Jul 082017

This post is my second in a three-part series on Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Mandalay” which is rarely read aloud simply as a poem but has been transformed into a song several times, most popularly in a rendition by Oley Speaks which was made famous by the Australian bass-baritone Peter Dawson. My first post about the poem, which includes the Dawson version, is here:


The poem is easily made into a song because it has a ballad form and was included in Kipling’s collection Barrack Room Ballads (1892): poems, all in some kind of ballad verse form, intended as accounts of the army experience during the heyday of the Victorian British empire as seen through the eyes of the common soldier. The mood of the poems is one of honoring salt of the earth types who did all the hard labor, the bleeding, and the dying to build the glorious empire, yet got none of the credit. “Mandalay” is not exactly completely in that vein but is told from the perspective of an ordinary soldier, once billeted in Burma, who remains captivated by the country in comparison with the ugliness of London. Here’s the full poem again:

BY THE old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay! “
Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay:
Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’ from Rangoon to Mandalay ?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!

‘Er petticoat was yaller an’ ‘er little cap was green,
An’ ‘er name was Supi-yaw-lat – jes’ the same as Theebaw’s Queen,
An’ I seed her first a-smokin’ of a whackin’ white cheroot,
An’ a-wastin’ Christian kisses on an ‘eathen idol’s foot:
Bloomin’ idol made o’ mud
Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd
Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed ‘er where she stud!
On the road to Mandalay…

When the mist was on the rice-fields an’ the sun was droppin’ slow,
She’d git ‘er little banjo an’ she’d sing “Kulla-lo-lo!
With ‘er arm upon my shoulder an’ ‘er cheek agin my cheek
We useter watch the steamers an’ the hathis pilin’ teak.
Elephints a-pilin’ teak
In the sludgy, squdgy creek,
Where the silence ‘ung that ‘eavy you was ‘arf afraid to speak!
On the road to Mandalay…

But that’s all shove be’ind me – long ago an’ fur away
An’ there ain’t no ‘busses runnin’ from the Bank to Mandalay;
An’ I’m learnin’ ‘ere in London what the ten-year soldier tells:
“If you’ve ‘eard the East a-callin’, you won’t never ‘eed naught else.”
No! you won’t ‘eed nothin’ else
But them spicy garlic smells,
An’ the sunshine an’ the palm-trees an’ the tinkly temple-bells;
On the road to Mandalay…

I am sick o’ wastin’ leather on these gritty pavin’-stones,
An’ the blasted English drizzle wakes the fever in my bones;
Tho’ I walks with fifty ‘ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand,
An’ they talks a lot o’ lovin’, but wot do they understand?
Beefy face an’ grubby ‘and –
Law! wot do they understand?
I’ve a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!
On the road to Mandalay…

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there ain’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst;
For the temple-bells are callin’, an’ it’s there that I would be
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea;
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay,
With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay!
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay !

In contrast to Peter Dawson’s early 20th century version, here’s Peter Bellamy’s version (1975), the entire poem (not snippets) set to a variant of the shanty tune “Ten Thousand Miles Away:”

Bellamy set many of the Barrack Room Ballads to music, and then compiled them on an album of the same name. Around this time Bellamy was an acquaintance of mine and I booked him at a folk club in Oxford. Afterwards, among other things, we talked about how he was trying to change entrenched beliefs about Kipling. At that time Kipling was largely dismissed as an old-fashioned Victorian colonial whose poem “White Man’s Burden” was seen as summing up his patriotic, ethnocentric view of Britain as the arbiter of global morality and civilization. Here’s the first stanza (try not to puke):

Take up the White Man’s burden,
Send forth the best ye breed
Go bind your sons to exile,
to serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.

