Kipling presents this celebration and encouragement of British imperialism in the form of a prayer, asking forgiveness for those who don’t acknowledge divine approval and assistance in Britain’s colonization efforts. The title reflects a duality of tone in the poem, suggesting ‘coming back’ – an act of remembrance and gratitude with the suggestion of a holy sacrament, and also the idea of ‘receding’ – anticipating the fading of Britain’s glory if, like ‘Nineveh’ we were to ‘forget’ that we acted under God’s authority.
The first stanza is a statement of what Kipling perceives as the divine approval of Britain’s overseas mission. The anaphora of the first two lines sets the tone as an earnest plea, recognising heavenly authority over Britain’s battles. The repetition also contributes to the stirring, jingoistic tone at work throughout the poem in the refrain – reminding us of Newbolt’s Vitae Lampada and other atrocities. It is interesting therefore that the message is not one of encouragement, but rather a stark warning with implicit chastisement. This element I believe makes for a poem of greater depth than most of the other ‘colonialist’ poets.
We can trace the Biblical imagery out of the first stanza and through to the end of the poem. Kipling assert’s Britain’s right to ‘Dominion’ by likening the nation to Adam in the Garden of Eden, with control over ‘plant and pine’. We might note that this allusion illuminates a fairly fundamental error in the colonial mindset, as Adam’s ‘dominion’ ends with animals and doesn’t include enslaving people groups. The reference to trees, along with capturing the vastness of the empire from snowy ‘pines’ to tropical ‘palms’, also anticipates the warning to come, by alluding to Adam’s fall. Just as Adam and Eve were tempted to fall by their ambition to become equal with God, Kipling believes the empire will collapse if Britain don’t acknowledge ‘whose awful Hand’ it is that guides them.
The next Biblical allusion is in ‘Nineveh and Tyre’, cities subject to God’s wrath in the Old Testament. In stanza 3 the poem’s warning becomes explicit, as the navies ‘melt away’, and the watch post fires are extinguished – Kipling presents a vision of the empire ‘receding’. The fire that ‘sinks’ might also suggest the fire of heavenly wrath, smiting heathens where they stand. The ‘pomp’ of Britain is shown as hollow and absurd when juxtaposed with the ruined civilizations of Nineveh and Tyre.
The fourth stanza takes us from Old Testament destruction to New Testament evangelism. ‘Wild tongues’ recalls the Book of Acts account of Pentecost, when the Apostles speak foreign languages through the Holy Spirit. That they might not ‘have Thee in awe’ inverts this, suggesting demonic incantations as an opposing possibility. Of course Kipling associates the ‘demonic’ with the uncivilised ‘lesser breeds’ of the world, therefore the argument develops to imply the barbarian world’s need for the ‘Law’ of Christian Britain. The final stanza reminds us that this is only possible if Britain ‘puts her trust’ in God.
Alongside this stirring affirmation of Britain’s imperial role in the world, Kipling betrays a doubt about the likelihood of ‘the task’s being carried to completion, and a general uneasiness about the future. We see the exposition of this in Stanza 2, which strikes us as very ambiguous following the certainty of the opening stanza. Why do ‘The Captains and the Kings depart’? Perhaps they have vanquished their enemies and moved on in glory, or perhaps, as the title suggests, they have given up and returned home. The suddenness with which the shouting ‘dies’ is striking on first reading – perhaps a sudden reversal of fortune in battle. ‘Far-called’ also contains within it this uneasiness. It recalls ‘far-flung’ in stanza 1, and might suggest the ‘calling’ of God to a divine purpose. However we might also see the insisted upon ‘Far’ as a suggestion of isolation rather than might – hinting at the navies’ weariness of the vast distances involved in imperialism.
The image of a headland and bay, receding armies and fire, brings to mind the similar picture in Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach – another poem very much concerned with ‘receding’ and ‘forgetting’. In Kipling’s mind it is certainly not religion that is receding; in stanza an intimate, personal faith is the only thing left to cling on to on a deserted battlefield. However, Kipling does seriously contemplate the end of the British Empire. This poem being written just 15 years before the start of World War 1, perhaps he already has a sense of an impending change, the idea of men becoming ‘drunk with power’. Kipling’s refuge from this change, in stark opposition to Arnold, is religious faith itself. Hence the irrepressible Christian motifs and ideas, hence the earnest plea to his readers to mend their ways and recognise heavenly authority.
Considering Kipling’s reputation as a ‘jingo imperialist’, this poem – although elements of it are completely repulsive – contains a lot of subtlety. The author’s quivering faith in British superiority is almost able to inspire sympathy. The juxtaposition of crass propaganda and genuine feeling is a fascinating dynamic.