Mandalay

March 31, 2008 at 7:50 pm 3 comments

Rudyard Kipling

Listen (to Slaybaugh sing)

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ eastward to 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!

‘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 . . .

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 . . .

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 . . .

I am sick o’ wastin’ leather on these gritty pavin’-stones,
An’ the blasted Henglish 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 . . .

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

Ludwig writes,

Confessing to liking Kipling (i.e. the works) is not the most prudent thing to do. Depending on what company you are in, you may end up seeing people pull themselves together and become a bit more stiff and formal; maybe some of them will even begin to edge away from you as though they’ve found a snake in the bathtub. But what’s to be done, if you discovered Rudyard (“Kim” and “The Jungle Books” especially, but the rhymes also) before you acquired a political conscience, is it possible to not fall in love with the tales and the language? Even after the tinted glasses of political correctness have been donned, his oeuvre is compelling in the manner of the Ancient Mariner. Even if the claw like hand has dropped, the glittering eye will hold you.

So we freely confess, we like Kipling, his politics and weltanschauung be damned (if they actually do deserve to be, that is). The man had a way with language and imagination, animals have never been anthropomorphized the way they were in “The Jungle Books” (“Lion King”s may come and go…) and never will be. Above all, he had a touch for sheer _atmosphere_ that is perhaps unsurpassed. “Mandalay” is a serviceable example.

You can read it in at least a couple of ways. Directly, we dispense with the one we close our eyes and ears to and in general go “lalalalalalalalalala” at. This is obviously the political/cultural studies reading, where the poem is about imperialist exoticization of the Orient; male chauvinism; and yada yada yada.

There, that’s done. What remains is a very lyrical, very singable, enjoyable and evocative poem. Part of this admittedly has to do with the way Matt Slaybaugh sings it, the raspy drawl itself adds to the look and feel. Then there’s the language, the construction of phrase (“the temple-bells they say”, “dawn comes up like thunder”, “Ship me somewheres east of Suez” etc.), the attention to metre etc. about which someone more articulate and knowledgable should be able to hold forth on. There’s also the somewhat touching love story, of this man separated from a sweetheart and a land that he seems to be genuinely very fond of. There’s the echoes from Innisfree, about wanting to go back to a simpler happier life, and all that jazz.

All in all, we likes, and we submits for due consideration at pō’ĭ-trē. Flames may be kindly lit in the comments section, and/or directed at choultry[AT]gmail.com. Meanwhile, we’ve got to go off and so some serious daydreaming, see if we care…

some links:

[1] Commentary at The Skeptic Tank

[2] Frank Sinatra’s rendition of On the Road to Mandalay from Come Fly with Me. When the album was first released in the British Empire, this song was replaced by “Chicago”, due to objections from the Kipling family.

[3] The poem on wiki (with a couple of helpful hyper links)

[4] The Complete Collection of Kipling’s poems here.

[5] The Nobel bio and presentation speech from 1907.

Finally, Kipling on pō’ĭ-trē. Anyone wants to read my old favourite for us now? :)

[blackmamba]

Entry filed under: Black Mamba, English, Ludwig, Rudyard Kipling. Tags: .

She rose to his requirement Alle Tage / Every Day

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Falstaff  |  April 1, 2008 at 12:02 am

    “what I think one ought to start by saying in any discussion of Kipling, is that most of Kipling’s verse is so horribly vulgar that it gives one the same sensation as one gets from watching a third-rate music-hall performer recite “The Pigtail of Wu Fang Fu” with the purple limelight on his face, and yet there is much of it that is capable of giving pleasure to people who know what poetry means. At his worst, and also his most vital, in poems like “Gunga Din” or “Danny Deever,” Kipling is almost a shameful pleasure, like the taste for cheap sweets that some people secretly carry into middle life. But even with his best passages one has the same sense of being seduced by something spurious, and yet unquestionably seduced. Unless one is merely a snob and a liar it is impossible to say that no one who cares for poetry could get any pleasure out of such lines as:

    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!”

    and yet those lines are not poetry in the same sense as “Felix Randal” or “When icicles hang by the wall” are poetry. One can, perhaps, place Kipling more satisfactorily than by juggling with the words “verse” and “poetry,” if one describes him simply as a good bad poet.”

    – George Orwell (the whole essay, eminently worth the read, here

    P.S. It is impossible not to love the double negative in the line before the quotation, is it not?

    Reply
  • 2. Cheshire Cat  |  April 2, 2008 at 12:37 am

    I think one could safely describe Orwell as a good bad critic. As for Kipling himself, genius, sheer genius…

    Reply
  • 3. Barry Cunningham  |  August 5, 2009 at 2:07 am

    I wonder about this poem. The exoticization of the Orient theme is definitely the one emphasized by the Sinatra song. But the geographic contradictions make it seem to me more like an ironic commentary on an old soldier’s distorted and failing memories of his glory days: an old soldier, drunk and asleep in his boots, catching tigers in red weather.

    Reply

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