»  Peter Dawson sings Kipling's "Mandalay"

 

Mandalay

by Rudyard Kipling, sung by Peter Dawson

 

•  Background

Rudyard Kipling's poem "Mandalay" was written in March or April of 1890, when the poet was 24 years old. He had arrived in England in October the previous year, after seven years in India. He had taken an eastward route home, traveling by steamship from Calcutta to Japan, then to San Francisco, then across the U.S.A., in company with his friends Alex and "Ted" (Edmonia) Hill. Rangoon had been the first port of call after Calcutta; then there was an unscheduled stop at Moulmein. It is plain that Kipling was struck by the beauty of the Burmese girls. He wrote at the time:

I love the Burman with the blind favouritism born of first impression. When I die I will be a Burman … and I will always walk about with a pretty almond-coloured girl who shall laugh and jest too, as a young maiden ought. She shall not pull a sari over her head when a man looks at her and glare suggestively from behind it, nor shall she tramp behind me when I walk: for these are the customs of India. She shall look all the world between the eyes, in honesty and good fellowship, and I will teach her not to defile her pretty mouth with chopped tobacco in a cabbage leaf, but to inhale good cigarettes of Egypt's best brand.

Kipling claimed, in fact, that when in Moulmein, he had paid no attention to the pagoda his poem later made famous, because he was so struck by a Burmese beauty on the steps. The attraction seems to have been common among the English: Maung Htin Aung, in his essay on George Orwell's Burmese days (those days that produced the novel Burmese Days) notes: "Even that proud conqueror of Ava, Lord Dufferin, although he was received with dark looks by the Burmese during his state visit to Mandalay early in 1886, wrote back to a friend in England, extolling the grace, charm and freedom of Burmese women." (Orwell himself once told his friend Malcolm Muggeridge that he thought "Mandalay" the finest poem in the English language. Perhaps this is also pertinent.)

In 1907 the American songwriter Oley Speaks put Kipling's poem to music, naming his song "On the Road to Mandalay." Peter Dawson, 25 years old, was an established concert singer at the time. He was an established recording artist, in fact, having cut his first cylinder (a song titled "Navaho") in 1904. I don't know when he recorded this version of "Mandalay." He probably made several recordings, and this particular one may be as late as the 1940s. I have put 1920 as a wild guess.

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•  Play the song

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•  Full text of the poem

[Note: Dawson sings only the first and last stanzas — a pity, as the poem has a clear narrative progression, but probably necessary with the recording technology Dawson was working with.]

[Note also that I have copied the poem from The Definitive Edition of Rudyard Kipling's Verse, preserving all the inconsistencies — "what" here, "wot" there, etc. — and spellings. Hathi is the Hindi word for "elephant." Thebaw was the last king of Burma, deposed by the British in 1885. As everybody who studies the poem notices, for inhabitants of Moulmein the sun comes up over the hills of western Thailand; the "Bay" — it is actually the Gulf of Martaban — is to Moulmein's west. Nor is it clear how the old Flotilla lay on the road to Mandalay, which runs inland … Somehow this exquisitely beautiful poem survives it all.]


    Mandalay

        by Rudyard Kipling

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin' lazy at the sea,
There's a Burma girl a-settin', and I know she thinks o' me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
"Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!"
        Come you back to Mandalay,
        Where the old Flotilla lay:
        Can't you 'ear their paddles chunkin' from Rangoon to Mandalay?
        On the road to Mandalay,
        Where the flyin'-fishes play,
        An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay!

'Er petticoat was yaller an' 'er little cap was green,
An' 'er name was Supi-yaw-lat — jes' the same as Thebaw's Queen,
An' I seed her first a-smokin' of a whackin' white cheroot,
An' a-wastin' Christian kisses on an 'eathen idol's foot:
        Bloomin' idol made o' mud —
        Wot they call the Great Gawd Budd —
        Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed 'er where she stud!
        On the road to Mandalay,
        Where the flyin'-fishes play,
        An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay!

When the mist was on the rice-fields an' the sun was droppin' slow,
She'd git 'er little banjo an' she'd sing "Kulla-lo-lo!"
With 'er arm upon my shoulder an' 'er cheek agin my cheek
We useter watch the steamers an' the hathis pilin' teak.
        Elephints a-pilin' teak
        In the sludgy, squdgy creek,
        Where the silense 'ung that 'eavy you was 'arf afraid to speak!
        On the road to Mandalay,
        Where the flyin'-fishes play,
        An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay!

But that's all shove be'ind me — long ago an' fur away,
An' there ain't no 'buses runnin' from the Bank to Mandalay;
An' I'm learnin' 'ere in London what the ten-year soldier tells:
"If you've 'eard the East a-callin', you won't never 'eed naught else."
        No! you won't 'eed nothin' else
        But them spicy garlic smells,
        An' the sunshine an' the palm-trees an' the tinkly temple-bells;
        On the road to Mandalay,
        Where the flyin'-fishes play,
        An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay!

I am sick o' wastin' leather on these gritty pavin'-stones,
An' the blasted English drizzle wakes the fever in my bones;
Tho' I walks with fifty 'ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand,
An' they talks a lot o' lovin', but wot do they understand?
        Beefy face an' grubby 'and —
        Law! wot do they understand?
        I've a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!
        On the road to Mandalay,
        Where the flyin'-fishes play,
        An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay!

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren't no Ten Commandments an' a man can raise a thirst;
For the temple-bells are callin', an' it's there that I would be —
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea;
        On the road to Mandalay,
        Where the old Flotilla lay,
        With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay!
        O the road to Mandalay,
        Where the flyin'-fishes play,
        An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay!