The ‘eathen

(notes by Roger Ayers)

Publication History

Charles Carrington (p. 212) describes this as having been written in February, 1895, and a number of drafts do exist, but it was not published until it appeared in McClure’s Magazine, September 1896; The New York Times Supplement, 13 September; then Pearson’s Magazine in November. It was later reprinted in the New York Tribune (with the odd title “Four Guardsmen”), 26 April 1898.

First collected in The Seven Seas, 1896; Inclusive Verse,; Definitive Verse, 1940; Sussex Edition vol. 33, page 162. Burwash Edition vol. 26. In the ORG it is numbered 671.

Verse Form

The poem has sixteen four-line stanzas based on the Alexandrine, an iambic line of six feet, with three very similar stanzas with lines of five feet inserted as a chorus to emphasise significant points in the narrative. All stanzas consist of a pair of rhyming couplets.

Subject Matter

In this poem, Kipling describes the conversion of a raw, inexperienced youth into a trained soldier and then eventually into a competent senior non-commissioned officer, responsible for training other recruits to achieve success in battle and, as such, part of the backbone of the army. That this progression was the major theme of the poem is indicated by an early draft in the Richards collection at Yale, which gives the title as “The Recruit’s Progress” with a sub-title “A Song of Degrees”, the first obviously linked to Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress” and the second to the progression through the Degrees of Freemasonry.
John Whitehead classified this poem as ‘Instructions to recruits’ but my feeling is that if directed by Kipling at any group of soldiers, it was likely to have been to encourage those on the first rungs of the NCO ladder. I also believe that he was aiming at the British public, in order to stress the importance of military training and the value of senior NCOs to the country.

To stress the difficulty and significance of the initial conversion, Kipling compares it to something which almost everyone in Britain in the 1890s would have known and probably accepted—the desire to convert what were then considered heathen peoples around the world to Christianity.

Kipling makes this unmistakably clear by using as his opening line and again in the last stanza two lines from the then most popular missionary hymn in both Britain and the U.S.A., Bishop Heber’s enthusiastic ‘From Greenland’s icy mountains’. Kipling himself would have been totally familiar with this from his childhood in the house of the religious Mrs Holloway, which he later described as ‘…an establishment run with the full vigour of the Evangelical as revealed to the Woman.’

The deliberate use of this well known image in order to capture the attention of his readers did not mean that Kipling approved of a high pressure drive to convert the indigenous populations of colonies and other countries—far from it. In declining to write a letter in support of the U.S. Presbyterian Church’s Board of Foreign Missions, following a request from the Secretary, the Rev. John M. Gillespie, Kipling wrote back in October, 1895:

… it seems to me cruel that white men, whose governments are armed with the most murderous weapons known to science, should amaze and confound their fellow creatures with a doctrine of salvation imperfectly understood by themselves and a code of ethics foreign to the climate and instincts of those races whose most cherished customs they outrage and whose gods they insult.
[The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, Ed. Pinney , vol 2]

The conversion of the raw recruit is covered in just three stanzas and describes how he initially finds discipline and routine incomprehensible and when his failings have an adverse effect on the communal life of the barrack-room, his comrades show him the error of his ways.

The next eleven stanzas then chart his promotions until he is a Colour-Sergeant and carries the responsibilities that go with that position. In the German army, the Spiess, the Colour-Sergeant’s opposite number, was traditionally known as ‘The Mother of the Company’, a responsibility reflected in these final stanzas.

The choruses,with similar lines but a changing meaning with each repetition, include a soldier’s version of three words in Hindustani representing attitudes that the recruit must overcome in order to succeed as a soldier. These are given with Kipling’s English version as:

abby-nay (‘not now’), kul (‘tomorrow’), and hazar-ho (‘wait a bit’)

All are terms indicating a tendency to put things off. Thinking back to my own service as a 19-year old in Egypt in 1953-54, I am both amused and perturbed to remember that the first corrupted words of Arabic that I heard used by the two-year National Servicemen of my troop were, with what they thought they meant:

maleesh (‘it doesn’t matter’), barden, (‘tomorrow’), and a term I forget which in translation was ‘When the apricots are ripe’ which means wait more than a bit.

