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Warnings from the Poet of Empire

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Rudyard Kipling

MacDonough’s Song

Whether the State can loose and bind
In Heaven as well as on Earth:
If it be wiser to kill mankind
Before or after the birth –
These are matters of high concern
Where State-kept schoolmen are;
But Holy State (we have lived to learn)
Endeth in Holy War.

Whether The People be led by The Lord,
Or lured by the loudest throat:
If it be quicker to die by the sword
Or cheaper to die by vote –
These are things we have dealt with once,
(And they will not rise from their grave)
For Holy People, however it runs,
Endeth in wholly Slave.

Whatsoever, for any cause,
Seeketh to take or give
Power above or beyond the Laws,
Suffer it not to live!
Holy State or Holy King –
Or Holy People’s Will –
Have no truck with the senseless thing.
Order the guns and kill!
Saying – after – me:-

Once there was The People – Terror gave it birth;
Once there was The People and it made a Hell of Earth.
Earth arose and crushed it. Listen, O ye slain!
Once there was The People – it shall never be again!


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!

In common with many Britons, I share a remote attachment to the places of our Empire: I have kinsmen buried there, from Delhi Ridge to The Frontier, Karachi and Chittagong. I have good friends in Malaysia and Singapore, the scene of my End of Empire service to ‘God, Queen, and Country’. I have cousins, some fairly remote, in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand; and clansmen and women in the Carolinas. And I was brought up with Rudyard Kipling, from the “Mowgli Stories” in The Jungle Book, through “The Elephant’s Child” and others in The Just So Stories, to his “Barrack Room Ballads” and other poems.

Rudyard Kipling would generally be considered the poet of the British Empire par excellence; but, contrary to popular belief, he was far from being a jingoist or a racist. He was born and spent his early years in India and, in common with thousands of his fellow countrymen and women, was as a result always something of an outsider ‘back home’ and maintained an enduring love of the sub-continent. He lived for a while in America. During his early twenties he worked as a journalist back in India again. And perhaps his most typical work is the somewhat autobiographical Kim, rather than The Jungle Book in spite of Disney and Hollywood. Politically he was a sort of Tory (that is ‘Tory’ as opposed to ‘Conservative’ – an outlook that, though not being libertarian, shares a lot with ‘Minarchism’), though many of his views can’t be so easily pidgeon-holed.

T. S. Eliot, the American poet who adopted Britain as his home and was also politically a Tory of a kind, published an Essay in appreciation entitled “Rudyard Kipling” on 26 September 1941. In it he wrote, “we must [recognise] that for Kipling the Empire was not merely an idea… it was something the reality of which he felt. And in his expression of his feeling he was certainly not aiming at flattery of national, racial or imperial vanity, or attempting to propagate a political programme: he was aiming to communicate the awareness of something of which he felt that most people were very imperfectly aware. It was an awareness of grandeur, certainly, but it was much more an awareness of responsibility… [but he] had always been far from uncritical of the defects and wrongs of the British Empire…”

Several of his poems are warnings, or possibly rebukes, to the more jingoistic and Social Darwinist of his fellow countrymen. MacDonough’s Song is one such. The Gods of the Copybook Headings, published in 1919 after the trauma of the First World War in which his only son had been killed, is another.

Kipling’s famous poem – some might call it a hymn, according to Eliot – Recessional, published in The Times to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1897 drew outrage down on his head at the thought of the likely ‘mortality’ of the Empire. But all of these deserve to be considered afresh in the Brave New World of America’s Empire for the warnings against imperial hubris that they contain.

Taking as given that Kipling was a believer in the British Empire, “but held a firm belief in what it should and might be”, his poetry shows that criticism, rebukes, and warnings do not of themselves add up to disloyalty or lack of patriotism – something that seems to have conceptually passed by many in American politics, media, and academia.

He was quite a devout man, in a somewhat eclectic way, and was deeply aware of the mortality of it all, and that there are always consequences: we will have to give account of ourselves and our actions on the Day of Reckoning. In 1934, he wrote for The Pageant of Parliament the metaphysical poem, inspired by the old Catholic hymn “Non Nobis Domine!” (‘not to us, O Lord’), that uses that title. It aims to pull us up short, and to remind us just to whom is the praise and glory.

‘Non Nobis Domine!’

Non nobis Domine!
Not unto us, O Lord!
The Praise or Glory be
Of any deed or word;
For in Thy Judgment lies
To crown or bring to nought
All knowledge or device
That Man has reached or wrought.

And we confess our blame –
How all too high we hold
That noise which men call Fame,
That dross which men call Gold.
For these we undergo
Our hot and godless days,
But in our hearts we know
Not unto us the Praise.

O Power by Whom we live –
Creator, Judge, and Friend,
Upholdingly forgive
Nor fail us at the end:
But grant us well to see
In all our piteous ways –
Non nobis Domine!
Not unto us the Praise!

Written by David Rosser Owen

June 28, 2008 at 12:46 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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