Saturday, February 4, 2023

Saturday Snippet: The return of a changed soldier, and a solemn reminder


Following last week's Kipling poem, several readers asked whether he'd written any other verse from the point of view of a veteran remembering his service.  Well, yes, he did:  and it's a rather good poem, too.  Here's "The Return".  It's the second-last in a sixteen-poem cycle titled "Service Songs", published in Kipling's collection "The Five Nations" in 1919.  It's set at the end of the Second Anglo-Boer War, and written from the perspective of a returning veteran who concludes England was worth his efforts.

(If you have difficulty understanding any of Kipling's terms, some of which he made up himself, the Kipling Society has some useful commentary on the poem.)

Peace is declared, an’ I return
  To ’Ackneystadt, but not the same;
Things ’ave transpired which made me learn
  The size and meanin’ of the game.
I did no more than others did,
  I don’t know where the change began.
I started as a average kid,
  I finished as a thinkin’ man.

If England was what England seems,
  An’ not the England of our dreams,
But only putty, brass, an’ paint,
  ’Ow quick we’d drop ’er! But she ain’t!

Before my gappin’ mouth could speak
  I ’eard it in my comrade’s tone;
I saw it on my neighbour’s cheek
  Before I felt it flush my own.
An’ last it come to me—not pride,
  Nor yet conceit, but on the ’ole
(If such a term may be applied),
  The makin’s of a bloomin’ soul.

Rivers at night that cluck an’ jeer,
  Plains which the moonshine turns to sea,
Mountains which never let you near,
  An’ stars to all eternity;
An’ the quick-breathin’ dark that fills
  The ’ollows of the wilderness,
When the wind worries through the ’ills—
  These may ’ave taught me more or less.

Towns without people, ten times took,
  An’ ten times left an’ burned at last;
An’ starvin’ dogs that come to look
  For owners when a column passed;
An’ quiet, ’omesick talks between Men,
  met by night, you never knew
Until—’is face—by shellfire seen—
  Once—an’ struck off. They taught me too.

The day’s lay-out—the mornin’ sun
  Beneath your ’at-brim as you sight;
The dinner-’ush from noon till one,
  An’ the full roar that lasts till night;
An’ the pore dead that look so old
  An’ was so young an hour ago,
An’ legs tied down before they’re cold—
  These are the things which make you know.

Also Time runnin’ into years—
  A thousand Places left be’ind—
An’ Men from both two ’emispheres
  Discussin’ things of every kind;
So much more near than I ’ad known,
  So much more great than I ’ad guessed—
An’ me, like all the rest, alone—
  But reachin’ out to all the rest!

So ’ath it come to me—not pride,
  Nor yet conceit, but on the ’ole
(If such a term may be applied),
The makin’s of a bloomin’ soul.
But now, discharged, I fall away
  To do with little things again…
Gawd, ’oo knows all I cannot say,
  Look after me in Thamesfontein!

If England was what England seems,
  An’ not the England of our dreams,
But only putty, brass, an’ paint,
  ’Ow quick we’d chuck ’er! But she ain’t!

I think many veterans of a long, hard war - of any nationality, in any war - will instinctively understand that poem.  It speaks to the roots of a man.

The sixteen poems of the "Service Songs" cycle conclude with Kipling's famous "Recessional", which he sub-titled "After Queen Victoria's Jubilee".  I'm sure many of you know it:  but it's always worth re-reading.  One of his masterpieces, IMHO.  (The Kipling Society has much valuable background information on this poem.)

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!



Master Diver said...

I don't know if it was intended, but the lyrics fit perfectly to "Eternal Father."

Lucie said...

George Orwell wrote an incisive essay about the enduring power of Kipling's poetry:

Peter said...

@Master Diver: "Recessional" was set to music almost as soon as it was written. According to the Kipling Society, "it had been sung by 10,000 British troops outside the Volksraad or Parliament in Pretoria when the town fell to General Roberts on 5 June 1900". You can hear the hymn at:

BobF said...

I've now ordered Five Nations. Went to Vietnam when I was 21 and ended my career with Desert Storm. Many times I've wondered how different I might be if I had none of that. Have been a fan of sorts of Kipling, but sometimes he hits too close to home.

Anonymous said...

One might mention "Tommy" here

Francis Turner said...

The Last of the Light Brigade is the one people may also appreciate

There were thirty million English who talked of England's might,
There were twenty broken troopers who lacked a bed for the night.
They had neither food nor money, they had neither service nor trade;
They were only shiftless soldiers, the last of the Light Brigade.

They felt that life was fleeting; they knew not that art was long,
That though they were dying of famine, they lived in deathless song.
They asked for a little money to keep the wolf from the door;
And the thirty million English sent twenty pounds and four !

They laid their heads together that were scarred and lined and grey;
Keen were the Russian sabres, but want was keener than they;
And an old Troop-Sergeant muttered, "Let us go to the man who writes
The things on Balaclava the kiddies at school recites."

They went without bands or colours, a regiment ten-file strong,
To look for the Master-singer who had crowned them all in his song;
And, waiting his servant's order, by the garden gate they stayed,
A desolate little cluster, the last of the Light Brigade.

They strove to stand to attention, to straighten the toil-bowed back;
They drilled on an empty stomach, the loose-knit files fell slack;
With stooping of weary shoulders, in garments tattered and frayed,
They shambled into his presence, the last of the Light Brigade.

The old Troop-Sergeant was spokesman, and "Beggin' your pardon," he said,
"You wrote o' the Light Brigade, sir. Here's all that isn't dead.
An' it's all come true what you wrote, sir, regardin' the mouth of hell;
For we're all of us nigh to the workhouse, an' we thought we'd call an' tell.

"No, thank you, we don't want food, sir; but couldn't you take an' write
A sort of 'to be continued' and 'see next page' o' the fight?
We think that someone has blundered, an' couldn't you tell 'em how?
You wrote we were heroes once, sir. Please, write we are starving now."

The poor little army departed, limping and lean and forlorn.
And the heart of the Master-singer grew hot with "the scorn of scorn."
And he wrote for them wonderful verses that swept the land like flame,
Till the fatted souls of the English were scourged with the thing called Shame.

They sent a cheque to the felon that sprang from an Irish bog;
They healed the spavined cab-horse; they housed the homeless dog;
And they sent (you may call me a liar), when felon and beast were paid,
A cheque, for enough to live on, to the last of the Light Brigade.

O thirty million English that babble of England's might,
Behold there are twenty heroes who lack their food to-night;
Our children's children are lisping to "honour the charge they made - "
And we leave to the streets and the workhouse the charge of the Light Brigade!