Introducing Kipling Tuesdays: 'Recessional' and 'lest we forget'

Introducing Kipling Tuesdays: 'Recessional' and 'lest we forget'

Author’s note: The following post begins a new series on the poetry of Rudyard Kipling, who most U.S. readers will know only for “The Jungle Book.” After a few months of enjoying my father’s copy of Kipling’s complete verse in a “definitive edition,” I’m ready to share a weekly note of what I’ve learned.

Rudyard Kipling’s 1897 poem, “Recessional,” probably won’t get the attention it deserves as we approach Veterans Day and the 101st anniversary of the end of the Great War (too soon renamed World War I).

The fourth of the five verses of “Recessional” will scare off some sensitive 21st-century readers. Its mention of

“Such boasting as the Gentiles use,

Or lesser breeds without the law”

seems out of place to many in any poem, let alone one that is a prayer.

“British Imperialism,” many will sniff, or perhaps snipe. But look at the first verse, and think it over:

“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!”

 

You see, “lest we forget” isn’t (originally) a call to remember a country’s war dead. It’s a call to remember who’s really in charge.

Look at another verse:

“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!”

 

But why “Recessional” now, you may ask. Besides wanting to defend the meaning of “lest we forget,” I want to point out the end of the poem.

It comes to mind so often these days as I hear or read the national news. Here it is:

“For frantic boast and foolish word —

Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!”

 

 Margaret Serious has a page on Facebook.

 

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  • As you said, it was 1897, not 2017. However, it does seem that he is saying that the Lord is behind the English imperialists who thought, for instance, that they had to own India to get its tea, rather than trade with its natives. [To get back to my last exchange with jnorto on The Quark] not much different than the ideology of someone who blew himself and 3 children up when cornered in a tunnel over the weekend.

  • I admit, I'll have to catch up with your other exchanges, Jack -- but I did wonder what you'd think of this, so thank you for commenting. I don't see it as the Lord being behind the British imperialists, however. Look again where it says "Beneath whose awful hand we hold/Dominion over palm and pine." This is a prayer to the God that the imperialists are under, not over, and he's asking readers to remember that.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    I see the "beneath whose hand" lines but I put stress on the following "Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet." Even putting the two together, it still seems like their Lord is sanctioning their actions, as opposed to Vishnu telling them either directly or through his believers to tell the English to stay out.

    My reference to my last exchange was basically to disparate actors having the same motivation. I'm sure al-Baghdadi,was saying that he was acting under the will of Allah.

  • In reply to jack:

    Thank you for the clarifications.

  • A Kipling poem on a related theme is called “The White Man’s Burden: The United States & The Philippine Islands, 1899" http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5478

    With this poem Kipling popularized one of the most unfortunate phrases ever coined.

  • In reply to jnorto:

    Thank you for the anticipation, jnorto. I plan another post on this poem. I am considering whether it is unfortunate or, like "lest we forget," simply (?) misused.

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