“Recessional”

(1897)

(Notes by Mary Hamer)


the poem
[January 24 2008]


Publication history

The Times, July 17 1897; The Spectator, July 24; The Critic July 31; McClure’s Magazine, August 1897 and October 1898; The Journal of Education, November; Literature, November 27; Ladies’ Home Journal, May 1898 (musical setting). It was also printed separately in 1897.

The poem appeared in many authorised and unauthorised versions, sometimes under the title “After” or “Retrocessional”, including its appearance in Recessional and other poems by Rudyard Kipling, 1925, and in A Kipling Pageant 1935.

It is collected in The Five Nations, I.V. 1919, D.V. 1940 and in the Sussex Edition vol. 33 and the Burwash Edition, vol. 26.

When it was collected for the Sussex Edition Kipling added the subscript ‘(After Queen Victoria’s Jubilee)’ and omitted the final ‘Amen’ which closes the text in The Five Nations, as it did on the poem’s first appearance in The Times. .

When he sent it to The Times Kipling indicated that he did not require payment for this poem. On other occasions when a poem of his was addressed to the British public, with a view to their instruction, he would make it known to the Editor of The Times that he did not require payment. See Background note to "The Old Issue".

Background

In Something of Myself Kipling described this poem as ‘in the nature of a nuzzur-wattu (an averter of the evil eye). It is interesting to note how closely in time the composition of “Recessional” followed on that of "The Destroyers". In June 1897 Kipling had observed the naval review at Spithead, where one hundred and sixty-five vessels assembled as part of the celebration of Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Overwhelmed by the sight of such sea-power, he wrote on 25 June 1897: ‘Never dreamed that there was anything like it under Heaven. It was beyond words— beyond any description!’. [Letters Vol 2, Ed. Pinney]

Before this he had had no intention of writing a Jubilee poem. “Recessional” was written and published only towards the close of the Jubilee celebrations. It forms a comment on them, an afterword. The poem Kipling found himself moved to write was at odds with the popular mood; anxiety on this score may account for his initial difficulties in composition.

Dissatisfied with his first attempts, Kipling had thrown an early draft in the waste-paper basket, from which it was rescued, so the story goes, by his wife. (Caroline Kipling made it her business to control what was published over her husband’s name, taking care that no unauthorised scraps or jottings in his handwriting should be permitted to reach the outside world.)

Their American friend Caroline Norton, who was on a visit to them at the time, joined Kipling’s wife in praising what he had written. It was thanks to the encouragement of these two women that Kipling completed his poem. Although it has been too often misread as a smug celebration of empire, any thoughtful reader will be struck by its radical note of warning and its reminder that British might, in common with all human power, was transient and could not stand above the Law.

It is extremely unlikely that Kipling subscribed to any form of orthodox religious belief. Yet at the same time he understood and valued the role of sacred stories and writings in organising the inner life of the people among whom they were shared. A majority of Kipling’s English-speaking readers would have been brought up on the Authorised Version of the Bible. As a poet, he drew on its language and on its stories in order to reach a deeper level of response in his readers, one associated with the intensity of early experience.

By the time that “Recessional “ was put to stand at the end of The Five Nations it had acquired a fresh historical resonance, for 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. But that moment of apparently decisive victory was deceptive, for the Boers were not town dwellers.

For them the loss of Pretoria lacked the overwhelming significance which the British attributed to it. Boer commandoes fought on undaunted and virtually unimpaired. It took some time for this to be appreciated. Roberts would return to England at the end of that year feeling the war was almost won but the Boers did not make terms until the spring of 1902.

Kipling chose to position “Recessional” as the very last poem of The Five Nations, following the suite of poems, entitled the ‘Service Songs’. These told of the way combatants had been changed by what they experienced during the Anglo-Boer War. In sealing that account with “Recessional”, he again modified the way that poem would be read, underlining its call for reflection and responsibility.

When The English Hymnal was drawn up in 1906, “Recessional” was included at number 558.


Notes on the text

(by Mary Hamer drawing on various sources, in particular
Ralph Durand, “A Handbook to the Poetry of Rudyard Kipling" 1914.)


[Title] Recessional counter to 'processional', it is the hymn sung when clergy and choir are to leave the church after the service.

[Stanza 1 Lest we forget Deuteronomy 6,12: ‘Then beware lest thou forget the Lord which brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt.’ The language of the poem is rife with Biblical echoes, but exact quotation is relatively rare.

[Stanza 2 The tumult and the shouting dies/The captains and the kings depart Job 39,25: ‘the thunder of the captains and the shouting’. This suggests the noisy scenes of the recently completed Jubilee celebrations.

Thine ancient sacrifice, /An humble and a contrite heart Psalm 51,17: ‘The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.’

[Stanza 3] Our pomp of yesterday Psalm 90,4: ‘for a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday’.

Nineveh city on the east bank of the Tigris near modern Mosul the capital of the Assyrian empire: this fell in 612 BCE and Nineveh, whose vast ruins are still extant, was razed to the ground. Nahum 3,7: ‘Nineveh is laid waste; who will bemoan her?’.

Tyre Phoenician capital, with colonies around the Mediterranean, notably Carthage. Rich from trade and famous for its purple dye, a strategically placed coastal site, it was taken and destroyed by Alexander in 332 BCE.

[Stanza 4] Such boastings as the Gentiles use, / Or lesser breeds without the Law for the conjunction of ‘Gentiles’ and ‘law’, see Kipling’s source in Romans 2, 14: ‘For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves’. This is a statement about the inherent knowledge of good.

In his own text, however, Kipling is talking about something different. He is exploiting the Old Testament notion of the Gentiles as the non-Jews, those lacking the special civilization and values of the Jewish people. He describes as Gentiles (in a related move Matthew Arnold had used the notion of Philistines) those nations of his own world that he deems uncivilized in their values.

It is important to note that there is no reason to read these as the subject races of the Empire. Rather it is Russia (see the Background note to "The Truce of the Bear") and Germany, which by 1897 had begun to take an interest in the Far East and was Britain’s rival in the scramble for Africa, which are probably intended.

[Stanza 5] heathen heart the heart of any Britisher who forgets what they have been taught about human values and thinks that using firepower to secure dominion is the point of having power. A direct attack on jingoism.


[M.H.]

©Mary Hamer 2008 All rights reserved