Themes and Meanings

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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 soldiers died, including Kipling’s own son. Ultimately all the soldiers—British, German, Russian, French, American, and others—“were the poor dead soldiers of the King.” They were all the victims of the statesmen and diplomats whose machinations had caused the conflict, the generals who ordered the doomed millions into the quagmire of no-man’s-land, and the public, far from the front lines back at home, who thoughtlessly allowed the slaughter to continue for years without a resolution. It was these latter hyenas who, through their actions and inactions in thought and deed, “defile(d) the dead man’s name.”

The Hyenas is not the best known of Kipling’s World War I poems. “Gethsemane,” with its soldier-as-Christ figure, is more widely anthologized, but in his satirical use of the hyena as the metaphor of humanity, Kipling revealed a nadir of bleakness and bitterness.

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