This is, indeed, Kipling’s philosophy – no mistake. But we can cut him some slack. It is not the sum total of his philosophy. And . . . he was a product of his age: the Victorian Age whose industrialism, colonialism, and subsequent prosperity were generally viewed by the English well-to-do as the pinnacle of civilization. A few – a very few – were not able to turn a blind eye to the concomitant slavery, degradation and poverty of the laboring masses at home and abroad, but Kipling was not in the forefront of this movement. Nor was he in the rearguard either. He was somewhere comfortably in the middle. A nuanced reading of “Mandalay” reveals this middle position.

First we need to consider the voice of the poem. Who is talking? Is it really a demobilized British soldier or Kipling himself? I’d have to say it is a bit of both, with Kipling in the foreground. Kipling was born in India, but, as was normal for the children of British colonials, he spent from ages 5 to 16 at school in England. Then, because he lacked the academic ability to get a scholarship to Oxford, and because his parents lacked the resources, his father found him a job as a journalist in India. After a stint in India he traveled extensively on his return to England in 1889, which included his brief stay in Burma, involving his unrequited passion for the “Burma girl” he saw at the Moulmein pagoda which I mentioned in my previous post, and which is undoubtedly the underlying thread of the poem. He did also fall in love with a geisha in Japan on the same trip, so one does have to wonder how much exactly the Burma girl meant to him: enough apparently to dedicate a poem to her memory.

Let’s accept, however, for the moment, the poetic fiction that the voice of the poem is that of a British soldier yearning to be back in Burma, rather than a love-sick young journalist-cum-poet. I’ll forgive Kipling his slightly amateurish effort at conveying a Cockney accent (or whatever it is supposed to be). But . . . in the poem Kipling betrays his ignorance of Burma which he knew only slightly. For example, he calls elephants “hathis” which is the Hindi word, not the Burmese one. He talks about the “Great Gawd Budd” by which I assume he means Buddha. The fact that the Burma girl is Buddhist is fair enough; Burma is home to a long and deep tradition of Theravada Buddhism, which is strongly rooted in Mandalay. There are monks everywhere, all the time. Would a Burma girl kiss a statue of Buddha? I very much doubt it. Furthermore, the Buddha is not a god. Buddha was a man, highly venerated to be sure, but a man nonetheless. Then we come to the question of whether a Burmese woman would forsake Buddhism for a common English soldier. Here I am a little torn. It rather depends on whether you think a Burmese woman would be attracted to an Englishman (of any sort) and, if so, why she would. Furthermore, would she throw over her culture for the sake of that love? These are not easy questions to answer.

If an Englishman were simply dropped out of the sky into Burma before there was any colonial presence, or, perhaps, any knowledge of Europeans, I’d say the chances of an attraction would be minimal, but that’s just speculation. It’s not something we can know. As it is, the British army, whether officers or common soldiers, represented money and power. Money and power are attractive (to some people). There’s also got to be a fantasy element here, whether it be Kipling’s or his fictional soldier/narrator’s. Why wouldn’t a beautiful Burmese woman be mesmerized by the kisses of an Englishman?

These are just juvenile fantasies. The more troubling aspect of the poem to me is its brazen notion that Victorian England is all strait laced and Puritanical, but, Burma is free and easy going (“there ain’t no Ten Commandments). Really? Burma has no moral principles such as don’t lie or cheat, and honor your father and mother? You’d have to be blind, deaf, and stupid to think that. Of course we can soften this judgment by asserting that this is the British soldier talking and not Kipling. But you’ve got to believe that a man who can call colonized people “half-devil and half-child” does not hold a high view of the ethical strictures of their culture (no doubt bred of ignorance).

So, all right. Kudos for depicting an ordinary soldier as sensitive to the differences between London and Mandalay, and further kudos for suggesting that this soldier prefers what Burma has to offer over England. But let’s not delude ourselves into believing that what the soldier thinks Burma has to offer really exists, or is more than just a recognition of his privileged position in a colonial situation, which is much better than his status at home. London women know him for what he is, Burmese women don’t.

In my next post I’ll compare various song versions of the poem. After all, it was the song, as performed by Peter Dawson that inspired me to move here in the first place.

To be continued . . .

 Posted by at 6:50 am

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