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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

As in much of Kipling’s verse, there is an obvious political or social motive in “The Hyenas.” In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries he was one of the most famous poets of the English-speaking world, and the popularity of his verse rested in large part upon its accessibility, both in its style and in its substance. It has been noted that anyone, even at first reading—or hearing—could at least superficially enter into his poetic world, whatever additional depths and insights might be obtained in further study and contemplation. Although generally perceived to be an unreconstructed supporter of the British Empire, his major focus was less upon the Empire as such and more on the plight of the ordinary soldier, and not necessarily only the British soldier. The plight of the common person was a theme that ran through Kipling’s oeuvre, including “The Hyenas,” where “the poor dead soldier of the King” is the helpless victim of the hyenas’ hunger.

The important question is who Kipling’s hyenas are. Obviously, in the literal sense, they are the traditional scavengers from the deserts and wildernesses who have been digging up battlefield corpses since humankind’s earliest conflicts. In this sense, the poem can be considered timeless, with dead soldiers eternally serving as carrion for wild animals. However, given that “The Hyenas” was first published in 1919, it can be argued that Kipling’s cowardly scavengers were not just those of the four-footed variety. Human beings could also be hyenas. After four years of the bloodiest conflict humanity had experienced, World War I had finally come to an end in November, 1918. During those four years an estimated ten million...

(The entire section is 425 words.)