Rudyard Kipling


Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling was an incredibly popular English poet.

His writing is read around the world and studied in classrooms in multiple languages.

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‘Mandalay,’ also known as ‘The Road to Mandalay,’ was written in 1890 and published two years later in Barrack-Room Ballads, and Other Verses. Kipling sets the poem in colonial Burma, which was at the time the poem was written, part of British India. Narrative in style, the poem follows a cockney soldier who, after returning to London, recalls the times he spent in Bruma alongside a woman he loved. “Mandalay” refers to the capital city of Burma. It is one of several allusions in the text to that area, the Burmese royal family, and more. 

The poem was set to music in 1907 by Oley Speaks. This led to its greater popularization, especially considering that Frank Sinatra sang the lyrics. Critics have varying opinions on ‘Mandalay’ as a poem due to the prevailing romanticization of colonialism. No matter one’s opinion of the content, the fact that Kipling wrote it when he was only twenty-four years old is an accomplishment in itself. It was inspired by the seven years he spent in India and his journey home through Calcutta and Japan. When asked about the poem, he stated that he was struck by the beauty of the Burmese women. 

Mandalay by Rudyard Kipling


Summary of Mandalay 

‘Mandalay’ by Rudyard Kipling features the reminiscences of a soldier looking back on his time in Burma alongside a woman he loved.

The stanzas of this poem are fairly straightforward as the speaker walks the reader through the moments surrounding his encounter with a specific woman. He met her in Burma, and now after he’s left, he’s longing for her. The soldier describes his distaste for London and the simple fact that he’d like to be somewhere else, somewhere unfamiliar and exotic. Throughout the poem, Kipling makes references to people and places as well as customs in Burma that his speaker familiarized himself with. This helps create a very specific atmosphere for his memories and allows them to contrast well against the soldier’s present home. 


Themes in Mandalay 

Depending on who is reading ‘Mandalay,’ different themes might seem the most prominent. Some of the most important are colonialism, romance, and nostalgia. Nostalgia is perhaps the most obvious of these, alongside romance. He makes these two features of the poem clear right from the start. It is centered around experience from the past and his desire to get back there, a very simple and traditional setup for the poem. Kipling changes things around a little with the unusual settings, Burma and London, and with the use of dialects. 

When read in a contemporary context, the lines of ‘Mandalay’ are not quite so romantic as they seemed when it was first written. Now, as in other poems, Kipling’s colonialist view on Burma, and those living in what was then British India, seems demeaning, simplified, and patriarchal at times. 


Structure and Form 

‘Mandalay’ by Rudyard Kipling is a six-stanza poem that is separated into sets of either eight or ten lines. The first and last stanzas have ten, while the middle four stanzas have only eight, making them octaves. Each stanza contains perfect rhymes following a pattern that changes. The first stanza rhymes AABBBBBBBB while the second stanza rhymes AABBCCCD. The poem has features of a ballad but does not directly conform to the pattern. The lines are written in trochaic octameters, which means that each line is made up of eight sets of two beats, the first of which is stressed and the second unstressed. 


Literary Devices 

Kipling makes use of several literary devices in ‘Mandalay.’ These include but are not limited to dialect, alliteration, allusion, and enjambment. The latter is one of the most important formal techniques poets can use in their work. It is seen in the transitions between lines five and six of the second stanza as well as lines three and four of the sixth stanza. 

Alliteration is another formal device. It is concerned with the use and reuse of words beginning with the same consonant sound. For example, “lookin’” and “lazy” in line one of the first stanza and “whackin’” and “white” in line three of the second stanza. 

Allusions can be found throughout this poem as Kipling’s speaker relates his experiences in Burma. There are specific place names, references to the Burmese royalty, and various cultural practices. Kipling’s use of dialect is also a form of allusion in that it provides readers with details about the poem that aren’t directly stated. The soldier has a Cockney accent, suggesting that the speaker might be from the East-End of London. 


Analysis, Stanza by Stanza

The Title  – ‘The Road to Mandalay’

Before beginning this piece, readers should consider the title. The poem’s full title, ‘The Road to Mandalay,’ refers to a “roadstead,”, shortened down from the “Road” in the title. This is a nautical term, sometimes called ‘steads’ used to refer to bodies of water in which ships could use anchor safely. They were sheltered there from rip currents and tides.


