‘Mesopotamia‘ by Rudyard Kipling is a six stanza poem that is made up of sets of four lines, or quatrains. Every other line of each one of these stanzas rhymes, creating a consistent, measured scheme that carries the reader easily from beginning to end.
To fully understand this piece some background on the conflict in Mesopotamia in 1917 is needed.
After Turkey entered into WWI in 1914 the British immediately moved to protect their oil interests in Mesopotamia or present-day Iraq. The general presumption of the fighting abilities of the Turkish troops was low, and this estimate was initially proven right. The conditions soon changed though as the British suffered a horrific defeat at the Battle of Ctesiphon. More than half their ranks were either wounded or killed: some 4,500 soldiers.
Their luck did not change as the Turkish troops surrounded the city into which the British had fallen back, Kut-al-Amara. The British did not have time to act on the advice of the Cabinet to withdraw from that area.
The siege on the city lasted 147 days before the British and Indian troops inside surrendered. The remaining soldiers were eventually made to march to prisoner-of-war camps in Anatolia. They were treated brutally and by the time they made it to their destination, 4,250 men had died, out of the 11,800 who had left Kut-al-Amara.
The poem begins with the speaker describing the loss of the men in Mesopotamia in the first two lines of each stanza. He describes the fact that there is no place or time on Earth in which these “whole-hearted” and “eager” men shall be returned to “us.” They were given up by the British government and military, without a second thought. Additionally, within the first stanzas, the speaker asks whether the men responsible for this loss will be held to account for it, or if they will go unpunished.
In the second half of the poem, the speaker begins to direct his questions to the reader. He wants to know if the public will be able to keep up the outrage that “we” feel over what has happened, or if these emotions will pass without consequence.
Analysis of Mesopotamia
They shall not return to us, the resolute, the young,
The eager and whole-hearted whom we gave:
But the men who left them thriftily to die in their own dung,
Shall they come with years and honour to the grave?
In the first stanza of the piece, the speaker begins by remembering the young men who gave their lives in Mesopotamia. These men were “resolute…young / ….eager and whole-hearted.” They were the best “we” had to offer and they were given up to “die in their own dung.” As is often the case in war, those who make the decisions, and choose who to send into battle feel none of the impact of the horror. The men were left to die, “thriftily” unprepared for the dangers they were going to face, and lacking the proper resources.
In the last line of the quatrain, the speaker asks whether the men who sent the soldiers to their deaths will be buried with “honour.” It is most likely that the answer to this question is yes.
They shall not return to us, the strong men coldly slain
In sight of help denied from day to day:
But the men who edged their agonies and chid them in their pain,
Are they too strong and wise to put away?
In the second stanza, the speaker continues to describe those that Britain has lost. They were “strong men” who were “coldly slain.” They never received the help that they so desperately needed. It is likely that at this point the speaker is referring to the is a siege on Kut-al-Amara and the fact that there were no reinforcements or help given to the men trapped inside the city.
Once more the second two lines are used to speak of the men who sent the soldiers to this place, the generals, politicians, and would-be leaders of Britain. The speaker asks if these men, those who do not suffer for what they have done, are “too strong and wise” to do so.
Our dead shall not return to us while Day and Night divide—
Never while the bars of sunset hold.
But the idle-minded overlings who quibbled while they died,
Shall they thrust for high employments as of old?
Once more the narrator follows the same line pattern as in the previous two stanzas. The first two lines refer to the soldiers and what they suffered, and the second, to those that caused the suffering.
The speaker mourns the death of those who are lost and tells his readers that there is no way that “Our dead shall not return to us while” there is still a separation between night and day. They will only be seen again in a world that is beyond earthly division. This is a reference both to the realities of the world and to the division between soldiers and their commanders.
The second two lines, which speak on those commanders ask if they, the “idle-minded overlings” who were unable to make rational decisions while the soldiers were still alive, will maintain their “high employment.” Will the commanders of the army be as revered as they were before Mesopotamia happened?
Shall we only threaten and be angry for an hour?
When the storm is ended shall we find
How softly but how swiftly they have sidled back to power
By the favour and contrivance of their kind?
In the fourth stanza, the speaker changes his pattern. He addresses the audience, asking his readers directly if “we” will only be angry “for an hour.” Will, when the “storm is ended,” the men who caused it to be “sidled back” into power?
Will these men once more be the beneficiaries of the “contrivance[s] of their kind?” In short, the speaker wants to know whether once the public’s outrage over what happened in Mesopotamia has passed, if the men who caused it will easily regain the footing they lost in the public’s eye. He deeply hopes this will not be the case.
Even while they soothe us, while they promise large amends,
Even while they make a show of fear,
Do they call upon their debtors, and take counsel with their friends,
To conform and re-establish each career?
The next stanza continues in the same vein. These men, behind “our” backs, as they making promises and “amends,” are secretly calling on their friends and “debtors” to reconfirm their careers. Nothing that these people say can be trusted, they feel no shame or remorse over what happened, just concern for their own careers.
Their lives cannot repay us—their death could not undo—
The shame that they have laid upon our race.
But the slothfulness that wasted and the arrogance that slew,
Shall we leave it unabated in its place?
The lives that these men of the military and government leaders, will not “repay us” for what has been lost. Nothing they can do, no good works or efforts, can make up for the losses in Mesopotamia. Neither, the speaker states, would their “death[s]…undo” what has been done. There is nothing that can remove the “shame…they have laid upon our race.”
Not only is the speaker feeling the pointless loss of so many of his countrymen, but he is also mourning that that loss is now the face of Britain.
In the final two lines, he once more directly reaches out to his readers and asks whether “we” will let the “arrogance” that killed these men go. Will “we leave it unabated,” and not force the commanders, generals, and politicians to pay some price for it?
About Rudyard Kipling
Rudyard Kipling was born in Bombay, India in 1865 to parents that were connected to the arts community. The first years of Kipling’s life were spent in India, years that Kipling would describe as “paradise.” In 1878, Kipling began his schooling at the United Services College in Devon, England.
Kipling would leave his school in 1882 to join his father in India and begin his journalism career. As well as spending the next five years as the assistant editor for the Civil and Military Gazette, he would publish his first collection of poetry, Departmental Ditties.
He would finish a number of other collections before returning to England in 1889 to further pursue his writing career. He found great success there and would spend the last years of his life in Burwash, Sussex.
In 1907, Kipling won the Nobel Prize for Literature and he is best known for his work concerning British imperialism.