Sunday Night Journal, November 25, 2018
Sunday Night Journal, December 2, 2018

52 Poems, Week 48: Danny Deever (Kipling)


‘What are the bugles blowin’ for?' said Files-on-Parade.
‘To turn you out, to turn you out,’ the Colour-Sergeant said.
‘What makes you look so white, so white?’ said Files-on-Parade.
‘I’m dreadin’ what I’ve got to watch,’ the Colour-Sergeant said.
    For they’re hangin’ Danny Deever, you can hear the Dead March play,
    The Regiment’s in ’ollow square—they’re hangin’ him to-day;
    They’ve taken of his buttons off an’ cut his stripes away,
    An’ they're hangin’ Danny Deever in the mornin’.

‘What makes the rear-rank breathe so ’ard?’ said Files-on-Parade.
‘It’s bitter cold, it's bitter cold,’ the Colour-Sergeant said.
‘What makes that front-rank man fall down?’ said Files-on-Parade.
‘A touch o’ sun, a touch o’ sun,’ the Colour-Sergeant said.
    They are hangin’ Danny Deever, they are marchin’ of ’im round,
    They ’ave ’alted Danny Deever by ’is coffin on the ground;
    An’ ’e’ll swing in ’arf a minute for a sneakin’ shootin’ hound—
    O they’re hangin’ Danny Deever in the mornin!’

‘’Is cot was right-’and cot to mine,’ said Files-on-Parade.
‘’E’s sleepin’ out an’ far to-night,’ the Colour-Sergeant said.
‘I’ve drunk ’is beer a score o’ times,’ said Files-on-Parade.
‘’E’s drinkin’ bitter beer alone,’ the Colour-Sergeant said.
    They are hangin’ Danny Deever, you must mark ’im to ’is place,
    For ’e shot a comrade sleepin’—you must look ’im in the face;
    Nine ’undred of ’is county an’ the Regiment’s disgrace,
    While they’re hangin’ Danny Deever in the mornin’.

‘What’s that so black agin the sun?’ said Files-on-Parade.
‘It’s Danny fightin’ ’ard for life,’ the Colour-Sergeant said.
‘What’s that that whimpers over’ead?’ said Files-on-Parade.
‘It’s Danny’s soul that’s passin’ now,’ the Colour-Sergeant said.
    For they’re done with Danny Deever, you can ’ear the quickstep play,
    The Regiment’s in column, an’ they’re marchin’ us away;
    Ho! the young recruits are shakin’, an’ they’ll want their beer to-day,
    After hangin’ Danny Deever in the mornin’!


I've mostly kept to a rule in these posts of letting the poem speak first for itself without introduction from me, and put any comments I wanted to make afterwards. But I was very strongly tempted to break it in this case. It could probably have used some kind of warning, and some readers may be annoyed that I threw this grim piece in their faces without one.

I don't have any real strong reason for having chosen it--only that I happened to think of it a few days ago, so I read it, and I think it's brilliant in its grim and horrible way. Kipling has never been exactly fashionable, though he was once popular. No doubt nowadays he's considered evil--imperialist and racist and so on, which he is, though that of course is not the whole story. But I doubt there is an honest poet who wouldn't like to have written something as powerful as this.

The poem leaves you with a big question: why did he do it? Why did he shoot that sleeping comrade? Files-on-Parade doesn't seem to think he was a bad sort. I wonder if he might have been a timid person, tormented by a bully into a mad act of revenge. Or perhaps he really was just a sneakin' shootin' hound. The Colour-Sergeant seems to think so, but that doesn't stop him from pitying the man.


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Did you think about it while you were watching Buster Scruggs?


The highest praise of Kipling I've heard is from Indians and Pakistanis. They recognise his racism but appreciate the love in his descriptions of the sights and sounds of the subcontinent

That's interesting, and good to hear. I certainly thought Rikki-tikki-tavi was a great story when I was 13 or so. His racism was not the really invidious kind, either--there's no hate in it, at least from what I know of his work.

I don't think so, Janet. I think it was one day last week. But I'm not sure.

"No doubt nowadays he's considered evil--imperialist and racist and so on, which he is"

I don't think any of this is true of Kipling!

You know I'm not one to throw those words around casually. But I think it's true in a fairly objective way. If I'm not mistaken, which I could be, he seems to have been a big supporter of the British Empire. And to have believed the European races were superior or at least more advanced than others. I don't think he was i/r in the sense of being fundamentally hostile to other nations and races.

For the most part I give people from previous centuries (prior to the 20th) a pass, unless they were just monsters. I have less patience with Charlottesville white supremacists and their Apologist in Chief.

Too many people nowadays have absolutely no interest in considering the past on its own terms. Anybody, living or dead, who doesn't see such matters as race exactly the way they do is a monster. They think "history" is completely on their side but alas won't live long enough to see history's judgment on them.

Kipling's "The White Man's Burden" poem, though, is pretty hard to take, even considering it was written during a different time. Especially his reference to those "new-caught, sullen peoples, half devil and half child."

Yes, it's pretty horrible. Especially that line. But even there it's paternalistic and condescending (at best), not hateful and murderous.

Here's the poem, for those who don't know it:

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