The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 474

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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.