The twenty-seventh in my ongoing series examining the poetry of Rudyard Kipling. The other posts in the series may be read here, here , here , here, here , here, here, here, here, here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here , here , here and here. Kipling was always concerned with the British Army. Here in one of his earliest poems, Arithmetic on the Frontier, written in 1886 when he was 21, he bemoans the difficulty of fighting on the northwest frontier of India when it was so expensive to educate and train a British officer compared to the cheap in cost native troops they were fighting. It is a striking poem filled with striking imagery, but it was a bad analysis of the military situation. Comparatively few of the troops used by Britain were brought from the United Kindom. Most were native troops, not much costlier than the foes they faced for the White Queen. Add in the wide technology disparity, and as long as Britain was willing to pay the financial cost, it could hold its empire in India indefinitely. The British Raj ended some 62 years after Kipling wrote the poem due to a rising political consciousness of the minute Indian middle and upper classes and because a bankrupt Britain was no longer willing to shoulder the cost. The poem actually has more relevance for our time than Kipling’s, as America’s experience in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrates. Oh well, it is still a marvelous poem!:
Arithmetic on the Frontier
A great and glorious thing it is
To learn, for seven years or so,
The Lord knows what of that and this,
Ere reckoned fit to face the foe —
The flying bullet down the Pass,
That whistles clear: “All flesh is grass.”
Three hundred pounds per annum spent
On making brain and body meeter
For all the murderous intent
Comprised in “villanous saltpetre!”
And after — ask the Yusufzaies
What comes of all our ‘ologies.
A scrimmage in a Border Station —
A canter down some dark defile —
Two thousand pounds of education
Drops to a ten-rupee jezail —
The Crammer’s boast,
the Squadron’s pride,
Shot like a rabbit in a ride!
No proposition Euclid wrote,
No formulae the text-books know,
Will turn the bullet from your coat,
Or ward the tulwar’s downward blow
Strike hard who cares — shoot straight who can —
The odds are on the cheaper man.
One sword-knot stolen from the camp
Will pay for all the school expenses
Of any Kurrum Valley scamp
Who knows no word of moods and tenses,
But, being blessed with perfect sight,
Picks off our messmates left and right.
With home-bred hordes the hillsides teem,
The troop-ships bring us one by one,
At vast expense of time and steam,
To slay Afridis where they run.
The “captives of our bow and spear”
Are cheap — alas! as we are dear.