“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 of behaviors that are not soldierly. In a formal military ceremony, some men are falling out of ranks breathing hard when the rapt stillness of attention is required. The Colour-Sergeant appears to make excuses—the sun, or the cold, has caused these things—but these accountings are as curt as the replies in the first stanza. They are the answers of a man with his own thoughts. The observer notes that Danny is paraded in front of his comrades and walked by his own coffin, and then he clearly indicates that Deever is “a sneakin’, shootin’ hound.”
Files then exclaims, with perhaps a tone of incredulity, that he has shared, as all soldiers do, the closeness and friendship of barracks life with the doomed man. Danny’s cot was close to his, and Danny treated him to a drink many times. The observer sternly states that such things may be true, but those are not the soldiers’ concerns now. Danny committed the unspeakable act of killing a comrade in his sleep, so the members of the regiment must face him even as they attend to his execution.
Finally, Files asks about indications that Danny’s passing is one of darkness and struggle, and the Colour-Sergeant essentially concurs, although he does not explain why. From the view of the observer, the reader see the regiment march away. The observer gets the last word: The younger soldiers are severely shaken, “an’ they’ll want their beer to-day.”
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...
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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 describe a soldier in the field, away from post (“sleepin’ out an’ far”) and away from his mates, “drinkin’ beer alone.” The Colour-Sergeant is saddened at these circumstances, while Files is unnerved. In the last stanza, the rhythm of each of the two speakers is the same, as the experienced and the neophyte soldier watch the same event, Danny’s death, at the same time.
The observer is situated in an interesting, and interested, fashion. He can overhear the conversation between Files and the Colour-Sergeant. His comments illuminate the give-and-take of the two speakers and slowly reveal the context in which the two soldiers discuss what is happening. He knows what is about to happen before Files does. He knows that Danny is the worst kind of criminal. He essentially tells Files and the Colour-Sergeant, at the end of the third stanza, that they must both “look ’im in the face” and admit to the horrible fact that they must participate in killing one of their own for killing one of their own.
Finally, in the fourth stanza, the reader sees that the observer is himself a soldier: “The regiment’s in column, and they’re marching us away.” “Us” is the important word. He has overheard the conversation because he is in the ranks. In addition, his position allows him to note with certainty, but without condescension, and even with sympathy, that the forty-four “young recruits are shakin’, an’ they’ll want their beer to-day.” He is more experienced than either of the other men, and his position is intellectual. He has seen these things before, more often than has the Colour-Sergeant, and he knows what this ceremony means.