How amazing that there was a time that the poems of Rudyard Kipling, set to music, were known throughout the English-speaking world, sung in recitals and sold as records and sheet music. I learned about these songs through my father, who used to recite some of the poems from Barrack-Room Ballads to his not-very-appreciative kids. Nice versions can be found on a CD by the American baritone Leonard Warren (1911-1960), which I have been enjoying recently. (How amazing that sea shanties were so popular during that era, cleaned up, naturally, of the obscenity which was probably their original raison d’être. I wonder what the reason was for their popularity?)
Kipling’s poems are often quoted by traditionalists for their unforgettably rhythmic and concise statements of socially conservative truths. “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” tells us that the commonsense moral platitudes of traditional society will endure when progressive utopian dreams have been dashed to pieces. “The Stranger” makes an argument for preserving ethnic homogeneity. “If–” exhorts us to live lives of truth and courage. George Orwell famously describes Kipling as a “good bad” poet and finds a strong streak of sadism in his attitude towards the “natives” of the British Empire. No matter. The Empire is no more, but Kipling’s verse lives on in the English language.
“Danny Deever,” set to music by Walter Damrosch and sung by Reinald Werrenrath in the above link, tells the story of military hanging. (One link to sea shanties, incidentally, is that it has been speculated that Kipling had the ditty “Barnacle Bill the Sailor” in mind when he composed it, although the resemblance is not very close.) Despite its bleak, gruesome theme, it somehow goes beyond merely horrifying the reader.
“WHAT are the bugles blowin’ for?” said Files-on-Parade.
“To turn you out, to turn you out,” the Colour-Sergeant said.
“What makes you look so white, so white?” said Files-on-Parade.
“I’m dreadin’ what I’ve got to watch,” the Colour-Sergeant said.
For they’re hangin’ Danny Deever, you can hear the Dead March play
The regiment’s in ‘ollow square – they’re hangin’ him to-day;
They’ve taken of his buttons off an’ cut his stripes away,
An’ they’re hangin’ Danny Deever in the mornin’.
“What makes the rear-rank breathe so ‘ard?” said Files-on-Parade.
“It’s bitter cold, it’s bitter cold,” the Colour-Sergeant said.
“What makes that front-rank man fall down?” said Files-on-Parade.
“A touch o’ sun, a touch o’ sun,” the Colour-Sergeant said.
They are hangin’ Danny Deever, they are marchin’ of ‘im round,
They ‘ave ‘alted Danny Deever by ‘is coffin on the ground;
An’ e’ll swing in ‘arf a minute for a sneakin’ shootin’ hound
O they’re hangin’ Danny Deever in the mornin’!
” ‘Is cot was right-‘and cot to mine,” said Files-on-Parade.
” ‘E’s sleepin’ out an’ far to-night,” the Colour-Sergeant said.
“I’ve drunk ‘is beer a score o’ times,” said Files-on-Parade.
” ‘E’s drinkin’ bitter beer alone,” the Colour-Sergeant said.
They are hangin’ Danny Deever, you must mark ‘im to ‘is place,
For ‘e shot a comrade sleepin’ – you must look ‘im in the face;
Nine ‘undred of ‘is county an’ the Regiment’s disgrace,
While they’re hangin’ Danny Deever in the mornin’.
“What’s that so black agin the sun?” said Files-on-Parade.
“It’s Danny fightin’ ‘ard for life,” the Colour-Sergeant said.
“What’s that that whimpers over’ead?” said Files-on-Parade.
“It’s Danny’s soul that’s passin’ now,” the Colour-Sergeant said.
For they’re done with Danny Deever, you can ‘ear the quickstep play
The regiment’s in column, an’ they’re marchin’ us away;
Ho! the young recruits are shakin’, an’ they’ll want their beer to-day,
After hangin’ Danny Deever in the mornin’.
Kipling does something easily here that I don’t think a contemporary poet could do: he conveys the horror and tragedy of the death penalty without indicating in any way that executions should not take place. There is no question that Danny Deever is a murderer and deserves to die in disgrace, yet he is also a human being, and though his perspective is never given every soldier (including the officers) easily imagines himself in Danny’s place.
I have a relative who became very involved in the anti-death penalty movement, corresponding with death-row inmates and becoming emotionally involved with them in a way that made the entire family very uncomfortable. Although I always was troubled by this relative’s actions, for her sake I found myself wishing that some of these men not be executed, and I drifted toward an anti-death penalty position. I reasoned that getting rid of the death penalty would ensure that no innocent people get executed by mistake, and that this on the balance could make society more civilized and just.
Since then, though, I’ve come to feel quite certain that although it might be best if the number of executions is kept as low as possible, “civilization rests on the hangman” (if anyone knows the source of that quotation please let me know) and guilty murderers with no mitigating circumstances need to be removed from society – completely removed, not made wards of the state. The moral and material cost to those who honor the commandment not to kill is just too great. My purpose here is not to prove this to skeptics, just to state it clearly.
What a different world Kipling inhabited. In the British Army of the 19th century, not only was murder of fellow soldiers swiftly punished, it was ritualized from beginning to end, as described in the notes to the poem. A bugle assembly called the men to witness the hanging; the condemned man had his insignia cut off and walked, to the accompaniment of a dead march, behind his own coffin to the gallows. The men of his battalion were not only forced to watch the execution but also to file past the corpse afterwards and look directly at it. The violent nature of execution was not disguised, and the entire community participated in it. I would probably be swooning like the young soldiers in the same situation, but there is an undeniable logic to the practice.
It is easy to be convinced that these executions were excessively cruel and that it is a blessing that they have been done away with in the modern military. I submit to those who feel this way the case of the Fort Hood massacre, carried out not as a personal vendetta against some rival but as an enemy assault on the Army, the American people, and really against humanity itself. I do not follow the case anymore as it is too painful to contemplate the failure of our once-honorable military to administer justice for the sake of its own people. A military execution 19th-century style would be far too kind for this killer, but it would be an acceptable resolution to the incident. More: in a military that defended itself in this manner, this crime would not have happened, because the perpetrator’s hostile jihadist beliefs would have been identified long before and he would have been handled accordingly. 43 people would have been saved from being wounded or killed – the invisible beneficiaries of a system of justice willing to carry out the grim task of execution.
Here, Kipling is no sadist, but a realist who retains his capacity for compassion. I remain struck by the strange beauty of “Danny Deever,” and also by the fact that Western culture, not long ago, not only produced poems like it but also produced composers able to craft perfect melodies for them.