Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

At the time that “Recessional” was written, the British boasted that the sun never set on their Empire, one of the most extensive, powerful, and prosperous exercises in imperialism that the world had ever known. That Kipling observed the celebration of an empire—surely thought to last a thousand years—by titling his poem “Recessional” suggests that he foresaw an end to British dominion over such far-flung places as great parts of Africa and the West Indies, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and India. Even though this gloomy assessment disappointed those who thought of Kipling as a defender of the Empire and led to criticism, he was right after all. In fact, even at the time of the Diamond Jubilee in 1897, cracks had started to appear in the imperial shield. There had been the 1857 mutiny against the British in India, and the Boer War in South Africa would start in 1899; as well, nationalism was on the rise in settler countries such as Australia. World War I weakened the Empire further, and World War II brought about its dismantling—by the 1950’s, the Empire was indeed only the “pomp of yesterday.” Kipling predicts this collapse in his disparaging reference to the glorious exercise in dominion that occurred when bonfires were lighted simultaneously around the world to observe the anniversary of Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne; the line that calls up this event is less than triumphant: “On dune and headland sinks the fire.”


(The entire section is 504 words.)