In ‘The Undertaker’s Horse’ Kipling addresses themes of death, the afterlife, and fear. The poem’s atmosphere is dark, the mood and tone are concerned and at times fearful. Kipling uses the horse in this poem as a symbol of death. It seems to follow him everywhere he goes and he can’t get the sound of its hooves on the ground out of his head.
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Summary of The Undertaker’s Horse
In the first lines of ‘The Undertaker’s Horse’ the speaker describes the horse, the emotions he feels when he sees it, and how no matter what he does it appears to be unavoidable. The horse is always in town, with the undertaker’s children at its side. Whenever he sees it he can’t help but give meaning to the sound of its hoofbeats. They call to him, or anyone, trying to suss out who will be next to meet death.
As the poem progresses the speaker considers the future and the possibility that he might outlive this particular horse, or escape death in some way. This is very unlikely. He adds that no matter what he writes (such as this very poem) nothing is going to change. The horse’s hooves and their rhythm are still going to be at his heels, death will continue to haunt him.
Structure of The Undertaker’s Horse
‘The Undertaker’s Horse’ by Rudyard Kipling is an eight stanza poem that is separated into sets of six lines, known as sextets. The lines also follow a very structured rhyme scheme of AABCCB, changing sounds from stanza to stanza.
Throughout the poem, Kipling makes use of different kinds of end-punctuation and line breaks. The lines vary from being full end-stopped with periods and exclamation marks, to enjambed, and to those ending with commas, dashes, and colons. Several of the lines are in quotes, denoting dialogue. The phrase “O Undertaker’s Horse!” is repeated a few times in the poem, acting as a refrain and bringing the reader back to the main subject of the poem.
Readers should also take note of the epigraph that comes before the first stanza of the poem. It is a Japanese proverb that reads “To-tschin-shu is condemned to death. How can he drink tea with the Executioner?”
Poetic Techniques in The Undertaker’s Horse
Kipling makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘The Undertaker’s Horse’. These include, but are not limited to, anaphora, alliteration, enjambment, and imagery. Anaphora is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This technique is often used to create emphasis. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation. In the case of ‘The Undertaker’s Horse,’ there is a great example in the first stanza. “And” begins three of the six lines. In stanza seven, “See” starts two lines and in stanza five “And” starts two more lines.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “professional and placid” in line three of the second stanza and “dread dak” in line four of the third stanza. “Dak” means a stage of a journey.
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 examples, take a look at the transitions between lines two and three and four and five of stanza two.
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. Some of the best uses of imagery in ‘The Undertaker’s Horse’ include the feelings the speaker experiences when he goes past the Undertaker’s Horse and the descriptions of the horse itself.
Analysis of The Undertaker’s Horse
The eldest son bestrides him,
And the pretty daughter rides him,
And I meet him oft o’ mornings on the Course;
And there kindles in my bosom
An emotion chill and gruesome
As I canter past the Undertaker’s Horse.
In the first stanza of ‘The Undertaker’s Horse,’ the speaker begins by describing his regular encounters with the horse. It is in the mornings “on the Course” while the daughter of the undertaker is riding him and the son is walking beside him. The speaker can’t help it he says, whenever he sees this sight is always filled with terrible feelings.
His heart is gripped with a “chill” and “gruesome” feeling whenever he “canter[s]” on his own horse past the undertaker’s. In these lines, Kipling makes use of his consistent rhyme scheme, anaphora, as well as a powerful emotional description of what it is like for his speaker to see this particular animal. The imagery works very successfully, conveying that experience to the reader.
Neither shies he nor is restive,
But a hideously suggestive
Trot, professional and placid, he affects;
And the cadence of his hoof-beats
To my mind this grim reproof beats: —
“Mend your pace, my friend, I’m coming. Who’s the next?”
In the second stanza, the speaker goes into detail about the movements of the undertaker’s horse and how it appears to him. The horse is neither shy nor “restive,” meaning energetic or unable to keep still. It is somewhere in between. The horse is aways, no matter the day, “hideously suggestive”. The perfect rhyme in these lines makes the dark and strange subject matter even more engaging and powerful than it would be in free verse, or with a less structured pattern. The ones feel as if they’re coming from a larger, darker story and perhaps leading up to something.
The musical quality of the rhyme is emphasized in the next lines with the phrase “the cadence of his hoof-beats”. The word “beats” is then repeated in the fifth line. This is a sign that the poet wants the word to stick out, acknowledging the fact that the rhyme scheme is mimicking the sound of the hoof beats.
To the speaker, the sound of the hoofbeats has a very particular meaning. When he hears them he thinks “Mend your pace, my friend, I’m coming. Who’s the next?” This is an allusion to death and the fact that eventually, the undertaker’s horse is going to come for him.
