R Rudyard Kipling

Recessional by Rudyard Kipling

‘Recessional’ by Rudyard Kipling was written in 1897 for the Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and speaks on the state of the British Empire. 

‘Recessional’ by Rudyard Kipling is a five stanza poem that was first published in 1897 for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. The stanzas are separated into sets of six lines, or sestets. Each one of these sestets follows a structured and consistent rhyme scheme of ababcc, alternating with the poet’s choice of words throughout the text. 

A reader should take particular note of the title of this piece, “Recessional.” This word was chosen as it represents the type of poem Kipling has crafted. A recessional is a song that is played at the end of a religious service. The poem takes on this format and is quite reminiscent of a traditional English hymn. 

Recessional’ first appeared in July of 1897 in time for the end of the Diamond Jubilee. This celebration was held as Queen Victoria became the longest-reigning monarch in British history. It included a procession through London and the coming together of prime ministers and troops from all parts of the Empire. 

Recessional by Rudyard Kipling


Summary of Recessional 

Recessional’ by Rudyard Kipling was written in 1897 for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and speaks on the state of the British Empire.

The poem begins with the speaker stating that there have been many battles fought by Britain. This is a fact that he believes all British people should remember and hold in their hearts. No one should forget that God saw them through dark times and brought them triumphantly into the light. 

As the poem continues the speaker flushes out his concerns about the state of the Empire. He is worried that the nation is becoming complacent and forgetful of the love they owe God. The speaker outlines what might happen to the empire if the British people continue on this path and concludes by asking God to have mercy on his people. 


Analysis of Recessional

Stanza One 

God of our fathers, known of old,

Lord of our far-flung battle-line,

Beneath whose awful Hand we hold

Dominion over palm and pine—

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,

Lest we forget—lest we forget!

In the first stanza of ‘Recessional’, the speaker begins by directing his words to God. Just as would be one in a traditional hymn, the speaker is asking God to look down on him, and the entirety of the British Empire and care for them. 

God is spoken of as being the place from which “our fathers” came from. He is the “Lord” on all of the “far-flung” battlefields on which the empire is fighting. The speaker feels as if the British people do, or at least should, hold a special place in God’s hands. It is “Beneath” this “awful,” or powerful, “Hand” which the British are able to maintain their empire. 

In the next set of lines, the speaker asks that humankind, or at least the British, remember that God has “Dominion over palm and pine.” There is nothing God does not touch; a fact which should not be forgotten. This is emphasized in the concluding couplet of this section in which the speaker emphasizes how one must always remember God and the part he plays in one’s life. 

Within this couplet, there is the phrase, “Lest we forget!” This short piece of the text comes directly from the Bible where it appears in  Deuteronomy 6,12. The couple also acts as a refrain, appearing at the end of the first, second, third, and fourth stanzas. 


Stanza Two 

The tumult and the shouting dies;

The Captains and the Kings depart:

Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,

An humble and a contrite heart.

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,

Lest we forget—lest we forget!

In the next stanza of ‘Recessional, the speaker begins by describing how even when the battle is not being waged, when the “tumult and the shouting” has died down, that there is no reason to forget God. The sacrifice made by God “Still stands” in these moments. 

The “Captains and the Kings” might depart, leaving one to contend with the mundane reality of life, but that is no reason to change one’s attitude toward God. Just as in the first stanza, the refrain is added in the last two lines of this section as well.


Stanza Three 

Far-called, our navies melt away;

On dune and headland sinks the fire:

Lo, all our pomp of yesterday

Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,

Lest we forget—lest we forget!

In the third stanza, the speaker moves to describe the military force of the Empire in more detail. Since the greatest battles faced by the British have ended, and there is no great need for such military strength, the “navies” are seen to melt away. This is something the speaker sees as a mistake. He believes deeply in the British Empire and would want to maintain it at all costs.

The “pomp” which once accompanied Britain’s military strength has faded, as did that of the cities “Nineveh and Tyre.” This is a reference to two cities, the first in ancient Mesopotamia and the other of ancient Lebanon, which were defeated after lowering their defenses. 

These lines are followed once more by the refrain asking the British people not to forget who they are, the power of God, and the strength of the Empire. 


Stanza Four

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose

Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,

Such boastings as the Gentiles use,

Or lesser breeds without the Law—

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,

Lest we forget—lest we forget!

The fourth stanza, the last of which contains the two-line ending refrain, speaks on how if the nation becomes too complacent they might be defeated. 

The speaker poses the following possibility, that Britain and her people become “drunk with sight of power” and forget to thank God for what they have. Their tongues will be “Wild” with “boastings.” The British people will resemble those “lesser breeds,” a reference to the nations conquered by Britain. This incredibly imperialistic comment is not unusual within Kipling’s work. The later parts of his life are scattered with such beliefs. 


Stanza Five

For heathen heart that puts her trust

In reeking tube and iron shard,

All valiant dust that builds on dust,

And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,

For frantic boast and foolish word—

Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!

In the final stanza of ‘Recessional’, the speaker concludes his argument for the continued strength of the country. He is very worried about what is to come in the future and he fears the “heathen heart” which is content to “trust / In reeking tube and iron shard.” These physical parts of the world are not that which should garner one’s faith. It is God who one should worship. 

In the final lines, the speaker calls on God to have mercy on “Thy People, Lord!” He hopes God will hear him and take pity on the British people who he sees as having fallen out of God’s favor. 

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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.
  • Bill Leaver says:

    Not one for dissecting poetry.
    Nearly 60 years ago I was in trouble with my high school english teacher when I argued that it matters not what Shakespeare “was saying” when he wrote a particular line it only matters what I hear and understand it too mean.
    The line
    “Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice”
    Too me what this is saying is that after the battles end, after all the carry-on about glory etc, the “sacrifice” of those killed remains. I am not saying the views on this page are wrong because as I have said it’s what each individual hears that matters.

    • Emma Baldwin says:

      Thank you for your comment, Bill! We completely agree.

      I appreciate your analysis of the line, “Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice.” It is certainly valid.

    • Gerald Mill says:

      Consider this Bill, if I intently communicate a concept that will help you differentiate the difference between Meniere’s disease and an acoustic tumor and you choose to attach your own meaning or understanding to my expressions I certainly wouldn’t want you to be the head and neck physician caring for my mother. But you say, “it is only Shakspearian poetry” or some other form of literature.
      Can you see how narrow our understanding of the universe would be if we never understand or care to understand another’s viewpoint or “truth”? What if Shakespear was attempting to teach his peers or constituents important principles that would possibly if not probably, enrich their lives and they could not get past their own meanings about his prose or poetry. How would we ever be able to agree or disagree with Shakespear’s precepts if we could not or maybe, would not understand the points he (or anyone else) was expressing. Just because we understand another’s truths doesn’t mean we have to accept them as our own and maybe that is your salient point. Much more to say but hopefully, my meaning is clear enough. Well, just another man’s view.

      G. P. Mill

  • Different interpretation:
    Kipling fears that his country is losing a humble and contrite heart, that they may become drunk with power and wild boasting. He asks God to show mercy on them by reminding them that frantic boast and foolish word is not appropriate for a nation under God, that their empire is still accountable to the natural law.

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      I really like this alternative view of the poem.

      • Roger Hird says:

        This is how I have always understood this poem, too.

        • Lee-James Bovey says:

          haha. Always good to reach a consensus!

  • >

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