THE VOICE OF THE COMMON SOLDIER



THE VOICE OF THE COMMON SOLDIER:
KIPLING AND SOLDIER\'S POETRY


Kent Harrison
8 May 00

In contemporary times, much criticism has been placed upon Rudyard Kipling for his support of British Imperialism; George Orwell went so far as to call him the "prophet of British Imperialism during its expansionist phase." To be sure, a considerable portion of Kipling\'s works were written in celebration and support of Imperial expansion, but it is short-sighted to simply label him as an Imperial propagandist or apologist. Two of his most oft-condemned poems, Recessional and The White Man\'s Burden, actually were used by both sides of the colonial issue at the time.1 A reading of Recessional, taken in the context of the prevailing attitudes of the time, seems to indicate that it is a piece about hubris rather than a promotion of the Empire. And the "burden" that Kipling writes on, while patronizing, was indeed a genuine burden.2 The fact that the British Empire went far in alleviating famine and disease in the conquered territories should not be ignored. It is beyond a doubt, however, that Kipling was convinced of Britain\'s superiority in the world. In For All We Have and Are, for instance, the reader is convinced with the last two lines, "What stands if Freedom fall?/Who dies if England live?" Kipling was not by far the most vociferous of the jingoists; having been somewhat of an outsider all for his life, he showed great sympathy for those whose lives were wasted in the expansion of the empire, and criticized the Imperial machinery that used them. His poetry as told by the common British soldiers show his ability maintain his status as poet laureate of the Empire while telling the stories of its victims, and at times, condemning it for the way it treated those soldiers.

Kipling published Barrack-Room Ballads in 1890, and it immediately gained him great success in England. A collection of poems written in the voice of a London cockney, they display Kipling\'s remarkable breadth of understanding of soldiers and soldiering during the Victorian era. While reading The Young British Soldier one can perfectly picture a group of such men belting out the words of the song over mugs of beer:

When the \'arf-made recruity goes out to the East
\'E acts like a babe an\' \'e drinks like a beast,
An\' \'e wonders because \'e is frequent deceased
Ere \'e fit for to serve as a soldier,
Serve, serve, serve as a soldier,
Serve, serve, serve as a soldier,
Serve, serve, serve as a soldier,
So-oldier of the Queen!

Here Kipling echoes the fatalistic humor that seems to infect every soldier in every war. More fatalism and the unwillingness to speak directly of the horrors of battle surface in The Widow\'s Party:

...For half my comp\'ny\'s laying still
Where the Widow give the party.

...We broke a King and we built a road--
A courthouse stands where the regiment goed.
And the river\'s clean where the raw blood flowed
When the Widow give the party.

Not only does Kipling create a brutal contrast between the soldier\'s description (a party) and the battle that actually took place, he injects a small amount of disgust that good young men died, all for the purpose of expanding the Empire into some godforsaken land that few in England had ever heard of. More of this veiled disgust surfaces in The Widow at Windsor, written as a British soldier who does not see the Empire as any kind of divine design:

Walk wide of the Widow at Windsor,
For \'alf of Creation she owns:
We \'ave bought \'er the same with the sword \'an the flame,
\'An we\'ve salted it down with our bones.
(Poor beggars! -- it\'s blue with our bones!)

Take \'old of the Wings o\' the Mornin\',
An\' flop round the earth till you\'re dead;
But you won\'t get away from the tune that they play
To the bloomin\' old rag over\'ead.
(Poor beggars! -- it\'s \'ot over\'ead!)

The theme that overrides in much of Kipling\'s poetry, however, is his sympathy for the common soldier and his treatment by those he is serving. Tommy endures to this day as the best commentary on the relationship between the soldier and the non-combatant public:

I went into a theatre as sober as could be,
They gave a drunk civilian room, but \'adn\'t none for me;
They sent me to the gallery or round the music-\'alls,
But when