Rudyard Kipling’s “The Hyenas” consists of seven stanzas, written in quatrain form. Using the hyena as a metaphor for humanity, the author compares and contrasts that wild scavenger, with its traditional reputation for slyness and cowardice, with the human animal, who only too often, according to the poet, exhibits the same vicious qualities, the same beastly characteristics. Kipling goes even further, suggesting that the actions of the hyenas, as instinctively brutal as they first appear, are more understandable and thus in reality less devious because they are readily recognized as uncivilized wild animals, unlike the human animal with its claims to be civilized and its pretensions to superior morality.
The poem, told in a relatively straightforward narrative style, begins with a burial party which, having completed its task, has left an unidentified grave site. Kites, vultures with their own reputation as scavengers, have also abandoned the field with the coming of night, and now the hyenas have entered the scene to ravish and rend the recently buried body. Neither knowing nor caring anything about the dead victim, they have come to dig up the corpse. Their only goal is food in the form of dead flesh. Kipling uses the traditional image and reputation of the hyenas as opportunistic but cowardly scavengers, who feed only when there is little threat to themselves; the beasts consume the dead as food because “the dead are safer meat,” noting that even goats, worms, and children could pose at least a potential, if distant, threat to their safety. It is here, in the fourth stanza, that the reader discovers explicitly what is already known implicitly, given Kipling’s long identification with the life and fate of the common soldier, that the once-buried body is that of “a dead soldier of the King.” Yet since he is dead the soldier can inspire no fear in the cowardly hyenas.
With “whoop and halloo” the hyenas unearth the corpse, exposing the body once more to earth’s sight, but only briefly, and only to a few. God, perceiving everything, sees the face of the dead soldier, but, as the poem relates, so do those who have no souls. Here, the obvious reference is to the hyenas as wild animals. As beasts, the hyenas are free from shame, a quality endemic in humanity since the Fall and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Kipling argues that human beings can also be without shame and without souls, and are thus no better than wild animals, and in reality even worse. They are more despicable, for they “defile the dead man’s name” and “that is reserved for his kind.” “The Hyenas” is an angry poem, bitter in its satirical argument that humanity can often be a lesser breed outside the moral law of civilization, worse even than the lowly and disreputable hyena.
“The Hyenas” is a relatively short poem written without a significant number of poetic devices. It is composed in an abab quatrain form, and the first and third lines of each stanza are longer than the second and fourth lines. The latter two lines, strongly punctuated, give the reader a periodic feeling of closure, or the completion of a statement. Although the meter of the poem is irregular, the general consistency of form and punctuation gives “The Hyenas” an easily accessible narrative line. In the early stanzas in particular, there is an almost matter-of-fact ballad quality, a characteristic that T. S. Eliot called the major defining element of most of Kipling’s poetry.
One of the few obvious literary devices that Kipling does make at least some...
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limited use of in “The Hyenas” is alliteration. For example, in the first stanza, the phrase “burial-parties” in line 1 is linked with “baffled kites” in the following line. Later a similar use of alliteration is found in line 7—“They snout the bushes and stones aside”—which also is an interesting use of the noun word “snout” as a verb. There is more alliteration throughout the poem, but its use is never excessive nor obtrusive. There are some archaisms in Kipling’s choice of words—“shewn” and “ere,” for example—but “The Hyenas” could not in any way be described as an obviously “poetic” poem.
Of the seven stanzas that make up “The Hyenas,” the fourth, or middle, stanza is central to the poem. The entire stanza is enclosed in a parenthesis, a device not used elsewhere in the poem, and Kipling makes use of it here to provide an opportunity for an authorial aside to the reader, or as an explanatory pause, and it is effective in breaking the poem’s seemingly simple narrative line. In the stanza the buried body is identified, and Kipling elaborates upon the cowardly character of the hyenas. The previous stanza closes with the observation that the hyenas are scavengers because “they know that the dead are safer meat/ Than the weakest thing alive.” To a cowardly beast like the hyena, any life, even the weakest life, has the capacity to engender fear, “For a goat may butt, and a worm may sting,/ And a child will sometimes stand.” In contrast to the potency of life, even that of a worm or a child, is the impotence of the dead and the permanence of death. In the last two lines of the stanza, the identity of the grave’s now powerless inhabitant is revealed as “a poor dead soldier of the king/ [who] Can never lift a hand.”
The metaphor of the hyena as a representative of humanity is suggested in the following stanza, when the hyenas begin to unearth the corpse, for “They whoop and halloo” just like human beings might do when engaged in sport, hunting, or play. The dead soldier is again briefly visible to God as well as to the hyenas before they consume the body, but because they are wild animals, lacking a soul and thus human shame, they are at least acting in a fashion appropriate to their species; unlike human beings, the hyenas “do not defile the dead man’s name—/ That is reserved for his kind.”