(Poem #43) Tommy
I went into a public-'ouse to get a pint o' beer, The publican 'e up an' sez, "We serve no red-coats here." The girls be'ind the bar they laughed an' giggled fit to die, I outs into the street again an' to myself sez I: O it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, go away"; But it's "Thank you, Mister Atkins", when the band begins to play, The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play, O it's "Thank you, Mister Atkins", when the band begins to play. I went into a theatre as sober as could be, They gave a drunk civilian room, but 'adn't none for me; They sent me to the gallery or round the music-'alls, But when it comes to fightin', Lord! they'll shove me in the stalls! For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, wait outside"; But it's "Special train for Atkins" when the trooper's on the tide, The troopship's on the tide, my boys, the troopship's on the tide, O it's "Special train for Atkins" when the trooper's on the tide. Yes, makin' mock o' uniforms that guard you while you sleep Is cheaper than them uniforms, an' they're starvation cheap; An' hustlin' drunken soldiers when they're goin' large a bit Is five times better business than paradin' in full kit. Then it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, 'ow's yer soul?" But it's "Thin red line of 'eroes" when the drums begin to roll, The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll, O it's "Thin red line of 'eroes" when the drums begin to roll. We aren't no thin red 'eroes, nor we aren't no blackguards too, But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you; An' if sometimes our conduck isn't all your fancy paints, Why, single men in barricks don't grow into plaster saints; While it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, fall be'ind", But it's "Please to walk in front, sir", when there's trouble in the wind, There's trouble in the wind, my boys, there's trouble in the wind, O it's "Please to walk in front, sir", when there's trouble in the wind. You talk o' better food for us, an' schools, an' fires, an' all: We'll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational. Don't mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face The Widow's Uniform is not the soldier-man's disgrace. For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Chuck him out, the brute!" But it's "Saviour of 'is country" when the guns begin to shoot; An' it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' anything you please; An' Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool -- you bet that Tommy sees!
It's hard to apply superlatives to Kipling's poems. 'Tommy' is one of my favourites, true, but that is a much-diluted honour. It's also one of his best-known works, but again, that's saying little - the sheer volume and diversity of his poetry has made many of them famous in many different genres. Certainly no canonical list of war poems would be complete without this minor masterpiece, expressing with a startling accuracy the plight of the soldier. It is unsurprising that Kipling's reputation, great as it was, was outstripped by his popularity - he was that wonderfully contradictory being, the common man's Nobel laureate. Note, once again, the wonderful interplay of form and content, as the rough dialect of the 'common' man blends with the pulse-steady metre of the soldier, and the way in which the natural rhythms of speech have been captured without ever straining the scansion. Background: 'Tommy' was Tommy Atkins, the generic term for a British soldier. Thomas Atkins (also Thomas): a familiar name for the typical private soldier in the British Army; arising out of the casual use of this name in the specimen forms given in the official regulations from 1815 onward: see quots. In some of the specimen forms other names are used; but `Thomas Atkins' being that used in all the forms for privates in the Cavalry or Infantry, is by far the most frequent, and thus became the most familiar. Now more popularly Tommy Atkins or Tommy. * 1815 (Aug. 31) War Office, Collection of Orders, Regulations, etc. 75 (Form of a Soldier's Book in the Cavalry when filled up). Description, Service, &c. of Thomas Atkins, Private, No. 6 Troop, 6th Regt. of Dragoons. Where Born... Parish of Odiham, Hants... Bounty, L6. Received, Thomas Atkins, his x mark; -- OED The 'Widow' in the last verse referred to Queen Victoria. Criticism: Rudyard Kipling was, in his grand style, the bard of British Imperialism, and in his dialect poems, the voice of the common soldier. Anyone interested in the military history of the period owes it to himself to become at least passingly familiar with Kipling's soldierly verse. Kipling is often ignored today, because his exultation in the supposed moral and cultural superiority of European (and specifically British) civilization makes liberal-minded twentieth-century readers wince. But the human virtues that Kipling is most concerned with - courage, duty, honor, decency, commitment and grit - he is quick to recognize in men and women from all classes and races. That he shared and promoted the near-universal prejudices of the pre-Twentieth Century worldview should not diminish our appreciation of his artistic achievements. Aside from the normal problems to be expected of reading century-old poetry, reading Kipling introduces a few extra difficulties; born and reared in India, he liberally seasons his verse with Asian and African words, and his soldier poems are written in the lower-class dialect of the archetypical British enlisted man, dropping final "g"s and any "h"s which are normally -- David Helber, <http://zeitcom.com/majgen/09kipling.html> And finally, Kipling's self-appointed role as the spokesman of the common soldier is best summed up in his own words: following is the dedication from his Barrack Room Ballads. Dedication To T. A. I have made for you a song, And it may be right or wrong, But only you can tell me if it's true; I have tried for to explain Both your pleasure and your pain, And, Thomas, here's my best respects to you! O there'll surely come a day When they'll give you all your pay, And treat you as a Christian ought to do; So, until that day comes round, Heaven keep you safe and sound, And, Thomas, here's my best respects to you! -- R. K. m.