Two Strong Men

Two Strong Men

This week’s choice is “The Ballad of East and West” by Rudyard Kipling, a poem which has been frequently misquoted.

But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face though they come from the ends of the earth!

Rudyard Kipling (1865—1936)

Poem 231. The Ballad of East and West

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God's great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!
Kamal is out with twenty men to raise the Border side,
And he has lifted the Colonel’s mare that is the Colonel's pride.
He has lifted her out of the stable-door between the dawn and day
And turned the calkins upon her feet, and ridden her far away.
Then up and spoke the Colonel’s son that led a troop of the Guides
“Is there never a man of all my men can say where Kamal hides?”
Then up and spoke Mohammed Khan, the son of the Ressaldar:
“If ye know the track of the morning-mist, ye know where his pickets are.
At dusk he harries the Abazai - at dawn he is into Bonair,
But he must go by Fort Bukloh to his own place to fare.
So if ye gallop to Fort Bukloh as fast as a bird can fly,
By the favour of God ye may cut him off ere he win to the Tongue of Jagai.
But if he be past the Tongue of Jagai, right swiftly turn ye then,
For the length and the breadth of that grisly plain is sown with Kamal’s men.
There is rock to the left, and rock to the right, and low lean thorn between,
“And ye may hear a breech-bolt snick where never a man is seen.”
The Colonel’s son has taken horse, and a raw rough dun was he,
With the mouth of a bell and the heart of Hell and the head of a gallows-tree.
The Colonel’s son to the Fort has won, they bid him stay to eat
Who rides at the tail of a Border thief, he sits not long at his meat.
He's up and away from Fort Bukloh as fast as he can fly,
Till he was aware of his father’s mare in the gut of the Tongue of Jagai,
Till he was aware of his father’s mare with Kamal upon her back,
And when he could spy the white of her eye, he made the pistol crack.
He has fired once, he has fired twice, but the whistling ball went wide.
“Ye shoot like a soldier,” Kamal said. “Show now if ye can ride!”
It’s up and over the Tongue of Jagai, as blown dust-devils go
The dun he fled like a stag of ten, but the mare like a barren doe.
The dun he leaned against the bit and slugged his head above,
But the red mare played with the snaffle-bars, as a maiden plays with a glove.
There was rock to the left and rock to the right, and low lean thorn between,
And thrice he heard a breech-bolt snick tho’ never a man was seen.
They have ridden the low moon out of the sky, their hoofs drum up the dawn,
The dun he went like a wounded bull, but the mare like a new-roused fawn.
The dun he fell at a water-course - in a woeful heap fell he,
And Kamal has turned the red mare back, and pulled the rider free.
He has knocked the pistol out of his hand - small room was there to strive,
“‘Twas only by favour of mine,” quoth he, “Ye rode so long alive:
There was not a rock for twenty mile, there was not a clump of tree,
But covered a man of my own men with his rifle cocked on his knee.
If I had raised my bridle-hand, as I have held it low,
The little jackals that flee so fast were feasting all in a row.
If I had bowed my head on my breast, as I have held it high,
The kite that whistles above us now were gorged till she could not fly.”
Lightly answered the Colonel’s son: “Do good to bird and beast,
But count who come for the broken meats before thou makest a feast.
If there should follow a thousand swords to carry my bones away.
Belike the price of a jackal’s meal were more than a thief could pay.
They will feed their horse on the standing crop, their men on the garnered grain.
The thatch of the byres will serve their fires when all the cattle are slain.
But if thou thinkest the price be fair - thy brethren wait to sup,
The hound is kin to the jackal-spawn - howl, dog, and call them up!
And if thou thinkest the price be high, in steer and gear and stack,
Give me my father's mare again, and I'll fight my own way back!”
Kamal has gripped him by the hand and set him upon his feet.
“No talk shall be of dogs,” said he, “When wolf and grey wolf meet.”
“May I eat dirt if thou hast hurt of me in deed or breath;
What dam of lances brought thee forth to jest at the dawn with Death?”
Lightly answered the Colonel’s son: “I hold by the blood of my clan:
Take up the mare for my father's gift - by God, she has carried a man!”
The red mare ran to the Colonel’s son, and nuzzled against his breast;
“We be two strong men,” said Kamal then, “But she loveth the younger best.
So she shall go with a lifter's dower, my turquoise-studded rein,
My ‘broidered saddle and saddle-cloth, and silver stirrup twain.”
The Colonel’s son a pistol drew, and held it muzzle-end,
“Ye have taken the one from a foe,” said he. “Will ye take the mate from a friend?”
“A gift for a gift,” said Kamal straight; “A limb for the risk of a limb.
Thy father has sent his son to me, I’ll send my son to him!”
With that he whistled his only son, that dropped from a mountain-crest
He trod the ling like a buck in spring, and he looked like a lance in rest.
“Now here is thy master,” Kamal said, “Who leads a troop of the Guides,
And thou must ride at his left side as shield on shoulder rides.
Till Death or I cut loose the tie, at camp and board and bed,
Thy life is his - thy fate it is to guard him with thy head.
So, thou must eat the White Queen’s meat, and all her foes are thine,
And thou must harry thy father’s hold for the peace of the Border-line.
And thou must make a trooper tough and hack thy way to power
Belike they will raise thee to Ressaldar when I am hanged in Peshawur!”
They have looked each other between the eyes, and there they found no fault.
They have taken the Oath of the Brother-in-Blood on leavened bread and salt:
They have taken the Oath of the Brother-in-Blood on fire and fresh-cut sod,
On the hilt and the haft of the Khyber knife, and the Wondrous Names of God.
The Colonel’s son he rides the mare and Kamal’s boy the dun,
And two have come back to Fort Bukloh where there went forth but one.
And when they drew to the Quarter-Guard, full twenty swords flew clear
There was not a man but carried his feud with the blood of the mountaineer.
“Ha’ done! Ha’ done!" said the Colonel’s son. “Put up the steel at your sides!
Last night ye had struck at a Border thief - to-night ‘tis a man of the Guides!”
Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God's great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face though they come from the ends of the earth!

