The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Danny Deever” is a description of a military execution: the hanging of a British soldier in India for the murder of another soldier in his own regiment. In a combination of responsorial verse reminiscent of a ballad or a hymn, and the observations of a third party, the structure of the four-stanza poem uses the common speech and points of view of representative members of the nineteenth century British army to express one of the most harsh demands of military life.

Danny Deever is the guilty soldier, but the reader learns of this only after an introductory question-and-answer half-stanza. The opening question, “What are the bugles blowin’ for?” is asked by Files-on-Parade, a single voice that represents all the soldiers being “turned out” (called to formation); they are the files of “rank and file.” Files asks his questions of the Colour-Sergeant, who would have been, in Kipling’s time, a noncommissioned officer promoted for distinguished service, a soldier of significantly more experience than his juniors. The elder’s face is white, and he is afraid of what he must watch. Why, when he has seen more of war than his subordinates? The observer makes the moment clear: Danny is to be hanged. The regiment is formed (“in ’ollow square”), and the prisoner is ritualistically stripped of the signs of his profession: the buttons on his uniform and the insignia of his rank.

Files then asks for explanations of his observance...

(The entire section is 485 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Rudyard Kipling, born in India, raised during the height of the British Empire, the first English writer to win the Nobel Prize, was immensely popular, and he served for some time as a “national voice.” He told stories to common countrymen of the travails and hardships of soldiers and sailors far away from home, and he used the accented speech of the lower classes to tell them. “Danny Deever” combines that colloquial context with a question-and-answer conversation that brings with it the tradition of old English ballads. The rhythm, particularly the alliteration of the opening line and the repetition of the response, is militaristic and suggests a march from the outset.

The construction of the first half of each stanza is revealing. In the first, the Colour-Sergeant’s repetitious responses to Files’s questions are dismissive; Files mocks him with his next question, and the Colour-Sergeant is suddenly serious and revealing. In the second stanza, the Colour-Sergeant is again brusque and so quick to answer Files’s pestering questions that only the reader sees the contradictions in his answers. After all, the weather cannot be both hot and cold, so there must be another explanation for the soldiers’ behavior.

By the third stanza, Files is disturbed and confused at the circumstances in which he finds himself, and he probably does not understand the Colour-Sergeant’s answers. The latter expresses Files’s observations as one would...

(The entire section is 515 words.)