(notes by John McGivering and John Radcliffe)

Publication history

This poem was first published in the Scots Observer on 21st June 1890 (ORG Volume 8, page 5303 lists it as Verse No. 464) For further details of publication see David Alan Richards, page 113. Brian Mattinson lists twenty-two musical settings of the poem.

It is collected in:

  • Barrack-Room Ballads and Other Verses (1892)
  • Early Verse (1900)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition Volume 32, p. 210
  • Burwash Edition, Volume 25
  • A Kipling Pageant (1936)
  • A Choice of Kipling’s Verse by T.S.Eliot (1941)
  • The Works of Rudyard Kipling, Wordsworth Poetry Library

To this day (2022) one of the two or three best-loved of Kipling’s poems. There have been many musical settings. The version by Peter Bellamy is here. Sinatra’s is here.

The theme

A British soldier, now discharged and back in London, looks back with nostalgia at his life in Burma with sunshine and a charming girl in terms which Le Gallienne, although an enthusiastic patron of the music-halls, described in his review of Barrack-Room Ballads, as: ‘perfect of their kind though made of the very refuse of language. later observing that the very best of them is “Mandalay”.
[quoted by Charles Carrington p. 342.] >

This, like “The Grave of the Hundred Head”, was inspired by Kipling’s visit to Burma on his way home to England in 1889. He and his friends the Hills embarked at Calcutta, bound for London via America where the Hills would spend their leave. They made an unscheduled stop at Moulmein on the coast of Burma, where elephants, pagodas, tinkling bells, and a beautiful Burmese girl left a deep impression on Kipling. :

When I die I will be a Burman, with twenty yards of real King’s silk, that has been made in Mandalay, about my body, and a succession of cigarettes between my lips. I will wave the cigarette to emphasise my conversation, which shall be full of jest and repartee, and I will always walk about with a pretty almond-coloured girl who shall laugh and jest too, as a young maiden ought. She shall not pull a sari over her head when a man looks at her and glare suggestively from behind it, nor shall she tramp behind me when I walk: for these are the customs of India.
[From Sea to Sea, p. 221 line 19]

Charles Carrington, in his edition of Barrack-Room Ballads (Methuen 1974, p. 162), describes the poem as: ‘Perhaps the favourite among the ‘Barrack-Room Ballads’, written to a popular waltz tune, set to music as a tenor song, and long since passed into folklore … Recently it has been copied by Bertolt Brecht.’

The haunting words of “Mandalay” would become as much-travelled as their author. And surely only the pedantic would quarrel with the improbable siting of the dawn as it ‘comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay’.

See Harry Ricketts (p. 121) for an excellent account of the visit to Burma. See also Meryl Macdonald (p. 49).

Historical background

For the historical background to the poem, one cannot do better than read George Webb’s address to the Royal Society for Asian Affairs on 16 June 1983, on “Kipling’s Burma, A Literary and Historical Review”, which we have reproduced for this Guide. It was reprinted in the Kipling Journal in KJ 301/25 & KJ 302/10.

As George Webb explains, after a dispute with the Burmese government, heightened by its clandestine dealings with the French, Lord Dufferin, the Viceroy of India, despatched an ultimatum:

Meanwhile he prepared an expeditionary force in Lower Burma: 9000 fighting men, 3000 followers, 67 guns, 24 machine-guns. The ultimatum was offensively rejected. War followed. In November 1885 the great paddle-steamers, crowded with troops, thrashed up-river. Before they could reach Mandalay it surrendered. Burmese resistance had crumbled.