There was also Ally kefik or something like it which was said to mean ‘As Allah wills’ which at least gave things a remote chance of them happening that day. Strange to think that nothing had changed over 60 years—but then both armies had relatively little active soldiering to do. I suspect that the first words learnt by the soldier in Afghanistan today are very different.
Critical reception

There appears to have been almost no early individual comment, even from Richard Le Gallienne, before 1911, when H.G. Wells quotes the first stanza and the chorus, writing (in The New Machiavelli, 1911):

… for all our later criticism, this sticks in the mind, sticks there now as quintessential wisdom.

But then Wells added that, in the light of the lack of preparedness for the South African War, Kipling had deluded himself at the time of writing, since England, too, had ‘kept her side-arms awful’.
André Chevrillon, in Three Studies in English Literature, writing on the Barrack Room Ballads, lists the way in which they take Kipling’s hero, Tommy Atkins, and describe his life:

…his whole life, from the angry moods and the freaks of the young soldier in the making who kicks over the traces, to the fine, healthy adaption of the true professional: from his first, tense anguish when, with set teeth, he faces the enemy fire:

An’ now the hugly bullets come peckin’ through the dust,
An’ no one wants to face ’em, but every beggar must …

to the experienced and the finished type of the sergeant-shepherd, who holds his men in hand under fire, and finally sweeps them forward to the attack:
E’s just as sick as they are, ‘is ‘eart is like to split,
But ‘e works ’em, works ’em, works ’em till he feels ’em take the bit;
The rest is ‘oldin’ steady till the watchful bugles play,
An’ ‘e lifts ’em, lifts ’em, lifts ’em through the charge that wins the day!”

In Chevrillon’s view: “These ballads were really addressed to soldiers”.

T. S. Eliot included ‘The ‘eathen’ in his 1931 selection but without comment, and it was not until 1946 that there was fresh assessment. In looking at the sources of Kipling’s soldier pieces, George Orwell, in his essay “Dickens, Dali and Others” (Reynal and Hitchcock, New York, 1946) wrote that:

Kipling had never been in battle but his vision of war is realistic. He knows that bullets hurt, that under fire everyone is terrified, that the ordinary soldier never knows what the war is about …

As proof, Orwell goes on to invite the reader to compare:

An’ now the hugly bullets come peckin’ through the dust
An’ no one wants to face ’em, but every beggar must;
So, like a man in irons, which isn’t glad to go,
They moves ’em off by companies uncommon stiff an’ slow.


Forward the Light Brigade!
Was there a man dismayed?
No! though the soldier knew
Someone had blundered.

In his 1955 biography of Kipling, Charles Carrington again used the same stanza from ‘The ‘eathen’ to make the same point but with more emphasis:

[Kipling] never pretended to invent; it was his pride to record the traditional army legends … Where he differed from other writers of battle pieces was in his extraordinary talent for getting under the skin of his characters and seeing what their eyes must have seen:
An’ now the hugly bullets come peckin’ through the dust,
An’ no one wants to face ’em, but every beggar must;
So, like a man in irons, which isn’t glad to go,
They moves ’em off by companies uncommon stiff an’ slow.

Let that be compared with any other account that has been written of soldiers going into battle! How did he know that they looked like that?”

In 1994 Peter Keating (Kipling, The Poet, Secker & Warburg, London, 1994) wrote of the ‘Barrack Room Ballads’ section of The Seven Seas that:

… the new barrack room ballads were largely continuations of the old, and some of them rank with the very best of Kipling’s soldier poems.

Keating includes “The ‘eathen” in his subsequent list.

Jan Montefiore notes Kipling’s praise of the NCO in “The ‘eathen” (‘The backbone of the Army is the Non-Commissioned Man” but then writes that:

Kipling’s heroes are more often those who give orders than those who obey them.

a rule to which, while it may be true for many of Kipling’s stories and poems, the Barrack Room Ballads are the exception.

In The Long Recessional David Gilmour returns to Kipling’s interest in the Army, with:

…Poems such as ‘The ‘eathen’ and ‘Back to the Army Again’ revealing once again [his] close understanding of military life and an uncanny empathy with Tommy Atkins.
‘Uncanny empathy’ or, as Carrington put it ‘How did he know that?’—and then had the genius to turn it into poetry?


©Roger Ayers 2010 All rights reserved