The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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!”