British occupation and annexation followed.
Kipling Journal references:

  • KJ26/36 In the Observer of May 28th 1933, it is noteworthy to read the following in the review of ” Six Centuries of English Literature ” (Blackie):—” What a pleasure it is to come suddenly upon Mr. Kipling’s ‘ Mandalay ‘—a genuine poem among the mere verse of its time…
  • KJ036/130 a correspondent wonders about the dawn coming up like thunder outer’ China crost the bay.
  • KJKJ044/129 “The Mandalay Waltz” is discussed and praised….
  • 064/20 Brief history of Mandalay,
  • KJ069/17 Osbert Sitwell in the Times Literary Supplement 11 May 1943
  • KJ080/17 Presentation of “Mandalay” in the rare ” Lark ” edition which Doxey of San Francisco produced in 1899.
  • KJ088/15 Announcement of the death of Oley Speaks, singer and composer of a setting of ” On the Road to Mandalay ” and more than 200 other songs.
  • KJ096/03. Jules Castier’s French translation of Kipling’s verse.
  • KJ097/09&01 Mandalay in prose, a BBC talk by Bernard Gutteridge: Part 1
  • KJ098/06 Part 2 of Gutteridge’s talk.
  • KJ219/30 illustrations of the ‘Burma Girl’ mentioned.
  • KJ253/49 “The Road to Mandalay”, a painting by Frederick Goodall, R.A. (1822-1904).at the Museum in Mount Pleasant Road, Tunbridge Wells. The “musical instrument” is included. See Verse 3.
  • KJ258/34 Musical settings see Brian Mattinson r and Richards, p. 707
  • KJ272/51 The geography of Mandalay
  • KJ273/06 A reply
  • KJ287/55 Frank Sinatra’s recording- see Mattinson and David Alan Richards p. 708.


Some other critical responses

Bonamy Dobrée (p. 212.) discusses this and other pieces written shortly after Kipling’s return to London in 1889, in which he compares the weather unfavourably with the sunshine of India:

….the popular “Mandalay” of June 1890, well-known, perhaps, as it is set to rousing, singable tunes….. Probably his greatest successes in verse at this early period were the poems abut private soldiers, notably in Barrack-Room Ballads, where he used the Tommies’

Charles Allen (p. 307), however, writing in 2007, is very conscious that tastes have changed in the hundred and twenty years since the Barrack-Room Ballads were written:

The shock-value of “Danny Deever”, “Tommy” and the best of the Barrack-Room Ballads has faded over the years – and the rest have not aged well. “Mandalay” now sounds almost maudlin. Kipling’ cockneyfication seems contrived and the racial insensitivities containrd in such poems as “Gunga Din”, “Loot” and “Fuzzy Wuzzy are embarrassing, even when taken in context, which is Kipling giving voice to the Victorian working man.

For more on Kipling and Burma see:


Notes on the Text

[Title] Mandalay: the main commercial centre of what was known as ‘Upper Burma’, the last royal capital, and the second largest city of present-day Myanmar. 445 miles (716 km) north of Rangoon (now Yangon) on the east bank of the Irrawaddy River. See From Sea to Sea Letter II (p.217, line 4.)

[Verse 1] Moulmein:  also spelt ‘Mawlamyine”, a seaport of southern Myanmar.

Pagoda: a Buddhist temple of characteristic shape. See From Sea to Sea Letter II (p. 218, line 28.)

lookin’ lazy at the sea:  ‘lookin’ eastward at the sea’ in the original version but corrected by Kipling when it was pointed out to him that Moulmein had no view of the sun rising over the Bay of Bengal, still less over China. See the notes below on the Chorus.

palm-trees: family Arecaceae, including the familiar cocoa-nut palm characteristic of hot climates.


On the road to Mandalay …

As Kipling later observed:

Had I opened the chorus of the song with
`Oh’ instead of ‘On the road,’ etc., it might have
shown that the song was a sort of general mix-up
of the singer’s Far-Eastern memories against a
background of the Bay of Bengal as seen at dawn
from-a troop-ship taking him there. But ` On ‘
in this case was more singable than `Oh.’ That
simple explanation may stand as a warning.
[Something of Myself, p. 222.)

That one should not take the words of a poem  too literally [Ed.]

the old flotilla: the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, formed in 1865 to ferry troops up and down this great river. British-owned, the company operated until the 1940s. At its peak in the late 1920s, it was the largest fleet of riverboats in the world. (A flotilla is a fleet of small vessels.)

