Kipling, Mark Twain and the Choral Recitation of Poetry

Traditionalists specialise in a specific version of culture that represents a specific view of the world and of Britain in particular. At Michaela Community School, the students are taught to recite the poem ‘Invictus’, from which the line “bloody, but unbowed”[1] comes, when they arrive in Year 7.

The final stanza reads:


It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,

I am the captain of my soul.[2]


On the surface, and if one ignores the gobbledygook of the first two lines, this appears to be at least quasi-inspirational. But think of its political significance and the reason it is part of a conservative tradition. What does it promote?

Let us first note that Invictus is Latin for ‘unconquered’ and that its author, William Ernest Henley, was born in 1849 and died in 1903. Look where we are: in the era of colonialism, of self-discipline and restraint, of individualism and individual responsibility. The ages-old stuff is back and reinstated in schools. 

There is nothing innately wrong with any of these as ideas, and the traditionalists have a strong(ish) argument here – that we are responsible for our own behaviour and our own achievements – but this focus on the responsibilities of the individual can be used to deny them their individual rights. One might argue that conservatism, by its nature, is abusive: it promulgates the idea of personal responsibility to disclaim that there is much need for any of the societal version. It is against the collective, against helping others less fortunate than ourselves. Whether it is a positive that certain types of school use this poem as a mantra, I will leave you to decide. 

Traditionalists also adore the idea of getting children to recite Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If—’ which, again, is given to Michaela students very early on in their school careers to recite chorally. Shall we see what it says, children?


If you can keep your head when all about you 

 Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

 But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

 Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

 And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:


If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;

 If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

 And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

 Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

 And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:


If you can make one heap of all your winnings

 And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

 And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

 To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

 Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’


If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

 Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

 If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

 With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

 And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son![3]


It’s certainly got something: we have the antithesis of “triumph and disaster”, which has hung around the language, and the notion of these abstract nouns being “imposters” is nice enough. I’m quite keen on the notion of having the ability to rebuild a broken life with “worn out tools”. But the famous “sixty seconds’ worth of distance run” seems a tad overrated, and while it is a genuinely sweet piece of work from a clearly talented writer, it isn’t of the first order. It isn’t Owen or Shakespeare or Eliot, and it has a Hallmark cards quality to it that might go some way to explaining its mainstream popularity and ubiquity. It has a mawkishness and a lack of real depth and density, which is perhaps reflected in the eyes of those who profess to love it. It is by far and away the most popular poem in the UK.[4]

There is an irony in that, seemingly, some of those who argue most strongly for the continuation of the white and chiefly male canon don’t have too much of an understanding of what is in it. If the argument is that students should be bathed in the light of ‘great literature’, then it might be helpful if some of the more bellicose voices of the traditionalist movement had the critical faculties to locate where this is situated. Neither ‘If—’ nor ‘Invictus’ are in the top rank of poetry, and one gets the sense that any school making students perform choral recitations of these poems is doing something that is not much more sophisticated than aping the dominant – importing practices from private schools on the assumption that such practices and such literature are qualitatively better than anything else because of the climate in which they were nurtured.

It is perhaps not entirely coincidental that Kipling is regarded as the father and chief progenitor of legends that were constructed to celebrate the achievements of colonialism; legends that don’t enjoy a particularly intimate relationship with the truth. While enjoyable, there is a decidedly jingoistic element to much of Kipling’s work – for example, in a poem of the same name, he coined the phrase (and one would hope that teachers at Michaela teach this along with getting the children to recite the poem, also), “the White Man’s burden”.[5] 

At the end of the first stanza of ‘The White Man’s Burden’ (which is, of course, about civilising the beastly foreigner by bringing them Christianity at the end of the sword or the gun; as Conrad writes, they came “bearing the sword, and often the torch”, they were “bearers of a spark from a sacred fire”[6]), we find the following charming couplet:


Your new-caught sullen peoples,

Half devil and half child.[7]


This, which Christopher Hitchens describes with specific reference to the poem as “race-childhood”,[8] we might conclude, isn’t a very nice thing to say about a race of people. Kipling wrote the poem in praise of the US military, which was fighting to annex the Philippine Islands and Christianising the Filipino people. It contains more negative and frightening imagery than just one horrid couplet: 


Go make them with your living,

And mark them with your dead!


