Week 220: Danny Deever, by Rudyard Kipling

I think my father only ever read one poem in his life, Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’, which he carried about with him as a cutting in his wallet. All credit to it for seeing him through some difficult times of war and ill-health, though I had my own reservations about the poem. ‘If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew/To serve your turn long after they are gone….’ – what did that even mean? There are strict physiological limits, and the toughest athletes in the world, though their limits may be very different from ours, will still come up against them. No, I felt that if you wanted to represent Kipling as a poet there were better things to be had, prime among them being the powerful and disturbing ‘Danny Deever’. I don’t read it that Kipling is necessarily opposed to the ultimate penalty being enforced in capital cases, but there is no relish about it, such as Kipling’s detractors might have looked for, just a grim recognition that the administration of such justice exacts its toll on the humanity of all concerned.

Danny Deever

‘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?’ says 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 tonight,’ 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 today,
After hangin’ Danny Deever in the mornin’.

Rudyard Kipling

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