Stanza One 

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!

In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker begins by looking into his past, to a place he used to visit in Burma, the Moulmein Pagoda. There, he knows, is a beautiful girl who is pining after him just like he is pining after her. Kipling uses a great deal of repetition in these lines, with the word “Mandalay” ending several lines and rhyming with many more. This creates the feeling of a song, one that the Burmese woman sings while she thinks of her lost love. It is also clear from these first lines that the speaker has a very idealistic view of Burma in comparison to London. 

Readers will also immediately take note of the use of a specific dialect in these lines. Kipling was trying to channel a Cockney accent for the soldier and a Burmese accent for the women, which in some places is more effective than in others. 

There is also a good example of a simile in the last line of the stanza when the poet compares “dawn” and the rise of the sun to “thunder.” 


Stanza Two 

‘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…

In the second stanza, the dialect is a lot stronger than in the first. Here, it takes some deciphering to figure out what exactly the speaker is saying. It often helps to read lines like this out loud. He is reminiscing on the first time that he saw his Burmese girlfriend. She was “smokin’…white cherroot” while “a-wastin’ Christian kisses on an ‘eathen idol’s foot.” Through these lines, the reader will likely envision this woman as someone simple whose religious practices are quite different from those of the soldier or the writer. 


Stanza Three 

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…

The third stanza provides more details in regard to Kipling’s perceptions of Burma and his soldier’s experiences. He describes the woman he met there in simple terms, all of which must’ve seemed endearing at the time. Now, much of it seems patronizing and like stereotyping. Despite this, there are some more romantic moments. Such as when the two are sitting side by side watching the steamers in the water. There are also good examples of imagery in these lines. For example, “In the sludgy, squdgy creek, / Where the silence ‘ung that ‘eavy you was ‘arf afraid to speak!”


Stanza Four 

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…

Unfortunately for this soldier, everything he’s described in the previous two stanzas is in the past. His “girl” is far from him, and Mandalay is in the past. It’s “long ago an’ fur away,” he says. One of the soldier’s main lessons in life, which he conveys to readers in the fourth stanza, is that anything you need to know can be learned in the east. You “won’t never ‘eed naught else.” 

The last line of this stanza seems particularly effective as it drifts off with the ellipse.


Stanza Five 

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…

The fifth stanza is the last of those, which contains only eight lines. In it, he takes an angrier tone. He expresses his exasperation at the fact that he’s stuck in the “English drizzle” in London with people who don’t understand “lovin’.” The “‘ousemads” who walk “outer Chelsea to the Strand” don’t know anything about the love and passion he felt. The use of the dash at the end of line five in this stanza helps to convey his tone. 


Stanza Six 

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!
O the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay !

He asks anyone who is listening, in the sixth stanza, to take him away from London and all of England to anywhere “east of Suez.” He wants to return to a place in which the people live far different lives than he does. Where there “aren’t no Ten Commandments” and men do as they please. He speaks again about the “Moulmein Pagoda” and “Mandalay.” Kipling also repeats his use of repetition in these lines. It is similar to what he accomplished with the rhyme scheme in the first stanza. 

The poem concludes with the speaker throwing a few more images at the reader, completing an emotional picture of Mandalay, at least to the speaker’s eyes. 


Similar Poems

Readers who enjoyed ‘Mandalay’ should also consider reading some of Kipling’s best-known works. These include ‘If—,’ The Glory of the Garden,and Gunga Din.’ The latter especially has several similarities to ‘Mandalay.’ Other related poems not by Kipling are ‘Nostalgia’ by Carol Ann Duffy, ‘Family House’ by Gillian Clarke, and ‘A Drink of Water’ by Seamus Heaney. The first of these, Nostalgia,’ is an interesting addition to this list as it details the creation of the word “nostalgia” following the crusades of 17th-century Swiss mercenaries.

Enjoy Rudyard Kipling poetry?

If you liked ‘Mandalay’, explore the Top 10 poems by Rudyard Kipling, chosen by the team of poetry experts at Poem Analysis.
Top 10 Rudyard Kipling Poems

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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