Thursday, April 22, 2010

Tommy and Imperialism

The poem Tommy presents a kind of interesting situation. Kipling seems to me to be yearning for a time when the soldier was a romanticized hero and war still had a romantic notion. At the same time he recognizes the unpopularity of war in the time that he writes and hence the unpopularity of soldiers. Perhaps because of his imperialist leanings, Kipling rushes to the aid of the soldier by taking on his voice. The didactic message of the poem seems to warn the British that they need to do right by their soldiers and honor them because they realize the disrespect they get even in the light of their perilous sacrifice. Kipling himself was a proponent of extreme right wing politics and this poem seems to push in a very real way those feelings of the need to support the troops at all times. Kipling and his voice in the poem seem to favor cowboy diplomacy. I actually really like this poem and appreciate its message. I sent it to a fraternity brother of mine at West Point. With that said, it speaks to the precise reason that Kipling historical legacy has been very fluid. Because of the nature of a lot of his work it is impossible to separate his politics from his art. Particularly because his politics supported a morally questionable practice (imperialism) it makes his work hard to read in a vacuum, even more so than other artists.


  1. I agree with you about the relationship between "Tommy" and imperialism, and I also feel that Kipling makes a larger social commentary about utilitarianism as well. Tommy is largely rejected by society until a war/battle begins, and then he is the hero. Kipling realizes that people often have a tendency to value other human beings only for what that person can do for them, instead of for their inherent personhood. Tommy is only useful during a war, and at all other times he is a canker in society. Perhaps this connects with the more modern themes of these poems as well--utilitarianism is a 19th century theory. Maybe more Americans should have read Kipling following the Vietnam War as they tossed aside the returning soldiers, just as the people in the poem toss Tommy aside.

  2. Kathryn makes a great point. They say war are often fought in the name of the common man, while really in the interest of the wealthy and powerful, and yet ordinary men still die for the cause.