“Recessional” contains five stanzas of six lines each, with the first and third lines and the second and fourth rhyming. Following each quatrain there appears a rhymed couplet, which remains the same in the first four stanzas, then changes in the fifth. The closing couplet issues an even firmer admonition to underscore the warning that is extended in the previous refrain.
A recessional is a hymn or piece of music that is sung or played at the end of a religious service. From one perspective, the title dictates the form of the poem, which follows the tradition of the English hymn. More significantly, though, the title may be taken ironically. The poem was written in 1897, the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, which turned into a celebration of the British Empire. “Recessional,” seems to herald the end of the Empire rather than to assure its long life.
In the opening quatrain, the poet speaks to the “God of our fathers” and acknowledges Him as the Lord of all that the British control. The couplet that follows asks that God’s spirit be with the poet and his proud, vain countrymen unless they fail to understand that permanence and salvation can be found only in “Thine ancient sacrifice,” not in temporal things: “Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,/ Lest we forget—lest we forget.” The poet then continues what is essentially a prayer, and in each stanza he speaks more directly to the empire builders themselves. In the second stanza, for example, he reminds them that rulers depart and only God remains. This idea he reinforces in the third and fourth verses, which take up the fleeting nature of pomp, power, and pride.
The final stanza emphasizes even more strongly that such worldly accomplishments as the Empire, no matter how valiantly sought and guarded, transform into mere dust when placed alongside the eternal nature of God. The closing couplet, different from those that have ended the preceding four stanzas, warns the British of boasting and foolishness, and supplicates God for mercy: “For frantic boast and foolish word—/ Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!”
Today Rudyard Kipling is not considered a fashionable poet, in part because of the even rhythms and rhyme that characterize his work, but those very forms and devices for which he is now often criticized make many of the poems pleasantly readable, especially when presented aloud. Certainly, he was neither an innovator nor a major influence on English poetry, but many of his varied poems provide an accessible and often amusing history of the British Empire. He was a master of the dramatic monologue, as illustrated in a poem such as “Gunga Din,” and he could handle the ballad form with good effect.
From a technical standpoint, however, “Recessional” stands apart from the poems that record the brighter side of the Empire. In this poem Kipling departs from his usual methodology and adapts the form of the hymn to suit his own purposes. The English hymn owes its origins to the eighteenth century poet Isaac Watts (1674-1748), and those who came after Watts followed the patterns set down by him. Kipling also remains faithful to the established forms and devices.
First, the hymns were usually addressed to God, who is called by various set names. Kipling follows this format and employs many of the prescribed titles: “God of our fathers,” “Lord God of Hosts,” “Judge of the Nations.” He uses the formal “Thy” and “Thine” throughout. An expression such as “awful Hand,” which appears in the first stanza, is also typical, even though it jars...
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modern readers who may not know that “awful” once meant “full of awe” and served aptly to describe God.
This stilted language, so characteristic of the hymn, is not only exercised to name the varied attributes of the divine being but is also used to describe material objects. For example, Kipling in the final stanza pictures a gun as a “reeking tube and iron shard.” In the first stanza, rather than calling the Empire by name, Kipling chooses the metonymic device of “palm and pine” to represent the vast regions the British dominate; later he conjures up great stretches of the Empire by the simple words, “dune and headland.”
Echoes from the King James Version of the Bible also find their way into the language and imagery of the hymn. Kipling follows this dictate as well by speaking of the “dust that builds on dust” and referring to an Old Testament city, Nineveh. The fourth stanza draws on a direct reference from Romans in the New Testament to point out how the British erroneously considered themselves superior to those they ruled.
Finally, the hymn requires what might be called stock words to depict humankind’s folly in contrast to divine wisdom. Kipling fulfills this demand as well, when he damns the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria for being full of “tumult,” “shouting,” and “pomp” and admonishes the celebrants, whom he sees as “drunk with sight of power,” speaking in “Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe.”
Kipling, then, has relied on the versification and diction of the traditional English hymn, which for the most part does not constitute great poetry. This undistinguished form and its devices—noble in their own manner—may give Kipling’s poem an old-fashioned air and may even at first obscure its timeless truths. Once “Recessional” is seen as a subversion of the very pattern it employs, the irony becomes apparent and the poem gains resonance. Although the hymn tradition that serves as the basis for the poem is intended to praise, Kipling has done quite the opposite, condemning the excesses of Empire and those caught up in an orgy of nationalism.