill was not noted for his modesty Adam but he certainly was on this occasion. He said that every British man, woman and child had been superb during the war, and it had merely been his privilege to voice the lion’s roar.


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