In these “savage wars of peace”, we are also told to look out for “heathen Folly”.[9] There is something of the self-indulgent whine of the proselytising authoritarian in the tired warning that, for his pains in civilising (or murdering) the brutes, the missionary will receive his usual “reward”:


The blame of those ye better,

The hate of those ye guard—


The Americans’ gift of Christianity to the Philippines was accompanied by barbaric behaviour, rape, robbery and violations of the Hague Conventions of 1899 (which outlined the rules of war). So legion and so rapacious were the abuses that Mark Twain wrote a searing essay for the American Review about what really happened when religion was brought to those “sullen” Filipinos. In the parodic tone of a holier-than-thou cleric, he begins with the acknowledgement that “Extending the Blessings of Civilization to our Brother who Sits in Darkness has been a good trade and has paid well,” but adds that “The most of those People that Sit in Darkness have been furnished with more light than was good for them or profitable for us”.[10]

For Twain, the colonisation of other countries wasn’t motivated by altruism but by profit. The subtlety of his clerical tone appears to be an obfuscatory device, which pretends to conceal the levels of butchery, but the level of his penmanship instead highlights the bestial intentions lurking behind Christianity’s fake colonial grin: “The Blessings of Civilization are all right, and a good commercial property; there could not be a better, in a dim light.”[11] For Twain, Christianity is the outside cover for the real product, the smile concealing the snarl of the butchers: “hunters for gold or pursuers of fame”.[12] Civilisation is only for export; it is not a dialogue between cultures. It is the “onslaught of an elephant upon a nest of field mice”.[13]

Twain’s analysis of events is vastly more convincing and more factually orientated than Kipling’s romanticised colonial legends: legends that exist to accent any heroic elements and to expiate those guilty of abuses so they avoid the experience of personal shame. Kipling wants to excuse the brutaliser from experiencing guilt; Twain wishes to reveal the level of his brutality.

One wonders whether schools that proclaim their ownership of knowledge and teach Black students to chorally recite ‘If—’, also teach those them to analyse ‘The White Man’s Burden’ and ‘To the Person Sitting in Darkness’. Under the current government, we are meant to present balancing views, after all.

One also wonders how many students complying with the request to recite these poems are doing so grudgingly. How many are being forced to swallow their individual will in order to not stand out, to not be punished for thinking it a pile of hogwash? The choral repetition of a poem that calls for individual responsibility permits no individual response to the imperative to recite it. Those institutions that most loudly exalt the need for individual responsibility seem to have dispensed with individual rights.

What will become of the students from schools that exalt tradition? From those schools that believe most firmly that the “best that has been thought and said”[14] isn’t just some ruling-class fiction created by a groupie of that class? What will be the longer-term outcomes for the young people and for society? Who and what are such schools producing – obedient servants of the country or obedient servants of a specific orthodoxy? Are they preparing a generation of conformists who will uphold an inherently corrupt system, or independent thinkers with the skills of articulation to challenge the system in which they have been educated? If it is the latter, such voices – ironically, since they are asked to raise their voices to chant poetry – are currently characterised by their silence.


[1] One wonders how harsh the zero-tolerance policy actually is.

[2] William Ernest Henley, Invictus:

[3] Rudyard Kipling, If—:

[4] The BBC conducted a survey in 1996 in which it got more than twice the number of votes than the second placed poem: The Nation’s Favourite Poems (London: BBC Worldwide, 1996).

[5] Rudyard Kipling, The White Man’s Burden: Interestingly, when it was mooted that Orwell’s Burmese Days was to be dramatically adapted, Orwell supposedly joked that the stage version would be called ‘The Black Man’s Burden’. Orwell was ambivalent about Kipling.

[6] Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (London: Penguin, 1902 [1899]), p. 7.

[7] Rudyard Kipling, The White Man’s Burden:

[8] Christopher Hitchens, Why Orwell Matters (New York: Basic Books, 2002), p. 30.

[9] The real stupidity, of course, was colonialism itself. Conrad refers to the whole venture as being a “rapacious and pitiless folly”: Conrad, Heart of Darkness, p. 23.

[10] Mark Twain, To the Person Sitting in Darkness, North American Review, 24 (1901), 161–176 at 165.

[11] Twain, To the Person Sitting in Darkness, p. 165.

[12] Conrad, Heart of Darkness, p. 7.

[13] Twain, To the Person Sitting in Darkness, p. 166.

[14] Matthew Arnold, Preface to Culture and Anarchy (Newton Stewart: Anados Books, 2019 [1869]), p. 2.


Added Tue, 14 May 2024 13:17

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