In From Sea to Sea Letter II (p. 219, line 26.) Kipling writes: ‘the steamers of the Irrawaddy Flotilla lay like black-backed gulls upon the water.’

The company later began carrying passengers, rice, government stores, and mail from Rangoon to Prome and, in 1868, to Bhamo.

Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’: the paddle-wheels which propel the vessel (housed in the curved paddle-boxes on either side amidships) make a characteristic sound as they revolve.

flyin’-fishes: Exocoetidae, a family of marine fish, with the ability to glide through the air for 50 metres or so to escape predators.

An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!:  As Sir George Engle (and many other readers) has pointed out in KJ 272, the city of Mandalay is 400 miles north of Moulmein, and a good 200 miles inland from the coast up the Irrawaddy River. Moulmein (also spelt ‘Mawlamyine’) is on the west coast of Burma, but in neither place does the dawn come up out of China, since the Chinese border lies some 500 hundred miles – 800 km – away from Moulmein to the north-east across mountains and jungle.

But see Kipling’s own comment above.

[Verse 2]

yaller: yellow

Supi-yaw-let: or Supayalat (the spelling varies.) (1859-1925) the last queen of Burma, who reigned in Mandalay 1878–1885. See Kim p. 9 line 20, and Whitehead p. 140.

Theebaw: Thibaw Min the last King of Burma, deposed by the British in November 1885.

Succeeding to the throne at the age of nineteen he massacred some eighty of his relations in order to secure his position on the throne. See George Webb.

whackin’: a Londoner’s rendering of ‘whacking’ which here means large – usually expressed as ‘whackin’ great’.

white cheroot: an open-ended cigar, probably with a wrapper made from the leaf of a betel nut palm.

Gawd Budd: ‘God Buddha’, the British soldier’s idea of Buddhism, which is based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, commonly known as the Buddha, in the 5th Century BC. See Kim p. 9 line 20, and Whitehead, p.140.

[Verse 3]

rice-fields:  Rice is grown in flooded ‘paddy-fields’ which have mist over them at times.

banjo: probably a Burmese stringed instrument, played with the hand, similar to the guitar. See KJ 253/49.

“Kulla-lo-lo”: Kalá is Burmese for foreigner or stranger; thus the expression means ‘hullo stranger’.

steamers: steamships.

hathis pilin’ teak: Hathi is the Hindi for elephant, and is used as the name of the chief of the elephants in The Jungle Books.

Here they are employed stacking timber on the dock-side, ready for export.

For more on elephants, see “Toomai of the Elephants” and others in The Jungle Book, and “My Lord the Elephant” in Many Inventions; also the verse “Muncipal”.

Teak: (Tetona grandis) is a tropical hardwood used in shipbuilding and furniture.

[Verse 4]

the Bank: the Bank of England, an important landmark where six roads meet in the City of London.

the ten-year soldier: an experienced man of long service.

spicy garlic smells: the typical aroma of spices, vegetation (and perhaps a whiff of sewage) that reminded Kipling of his childhood when he returned to India as a young man. See Something of Myself, p. 39, and “The Edge of the East” in Letters of Travel (1892-1913) . p. 34.

[Verse 5]

outer: out of.

Chelsea: a pleasant mainly residential area of south-west London

Strand: at that time, the centre of the night-life of London. Kipling lived nearby in Villiers Street off the Strand by Charing Cross Station, in rooms which are the scene of several stories.

Law!: a Londoner’s rendering of ‘Oh Lord!’

[Verse 6]

East of Suez: a phrase coined by Kipling to describe the countries of Asia. Philip Mallett (p. 63) observes: To be … east of Suez is to find relief from English weather and English morality.

Ten Commandments: in Christian tradition the rules for conduct in life handed down by God to Moses and the Israelites. (Exodus,20)

awnings: canvas canopies spread above the deck to provide shade from the sun.

Brian Aldiss’s rather fine Somewhere East of Life borrows its title from l. 1, and uses ll. 1-2 as its epigraph.[D.H.]


[J McG./J.R.]

©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2011 All rights reserved