‘Gunga Din’ is one of Kipling’s best-known poems. It features two characters, the speaker who is a white British soldier fighting in India, and Gunga Din, an Indian water carrier who is beaten and abused by the soldiers. The poem was published along with poems like ‘Mandalay’ and ‘Danny Deever’ in Barrack-Room Ballads. In this poem, the poet touches on important and controversial themes of perception, race, war, and life/death.
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Summary of Gunga Din
In the first lines of this poem the speaker addresses the nature of serving in India. This includes the heat, the atmosphere, war, and those he spent time with. There was one person specifically that sticks out in his mind from this experience, Gunga Din.
He was an Indian man working with the English soldiers. This brave and much-maligned man was responsible for bringing water to the soldiers whenever they needed it. These men, including the speaker, beat and mistreated Gunga Din.
Everything changed when the speaker was shot on the battlefield. Gunga Din came to him, gave him water, and helped staunch his wound. It was this kindness and the fact that Gunga Din died for the efforts that changed the speaker’s opinion of him.
Structure of Gunga Din
‘Gunga Din’ by Rudyard Kipling is an eighty-four line narrative poem that is separated into five seventeen line stanzas. The lines follow a loose rhyme scheme of AABCCBDDEFFEFFGGF. There are moments where the pattern changes slight with the pronunciation of “Din”. Kipling wrote the poem so that sometimes the word should be pronounced to rhyme with “Queen” and other times to rhymes with “been”.
Upon starting this piece a reader will immediately take note of the use of language and the dialect used by the speaker. Words are shorted and a great deal of slang is used. This often makes some sections of the poem harder to interpret than others. When reading this kind of poetry it is always helpful to speak out loud, one word often flows more easily into the next.
Poetic Techniques in Gunga Din
Kipling makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Gunga Din’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, repetition, and imagery. The first of these, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “will,” “work,” and “water” in line five of the first stanza and “day” and “done” in line two of the third stanza.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transitions between lines one and two of the fourth stanza and lines seven and eight of the fifth stanza.
Repetition is the use and reuse of a specific technique, word, tone, or phrase within a poem. For example, the repetition of Gunga Din’s name. It is used frequently, appearing at the ends of multiple lines (a technique known as epistrophe) and used as a refrain.
Imagery refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. Traditionally, the word “image” is related to visual sights, things that a reader can imagine seeing, but imagery is much more than that. It is something one can sense with their five senses. This particular poem is crammed full of image-rich lines. For example, that of the water towards the end of the poem. The speaker describes it as “water green. / It was crawlin’ and it stunk”.
Analysis of Gunga Din
You may talk o’ gin and beer
When you’re quartered safe out ’ere,
An’ you’re sent to penny-fights an’ Aldershot it;
But when it comes to slaughter
You will do your work on water,
An’ you’ll lick the bloomin’ boots of ’im that’s got it.
Now in Injia’s sunny clime,
Where I used to spend my time
A-servin’ of ’Er Majesty the Queen,
In the first stanza of ‘Gunga Din,’ the speaker begins by addressing the audience. He tells them that as a soldier it’s possible to drink “gin and beer” when you’re safe and when you’re participating in “penny-fights,” or small fights. But, when it’s slaughter, things change. There is no time to relax then, nor are there any pleasurable drinks to be had. Instead, you have to submit on water. There is where Gunga Din is going to come into the story.
In the seventh line of this stanza the speaker, who throughout the poem speaks in a dialect that is often hard to interpret, uses the word “Injia” to refer to India. He is there, along with his English comrades, fighting for “‘Er” or “her” Majesty the Queen.
Of all them blackfaced crew
The finest man I knew
Was our regimental bhisti, Gunga Din,
He was ‘Din! Din! Din!
‘You limpin’ lump o’ brick-dust, Gunga Din!
‘Hi! Slippy hitherao
‘Water, get it! Panee lao,
‘You squidgy-nosed old idol, Gunga Din.’
This man expresses several opinions throughout this poem, whiling using phrases and words, that are uncomfortable for modern readers. His language is derogatory towards the Indian people and Gunga Din specifically. He calls them the “blackfaced crew”. They were the Indians that worked alongside the English and this poem is about one of them whose job it was to carry water, Gunga Din. He is a “bhisti,” or water carrier. The man was always around doing his job and suffering alongside the soldiers. His strength, good nature, perseverance, and patience are ignored by the English.
The English soldiers take out their anger, frustrations, and fears on this man. They call him names, insult him, beat him, and generally treat him as a slave. They call him names like those listed in the last four lines of his stanza, “limpin’ lump o’ brick-dust” is one example. The perfect rhymes in these lines are disconcerting. They feel upbeat and song-like and do not match the dark and fearful imagery that the speaker is depicting.
The uniform ’e wore
Was nothin’ much before,
An’ rather less than ’arf o’ that be’ind,
For a piece o’ twisty rag
An’ a goatskin water-bag
Was all the field-equipment ’e could find.
When the sweatin’ troop-train lay
In a sidin’ through the day,
Where the ’eat would make your bloomin’ eyebrows crawl,
We shouted ‘Harry By!’
Till our throats were bricky-dry,
Then we wopped ’im ’cause ’e couldn’t serve us all.