Kipling tells a story of courage and the formation of mutual respect between the anonymous son of a British Army Colonel and Kamal, a horse thief and raider. The poem begins with the source of many misquotations: a couplet that is Kipling’s paraphrasing of line 12 of Psalm 103 (“As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us”). The couplet unfortunately makes sense on its own but Kipling’s intention is clearly expressed in the subsequent lines, where he denies that any separation due to ethnicity or class operates between people of equal calibre.

The next stanza initiates the tale with Kamal’s theft of a prize mare belonging to the Colonel of a regiment stationed on the Border (from the place names in the poem, it seems to be the border between Afghanistan and India as it stood at the time, though all the places mentioned are now in Pakistan).

The son of the Colonel, an officer in his own right, questions his men as to where the thief might be found and Mohammed Khan, the son of a cavalry officer, volunteers the information that Kamal lairs in the plain beyond the Tongue of Jagai and it may be possible to cut him off before he wins to his home by riding pell-mell for the nearby fort. Khan warns the young man not to trespass beyond the fort into Kamal’s territory, for fear that he will be killed by snipers.

The young officer takes a powerful but ugly-looking horse and sets off for the fort, but arrives there without catching his quarry, and continues into the hinterland, barely stopping to eat the food they press on him. Before long he spies the stolen horse with Kamal on her back running through the pass of Jagai and rides hard until he is within pistol range. His shots go wide and Kamal mockingly challenges him to a riding contest since his aim is no better than a common soldier.

The horses are both fleet and the chase lasts a considerable time; every so often the young officer hears the ominous sound of a rifle being cocked ready for firing, though he sees no one. At length, the dawn is rising, the pursuer’s horse tires and falls exhausted to the ground with its rider underneath. Kamal turns the mare round and rescues his would-be foe from being crushed by the thrashing stallion, knocking the pistol out of the young man’s hand in the narrow gap. Kamal tells his pursuer that he could have signalled his snipers to kill at any time during the pursuit and the jackals and birds of prey would have feasted on the remains.

The Colonel’s son is not intimidated, and he stands up to the thief and threatens him with the dire consequences of such an act to all the people of the plain—this is the least palatable part of the poem, in my opinion, since the devastation outlined was only too likely at that time. The younger man’s bravery with his bold proposal to fight his own way back through the perilous plain, impresses Kamal rather than amusing or offending him and he lifts the officer to his feet, saying that he has no wish to hurt such a daring opponent and that the young man has won his respect.

He has developed a similar respect for Kamal and freely offers him the mare as a gift from his father. The mare decides the issue by running to the man she knows best, and Kamal accepts her preference for the younger man, giving him the jewelled accoutrements that are his prize possessions. In exchange, the Colonel’s son offers his other pistol to Kamal: “Ye have taken the one from a foe,” said he, “Will ye take the mate from a friend?”

Since the gift of the saddle, reins and stirrups has been handsomely matched by the gift of the two matched pistols and Kamal wants to be generous to this young man, he decides that since the Colonel has sent his son into danger, Kamal’s son shall accompany the officer back to the regiment and become an officer of the Guides, though his idea of advancement through the ranks is brutally blunt: “And thou must make a trooper tough and hack thy way to power.”

The two sons examine each other and find no fault: they each take a solemn oath sealed by the sharing of blood, leavened bread, fire and earth, the Khyber knife and “the Wondrous Names of God,” after which they mount the horses and leave for the fort, where memories of the misdeeds of Kamal and his men prompt the men of the guard to draw their swords as they approach but the Colonel’s son orders them to stand down and accept the new man of the Guides.

The poem ends by repeating its first stanza, driving home the moral that mutual respect for one another trumps differences in ethnicity and family.

I like this poem because it tells a good story, the moral it conveys is important, and because it is rather misunderstood.