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Rudyard Kipling’s “Mandalay” – a Personal Analysis

Poetry. Different strokes for different folks. Some write, some read, some analyse, some criticize, some contemplate, some set it to music.

Moulmein (Moulmain) Pagoda

Moulmein (Moulmain) Pagoda

The Thoughts- and Feelings-Provoking "Mandalay"

The epic “Mandalay” evokes many different thoughts and feelings in those who read it, enjoy it, and, perhaps, are touched by it. It can arouse memories of travels to exotic places in the Far East or yearnings for a simpler, laid-back life, free from stress and money worries that, for some, only exists in stories in books, movies, and poems. It can elicit calmness, thoughts of holiday romances, dreams of future travels to idyllic places, or even a wanderlust yearning to experience the pleasures of the mysterious Far Eastern lands.

It can also, for some, sadly conjure up distasteful criticisms of a bygone era of colonial wars and conquests, as stated in some other analyses, but this is not at all what the poem is about. In fact, the now British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, when he visited the Shwedagon Pagoda, in 2017, in his then role as Foreign Secretary, was heard to utter the opening lines of the poem but was swiftly silenced by the UK ambassador to Myanmar who considered it inappropriate and embarrassing. Politicizing non-political poetry is sometimes unavoidable but, for the sake of a classic poem, the main character could possibly be considered as a visiting soldier or a passing-through or policing soldier and not as a part of a suppressing force.

Moulmein from the pagoda

Moulmein from the pagoda

The Poem

The rhythm, the melody, the beat, call it what you will, is a natural gait that swings back and forth as the tale develops and stirs memories and yearning for a neater, greener land because, it says, that if the East comes calling, a person won’t heed anything else.

The poem was innocently written by Kipling from the point of view of a Victorian era British soldier who, like most people of those days, could only travel to exotic climes due to work requirements. The cockney soldier, now back in cold, dank London, is reminiscing of the time he spent in Burma (now also called Myanmar) and visited a famous landmark pagoda where he met, flirted, and had something of a romantic time with a local girl, similar to many romances between local girls and stationed soldiers all over the world. Enjoy.

An' the Dawn Comes Up Like Thunder . . .

An' the Dawn Comes Up Like Thunder . . .

"Mandalay" – A Poem by Rudyard Kipling

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 . . .

Elephints A-Pilin' Teak

Elephints A-Pilin' Teak

"Mandalay" continued . . .

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 . . .

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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 aren'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!

If You've 'Eard the East A-Callin'

If You've 'Eard the East A-Callin'

In Conclusion . . .

Kipling was born in India in the West coast city of Bombay (now Mumbai) to British parents. He was educated in England from age five and returned to India just before his seventeenth birthday to a job that his father had procured for him as assistant editor to a local newspaper in Lahore. At age twenty-three he embarked on a journey back to England and spent three days in Burma en route from East coast Calcutta (now Kolkata). It was the experience of these three days in Rangoon and Moulmein which enabled Kipling to pen Mandalay.

As is often the case, some poetic licence has clearly been utilised in the writing of the poem but, despite this fact, both modern and contemporary critics have analysed and nitpicked undeservedly. Kipling had to defend some of his choices but did relent and changed “...lookin’ Eastward at the sea...” to “...lookin’ lazy at the sea...” due to geographical criticism. However, the classic “...dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the bay!” remained, despite Moulmein being on the West coast of Burma, also being across the Bay of Bengal from India not China, and that China is too far across mountains and plains to see the dawn come up over China from Moulmein. A poem does not need to be geographically absolute in its rendering any more than a novel has to be. It is easily possible to collate various descriptions from a number of pagodas and vistas. An imaginary storyline needs imaginary-realistic settings. The readers’ imaginations bring it all together with twists, turns, hues, and colors as is appropriate to the individuals at that moment in time.

There has also been some criticism of the so-called contrived cockney wording because, although it is close, it is only close and not spot-on. But again, a poetic licence could be claimed or even that the words are not strictly bow-bells cockney but another London district accent. With this in mind, my own small criticism is that using “outer” for “out of” is not the best choice and that “outa” would be, to my mind, a better choice. But I guess that we could all nit-pick in odd places. There is also a modern lady critic who considers the “...when I kissed 'er where she stud...” as a western man taking advantage of a demure and innocent eastern beauty but I believe that nobody else supports this thought.

There is a plethora of analyses and critical discussions on the www from Wikipedia to the Kipling Society and from literary scholars to amateurs like myself. Indulge yourself. You will enjoy it.

© 2019 Stive Smyth


Nithya Venkat from Dubai on April 13, 2020:

Excellent analysis of Mandalay. It is my personal opinion that the poem is perfect, just like he wrote it.

Stive Smyth (author) from Philippines on December 12, 2019:

A really great poem John. Glad you approved.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on December 10, 2019:

Thank you for sharing Kipling’s poem Mandalay and you analysis, Stive. Kipling was one of my favourite poets and story tellers. I enjoyed this poem and it always gives one the feeling of exotic lands. I agree with the criticism of the Cockney accent portrayed, however, it just doesn’t seem right and could have been done better.

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