It was ‘Din! Din! Din!
‘You ’eathen, where the mischief ’ave you been?
‘You put some juldee in it
‘Or I’ll marrow you this minute
‘If you don’t fill up my helmet, Gunga Din!’
In the second stanza of this troubling poem, the speaker goes into more detail about Gunga Din. This shows, at the very least, that he has taken notice of him for more than what he can provide or as an outlet for anger. The Indian water carrier doesn’t really have a uniform nor does he have any equipment. He carries a simple “piece o’ twisty rag” and “a goatskin water-bag”. These things weren’t even given to him, he had to “find” them.
The speaker remembers how on days where everyone was laying around in the sun, suffering from the heat, that they’d shout at Gunga Din to bring them water. They’d say “Harry-By!” Till their “throats were bricky-dry”. He’d move as quickly as he could but still, they’d hit him and insult him because he didn’t move fast enough. The repetition of the phrase “Din! Din! Din!” is a haunting addition to these stanzas. It is a refrain that appears at the end of each.
The men would shout things out at Gunga Din. They’d call him a “‘eathen” or “heathen” and threaten him with violence. Kipling uses other techniques in this poem, such as alliteration, to make these lines feel all the more connected. For example, “marrow” and “minute” in the sixteenth line of this stanza.
’E would dot an’ carry one
Till the longest day was done;
An’ ’e didn’t seem to know the use o’ fear.
If we charged or broke or cut,
You could bet your bloomin’ nut,
’E’d be waitin’ fifty paces right flank rear.
With ’is mussick on ’is back,
’E would skip with our attack,
An’ watch us till the bugles made ‘Retire,’
An’ for all ’is dirty ’ide
’E was white, clear white, inside
When ’e went to tend the wounded under fire!
It was ‘Din! Din! Din!’
With the bullets kickin’ dust-spots on the green.
When the cartridges ran out,
You could hear the front-ranks shout,
‘Hi! ammunition-mules an’ Gunga Din!’
Poor Gunga Din would do his job no matter the circumstances. He’d walk onto the battlefield with the soldiers without fear. The bullets and fighting were nothing to him. The speaker notices, at least looking back on the past, that he didn’t “seem to know the use o’ fear”. He was always fifty paces or so right behind them ready to bring water if they needed it.
In the middle of this stanza, there is one of the darker more troubling lines that often appear within Kipling’s poems. The speaker, in a racist attempt at a compliment, refers to Gunga Din have a “dirty hide” but a “clean white, inside”. This is meant to show that he’s just as good as the white men are, on the inside anyway.
As the shots were falling everywhere and cartridges were running out the men would call out for “Din!”
I shan’t forgit the night
When I dropped be’ind the fight
With a bullet where my belt-plate should ’a’ been.
I was chokin’ mad with thirst,
An’ the man that spied me first
Was our good old grinnin’, gruntin’ Gunga Din.
’E lifted up my ’ead,
An’ he plugged me where I bled,
An’ ’e guv me ’arf-a-pint o’ water green.
It was crawlin’ and it stunk,
But of all the drinks I’ve drunk,
I’m gratefullest to one from Gunga Din.
It was ‘Din! Din! Din!
‘’Ere’s a beggar with a bullet through ’is spleen;
‘’E’s chawin’ up the ground,
‘An’ ’e’s kickin’ all around:
‘For Gawd’s sake git the water, Gunga Din!’
It is in the fourth stanza of the poem that the speaker explains why things changed for him. He used to hate and pick on Gunga Din like the rest of them but finally, he saw through clear eyes. The man was shot. A bullet when where his “belt-plate should ‘a’ been”. He was suffering, mad with thirst, and the first person who found him was “Gunga Din”.
Rather than passing him by in revenge for the way he had been treated, Gunga Din stops and helps the soldier. Gunga Din was smiling and lifted the soldier’s head to give him water. He helped the man with his wound. The soldier’s gratitude is seen through his willingness to drink the “water green” that in other circumstances would’ve been unbearable.
’E carried me away
To where a dooli lay,
An’ a bullet come an’ drilled the beggar clean.
’E put me safe inside,
An’ just before ’e died,
‘I ’ope you liked your drink,’ sez Gunga Din.
So I’ll meet ’im later on
At the place where ’e is gone—
Where it’s always double drill and no canteen.
’E’ll be squattin’ on the coals
Givin’ drink to poor damned souls,
An’ I’ll get a swig in hell from Gunga Din!
Yes, Din! Din! Din!
You Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din!
Though I’ve belted you and flayed you,
By the livin’ Gawd that made you,
You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!
In the fifth stanza, it is revealed that Gunga Din was hit by a bullet while he was attempting to save this soldier’s life. He carried the man away and a “bullet come an’ drilled the beggar clean”. Still, he pulled the speaker inside. The last thing that Gunga Din said was that he hoped the soldier “liked” his “drink”. Gunga Din died, leaving the soldier with this memory and a changed opinion of the man and his own actions.
The last lines outline a future life where he will meet Gunga Din again. Together they’ll sit by the fire again and he’ll get another drink from him. The last lines are the best-remembered of all eight-four. In them, the soldier admits his faults and declares that Gunga Din had always been a better man than him.