Ah! stud-bred of ill-omen,
I have watched the strongest go — men
Of pith and might and muscle — at your heels,
Down the plantain-bordered highway,
(Heaven send it ne’er be my way!)
In a lacquered box and jetty upon wheels.
The third stanza uses a technique known as apostrophe. Apostrophe is an arrangement of words addressing someone or something who does not exist, or is not present, in the poem’s immediate setting, or cannot understand them. The exclamation, “Oh,” is often used at the beginning of the phrase. The person, thing or creature is spoken to as though they can hear and understand the speaker’s words. In this case, the spacer is addressing the horse as though it knows what he’s saying.
In these lines, he speaks about those who had died before him and how each has gone “at your heels” down the road. He is fearful about the time at which he’s going to meet his own death and whenever he sees the horse it feels like an omen of the future.
Answer, sombre beast and dreary,
Where is Brown, the young, the cheery,
Smith, the pride of all his friends and half the Force?
You were at that last dread dak
We must cover at a walk,
Bring them back to me, O Undertaker’s Horse!
In the fourth stanza of ‘The Undertaker’s Horse’, he continues to address the horse, asking it to provide him with answers to his inquiries about the deceased. It took away “Brown, the young, the cheery” and “Smith, the pride of all his friends”. Where he needs to know, are these much-loved figures? They have of course died and there’s nothing the speaker can do about it, but that doesn’t stop him from trying. He demands that the horse “Bring them back to [him]”.
At the end of the fourth stanza is the first example of the refrain, “O Undertaker’s Horse!” that is repeated again later in the text.
With your mane unhogged and flowing,
And your curious way of going,
And that businesslike black crimping of your tail,
E’en with Beauty on your back, Sir,
Pacing as a lady’s hack, Sir,
What wonder when I meet you I turn pale?
The fifth stanza of ‘The Undertaker’s Horse’ includes a few examples of imagery that give the reader a very clear visual and emotional idea of what being around this horse is like. It has a “flowing” mane and a “curious way of going”. This refers to the way it walks and how it carries itself. The speaker does not go into exactly what he means by that, other than that it’s strange. This is very likely an example of the speaker transferring their opinion of the horse onto its actions. In reality, the horse is just a horse, but in his state of mind, it takes on strange quirks and added meaning.
Kipling uses alliteration in the third line with “businesslike black,” a phrase used to describe the horse’s tail. He acknowledges that the horse is beautiful, it has “Beauty,” as embodied by the undertaker’s daughter, on its back. Still, he notes, he can’t help but turn “pale” when he sees it.
It may be you wait your time, Beast,
Till I write my last bad rhyme, Beast —
Quit the sunlight, cut the rhyming, drop the glass —
Follow after with the others,
Where some dusky heathen smothers
Us with marigolds in lieu of English grass.
In the next two stanzas of ‘The Undertaker’s Horse’, the speaker weighs two different possibilities. In the sixth, he contemplates a future where the “Beast” waits, biding its time until it’s the correct moment to take the speaker. The horse might be around until the man dies. He’ll eventually make his “last bad rhyme” (an allusion to Kipling’s profession) and finally “drop the glass,” fall dead. He will then trail after “Brown” and “Smith” and enter into the afterlife.
The horse, which is by now a very clear symbol of death and/or a grim reaper figure, will be there to take him away. Kipling uses juxtaposition to compare this stanza to the next.
Or, perchance, in years to follow,
I shall watch your plump sides hollow,
See Carnifex (gone lame) become a corse —
See old age at last o’erpower you,
And the Station Pack devour you,
I shall chuckle then, O Undertaker’s Horse!
Rather than pass away and fall into the care of the horse, as he fears, there is another possibility. This one brings him more joy. “Perchance,” he says, the horse may die before him. It will be overpowered by time and old age. It’s sides, now plump and full of life will “hollow,” indicating that death is approaching.
These are terrible images for the horse, but for the man, they are pleasing ones. He “shall chuckle then” at the horse’s fate.
But to insult, jibe, and quest, I’ve
Still the hideously suggestive
Trot that hammers out the unrelenting text,
And I hear it hard behind me
In what place soe’er I find me: —
“‘Sure to catch you sooner or later. Who’s the next?”
Kipling concludes ‘The Undertaker’s Horse’ in the last times by acknowledging that these are just words and they can do nothing to stop fate and the inevitable future he has to face. No matter what he writes there’s always the “Trot” following at his heels. The horse haunts him, he hears it “hard behind [him]”.
Just as he gave meaning to the sound of the horse’s hooves in the second stanza, he does so again at the conclusion of the poem. This time he hears them and feels as though they’re saying “Sure to catch you sooner or later. Who’s the next?” This phrase truly conveys the fear the speaker has of this horse. It is a malevolent force, taking pleasure in the taking of lives.