Saturday, 28 July 2018

Mandalay (by Rudyard Kipling)

By Rudyard Kipling



















Read by Charles Dance at the 70th Anniversary 'Victory Over Japan' Day Commemorations


I've long been a Kipling fan, without any one of his poems leaping out at me. Kipling was a complex and brilliant writer, possibly the greatest phrase-turner since Shakespeare. Nobody could doubt his grip of rhyme, rhythm, and meter either, but at the same time the so-called 'vulgar' 'vitality' of his poems meant critics have struggled to classify him as a poet.

T.S.Elliot talked about Kipling writing more 'verse' than poetry, and Orwell called him a Good bad poet. Reading his poems you know what they meant, Kipling wrote with immediate, crude force - both serious and vivid, designed to hit home rather than ascend to fine art. His poems are a fiercely individual voice, whether his own, or representing a private British soldier, giving an experience or view intensely felt, and so stick in the mind longer than many more refined, delicate works.

On Kipling's politics one can't beat around the bush. He was a Tory supporter of late 19th Century British Imperialism, specifically as a civilising mission. He was also, in Orwell's words, neither a "yes-man or a time-server", and from the perspective of someone born 'out there' in the Empire, a bitter critic of Britain's government, its home population, and their failure to understand what Empire actually involved, particularly for the soldiers who had to defend it.

The British Empire was not what Kipling imagined it to be. But his own work was often too honest and concrete, even brutal and pessimistic, and in its own way sympathetic, to back up his personal enthusiasm. Even his most jingoist poems like The White Man's Burden sounds more like a warning of what a Vietnam or Iraq would turn into than a starry-eyed rhapsody about the joys of colonialism. He was an Imperialist but no bigot, without hatred or contempt for non-white peoples, and, for example, spoke far more harshly about the evil of German militarism than anyone the British fought in the Empire, and at the same time with real sympathy for the world he knew 'East of Suez'. Reading Kipling one has to disagree with his conclusions, but almost never feel like he is just lying about how the world is.

Most of his work is not pushing politics though, but describing an experience. It can exist on its own, regardless of the views of the man who wrote it. He does this with great artistic force, which can feel like it expresses us better than we can express ourselves, even if it literally describes a situation we've not known, in a place we've never been.

The video above is from the 70th Victory over Japan Day commemorations, with Charles Dance reading Mandalay, one of Kipling's most famous and beautiful poems, about a Victorian soldier remembering a love he left in Burma. Some of the lines are near perfectly, balanced, memorable and vivid. Unlike some poetry Kipling often comes across better heard aloud than on the written page. Charles Dance brings it alive, he doesn't just read it, he acts it out, and the result is like the difference between Shakespeare on the page and seeing it performed live. The music and setting just gently adds to this. It describes a world that no longer exists, but still speaks familiarly of loneliness, loss, love, joy remembered, new places and wonders experienced, and choices or changes we desperately wish we could make not so, but know we can't.

In the text I give below I have changed the semi-phonetic cockney slang Kipling wrote it in to standard English. For me at least, I agree with Orwell, that this makes it yet more beautiful, and easier to absorb and appreciate. Dance's accent in the video gives the sense of how Kipling intended it without needing the phonetic spelling, and the original version with "the aitches carefully dropped and final 'g's omitted" can be found here. (There is also a charming folk song version put to concertina by Peter Bellamy in the 1970s on youtube here.)



By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea,
There's a Burma girl a-sitting, and I know she thinks of 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 hear their paddles chunking from Rangoon to Mandalay ?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flying-fishes play,
And the dawn comes up like thunder out of China across the Bay!

Her petticoat was yellow and her little cap was green,
And her name was Supi-yaw-lat - just the same as Theebaw's Queen,
And I seen her first a-smoking of a whacking white cheroot,
And a-wasting Christian kisses on an heathen idol's foot:
Blooming idol made o' mud
What they called the Great God Budd
Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed her where she stood!
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flying-fishes play,
And the dawn comes up like thunder out of China across the Bay!

When the mist was on the rice-fields and the sun was dropping slow,
She'd get her little banjo and she'd sing "Kulla-lo-lo!
With her arm upon my shoulder and her cheek against my cheek
We used to watch the steamers and the hathis piling teak.
Elephants a-pulling teak
In the sludgy, squdgy creek,
Where the silence hung that heavy you was half afraid to speak!
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flying-fishes play,
And the dawn comes up like thunder out of China across the Bay!

But that's all shoved behind me - long ago and far away
And there ain't no busses running from the Bank to Mandalay;
And I'm learning here in London what the ten-year soldier tells:
"If you've heard the East a-calling, you won't never heed naught else."
No! you won't heed nothing else
But them spicy garlic smells,
And the sunshine and the palm-trees and the tinkly temple-bells;
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flying-fishes play,
And the dawn comes up like thunder out of China across the Bay!

I am sick of wasting leather on these gritty paving-stones,
And the blasted English drizzle wakes the fever in my bones;
Though I walks with fifty housemaids out of Chelsea to the Strand,
And they talks a lot of loving, but what do they understand?
Beefy face and grubby and -
Lord! what do they understand?
I've a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flying-fishes play,
And the dawn comes up like thunder out of China across the Bay!

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren't no Ten Commandments and a man can raise a thirst;
For the temple-bells are calling, and 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 flying-fishes play,
And the dawn comes up like thunder out of China across the Bay!


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