»  National Review Online

July 4th, 2002

  A Nest of Burglars

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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 1897, Britain celebrated Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee — the 60th anniversary of her accession. Britain was then at the height of her power, ruling over huge swathes of Africa, Asia, the Americas and the antipodes. The Jubilee celebrations were suitably grand. On June 22, chains of celebratory bonfires were lit all along the nation's shores, in a tradition going back to before the arrival of the Romans. Rudyard Kipling, sitting in his house in Rottingdean on the south coast, saw these bonfires on the downs nearby, and jotted down some lines for a poem. A few days later he went with his father to see the great naval review in the Spithead channel: 165 warships drawn up in five lines spread across thirty miles of sea. In the following days he finished his poem. It was published in the London Times on July 17, alongside the Queen's letter of thanks to her people.

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!

He named the poem "Recessional," referring to the hymn sung at the end of an Anglican service when the minister and choir withdraw to the vestry. The poem became famous at once. One of Kipling's biographers says, in fact, that: "For two, or even three, generations, this was one of the most famous, or infamous, poems in the world." It had something for everyone. Imperialists could thrill to the implicit message that the British Empire was God's will. The more skeptical could nod with approval at the lines suggesting that the whole show might, after all, be just a flash in the pan:

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!

Even pacifists found something to like in it. One of them, the socialist and anti-imperialist Jack Mackail, wrote a letter thanking Kipling, in heartfelt terms, for having written the poem. In a polite response, Kipling denied any pacifistic intent: "Thank you very much but all the same seeing what manner of armed barbarians we are surrounded with, we're about the only power with a glimmer of civilisation in us. … This is no ideal world but a nest of burglars, alas, and we must protect ourselves against being burgled."

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!

Those — and they were many, even in Kipling's day — who deplored any assumption of racial superiority, of course fixed their attention on the phrase "lesser breeds without the law." What was most probably in the poet's mind there, as George Orwell pointed out in his fine essay on Kipling, was the Germans, about whose ambitions Kipling was already beginning to obsess. No-one who has read Kim can think that Kipling looked down on dark-skinned peoples as inferior beings. He had grown up among Indians; the first words he knew were in Hindi, and the infant Rudyard had to be reminded to speak English when he was presented to his parents in the evenings. The attitude of the imperial-era British to their native subjects is a deep and complicated topic, about which large books have been written. "Lesser breeds without the law" does not encapsulate it, nor even begin to approach it.

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!

Kipling's intent in "Recessional" was, as he himself plainly said many times, to strike a note of moral responsibility among all the self-congratulatory bombast. A deeply superstitious man, he felt what he said in the poem: that great power must be accompanied with great humility. Human beings, and the nations they make, live out their lives under the eye of a higher Authority, who is not pleased by displays of arrogance. It is interesting to note that Kipling took no payment for the poem, and in fact never made a penny from it. He regarded it as a public service, an act of duty.

I think that "Recessional" has something to tell us today. Of course, the circumstances of the United States in 2002 are not those of Britain in 1897. We are not an imperial power, and we have no wish to be. We do not hold, and do not want to hold, "dominion over palm and pine," either under God's hand or any other arrangement. We are a commercial republic of free citizens who, on the whole, prefer to mind our own business.

We are, however, Top Dog among nations, just as Britain was Top Dog 105 years ago. That state of affairs brings with it certain inevitable consequences, and certain responsibilities that cannot be shirked. Those consequences, and those responsibilities, are much less welcome to us than they were to Queen Victoria's Britain, because we are a different kind of country; but to pretend they don't exist — that we can mind our own business in blithe disregard of what is happening elsewhere in the world — is irresponsible folly. Hundreds of millions of people all over the world admire us; hundreds of millions more hate us. We are the Cargo nation; and when the Cargo fails to arrive, it is surely we, through our cruel malice, who must have withheld it. Hundreds of millions would come to live here if they could; most of them to improve their lives, some for other reasons.

For all the differences between our time and Kipling's, and between our nation and his, some things are still the same. This world is still, as it was in 1897, "a nest of burglars." Civilization still needs defending — watchfully, ceaselessly — against barbarism. Sometimes, as we saw last year, barbarism will break through the defenses. Sometimes, as we see so often in our universities, those defenses crumble and decay because the ones who should guard them have, instead, been assaulting them with picks and hammers from the inside, from sheer joy of destruction and arrogance of intellect.

And the other thing is still true, too: that when we speak, or act, in defense of our civilization, we should do so in the awareness that we speak and act under the eye of a higher power — that everything comes to judgment at last. When I read my e-mails or survey the blogosphere, I see that there are rather a lot of "wild tongues" out there in America; people who are seething with rage at the cruelty and audacity of our enemies, and the feebleness of our own leaders. It's not hard to understand that. I myself have often let loose with some "such boasting as the Gentiles use," wishing, and sometimes saying out loud, that we would employ our most terrible weapons, without restraint, against those who hate us. I am not a pacifist. I want America to defend herself with major force and confident strength, just as Kipling believed should be done***. However, I also want, as he wanted, for us always, even in times of the gravest crisis, to hold on to the core beliefs of our civilization: in particular, the belief that "frantic boast and foolish word" are for children and savages, not for civilized people.

I am going to celebrate my first Fourth of July as an American with pride and patriotism, enjoying the sight of the flags, the fireworks, the parades. Then I'm going to go to my room, shut my door, go down on my knees, bow my head and close my eyes, and ask for: "Thy Mercy on Thy people, Lord!"

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* An Englishman of Kipling's generation would have pronounced "humble" with a silent "h." Hence "an," not "a."

** Kipling's religion was extremely peculiar, and I am not sure that anyone has got to the bottom of it. He seems to have believed, at least for a spell, that the English were descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel.

*** For a succinct outline of Kipling's political views, Evelyn Waugh's words have never been improved on: "He was a conservative in the sense that he believed civilization to be something laboriously achieved which was only precariously defended. He wanted to see the defences fully manned and he hated the liberals because he thought them gullible and feeble, believing in the easy perfectibility of man and ready to abandon the work of centuries for sentimental qualms."