Here's a virtual movie of a stirring recitation of "Boots" - "Infantry Columns" By Rudyard Kipling. This poem which has often been turned to song expresses the agonies of the British infantry soldier forever marching towards battles in colonial Africa.The sound recording used in this virtual movie comes from a rare 78rpm record set recorded around 1942.. The poem is about the endless marching done in Africa. The soldier would march for weeks with no one to fight, but because the war was still on, the couldn't take leave ("There's no discharge from the war".) The endless marching with nothing to do but stare at the boots in front of you is maddening. As he says in the poem, hunger, thirst, weariness can all be coped with, but the endless marching with no known destination or battle to be fought is worse than all of them, including being shot at. Somewhere there is audio of Kipling himself reading this poem. In his short preface, he talks about how few people can understand the stresses on an infantrymen during a long forced march.
In the early months of 1900 Lord Roberts led 60,000 men in a remarkable series of forced marches, starting from Cape Town. They took Bloemfontein, capital of the Orange Free State, 650 miles (1045 km) away, on March 13, reaching Johannesburg on 31 May and went on to take Pretoria, capital of the Transvaal, some 950 miles (1500 km) north-east of Capetown, on June 5.
As a writer who drove himself to the point of breakdown, Kipling identified closely with men under strain.
The image of marching feet first impressed itself on him as a nineteen-year-old in April 1885, when he was acting as special correspondent for the Civil and Military Gazette at Rawalpindi. A Durbar had been convened there to celebrate the meeting between the Viceroy and the Amir of Afghanistan. These boots were then an image of perfection. He wrote admiringly in his review of:
'an infinity of booted feet coming down and taking up, with the exactness of a machine'. [Civil and Military Gazette 6 April, 1885, collected in Thomas Pinney, Kipling's India]
But he had thrown so much into fulfilling this, his first major assignment, that he was exhausted, so overstrung that he couldn't sleep. On April 6 his diary notes:
'I must shut up with a click before long. Too little sleep and too much seen.' [Published in Thomas Pinney, Something of Myself and other Autobiographical Writings.]
Kipling already knew enough about his own propensity to depression and nervous collapse to be alarmed. On the following day, April 7, he found himself hallucinating those marchers whose mechanical perfection he had watched earlier:
'Review and phantasms of hundreds and thousands of legs all moving together have stopped mysleep altogether.'
The fear of breakdown -- 'shutting up with a click' - which accompanied that hallucination is revived here, in the such lines as:
'Oh -- my -- God -- keep me from goin' lunatic!'
In A Handbook to the Poetry of Rudyard Kipling (1914) Durand claims that if the first four words in each line are read at the rate of two words to a second that will give the time at which a foot soldier used to march.
All rights are reserved on this video recording copyright Jim Clark 2013
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