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.”
Two lines in the fourth stanza allude to the British attitude toward the subjects who populated their Empire: “Such boastings as the Gentiles use,/ Or lesser breeds without the Law.” This allusion is not altogether clear without reference to its biblical source, Romans 2:14: In Paul’s epistle to the Romans, he warns the Gentiles that they are not exempt from the holy law, but like the Jews are subject to the “judgment of God.” Particularly appropriate is the earlier verse (2:11), where Paul states: “For there is no respect of persons with God.” At the basis of Empire lay the idea that the British were superior to those they ruled and were not subject to the same restrictions as the “lesser breeds”—Kipling’s ironic description of the British subjects, black and white, who dwelled in the stolen land on which the sun never set. The Anglo-Saxon superiority so cherished by the British had apparently been granted them by their Christian God. The spread of Christianity figured prominently in the business of Empire, but even the embrace of the official religion did not confer British superiority on the Indian or African.
While the poem may be read satisfactorily in its historical context as a death knell for the British Empire, it can also be approached as a religious poem that summons humankind to shun earthly delights and with “An humble and a contrite heart” direct attention toward eternal values. The Empire then becomes a metaphor representing worldly things that turn to dust, even if their glitter attracts a boasting and foolish people.