On the Road to Mandalay

This is an 1892 poem by Rudyard Kipling that got a new life when they turned it into a song in the 1950s. Frank Sinatra sang it. I’ve never heard the song, or read the poem until recently, but I’ve read quotes from it. The poem makes no sense whatsoever, but i can’t find anyone who mentions this.

the opening verse is:

(from here, which has the entire thing: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Mandalay
1.) “Moulmein” is the then-current form of Mawlamyine, currently the third largest city in Burma/Myanmar, way down on the Salween/Thanlwin River. It does have a big, famous pagoda, and it does seem you can look out over the Indian Ocean to the West. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mawlamyine

2.) Mandalay is the second-largest city in Burma/Myanmar, and is some 450 miles up the Irawaddy River. So why is a girl in Moulmein asking a soldier to “come back” to a city 500 miles from where she is? Maybe she hates him.

3.) Considering that Mandalay is 450 miles inland and 200 feet above sea level, I have no idea what a flotilla would be doing there. It also seems highly unlikely that flying fish would be playing there, or doing much of anything else. This is the bit I heard the most, and it gave me the impression that Mandalay was on the sea somewhere. I do realize that it says “on the Road to Mandalay”, but you’d have to be pretty far from Mandalay on that road to see flying fishes playing. You might as well talk about seeing flying fishes playing on the road to Kansas City. And it still doesn’t explain why the flotilla is said to be at Mandalay.

4.) You certainly ought to “hear the paddles chunkin’ from Rangoon to Mandalay”. Rangoon/Yangun is 450 miles downstream. At least this part makes sense.

5.) I don’t know what the dawn “comin’ up like thunder” means, but it sounds poetic and dramatic, so I won’t argue. I will argue, though., about it comin’ up “outer China crost the Bay”. China isn’t acrost the Bay, which faces southwest towards India – and not from Mandalay, which, as I’ve said, is inland. Presumably the geography could refer to Moulmein, where the lady is sitting, or even Rangoon. But in either case, you can’t see China – it’s in the other direction, with a peninsula in the way. And you can’t see the sun come up over the Bay, because you’re facing West, and the sun, even in Myanmar/Burma, comes up in the East.

Is there a point to this? Kipling was in India, and the soldier in the poem was, too, and they ought to know basic geography. It’s not like he was stringing together names just for the effect, because he occasionally gets things right – the Moulmein pagoda, for instance. And it all is "east of Suez*. But the rest is as bad as “Krakatoa East of Java”.

Oh, ans before anyone brings it up, I did see this:


Which is funny, but doesn’t really answer the questions.


I’m not sure you can make total sense of it. I think there’s a couple of things about Kipling that I need to preface this with:

a) he really wasn’t that good of a poet all the time
b) he really was a bit of an apologist for British imperialist rule in India and beyond

I realize b) is a bit controversial, as there have been readings of Kipling which emphasize the role which his prose had in humanizing India for the British populace at home. But my reading will depend a little on this, so bear with me.

What’s Kipling doing? First, his trio of Moulmein, Mandalay and Rangoon basically stretch a triangle over Burma which, if it does not encompass the whole of Burma (among the big cities, it misses Myitkyina in the north, but try rhyming THAT), certainly covers the major parts of it. Kipling uses the cites synechdochically here. But there’s more to it: Mandalay and Rangoon are connected by the Irrawady, the primary axis of transport between the coast and the interior, on which the British no doubt operated a naval (or commercial?) flotilla of steamers. The old Moulmein Pagoda is in there to tie the history of Burma with the future of the British soldiers absence. The past tense is a device here: the British still are in Burma at the writing of his poem, but the conceit here is that they aren’t. And what do the Burmese do? They yearn again for British rule, like a young woman yearns for a strapping soldier. This is made a natural development by the wind in the palm-trees, and historical necessity by the temple bells: they agree with the yound Burmese girl’s desire to have the British soldier back.

That’s only the first stanza, of course. I suppose some of this interpretation may clash with the next few stanzas, though not much, if you accept the conceit British solider=British empire.

Food for discussion, at least.

Maybe she’s visiting relatives in Moulmein at the moment and the sight of the sea reminds her of him? Perhaps they visited Moulmein together. Perhaps he just imagines her there: after all, the girl in the poem is only in the soldier’s mind.

I see the poem less as a justification for British rule (which to Kipling, I imagine, wouldn’t need to be justified - it stood to reason that Johnny Foreigner would want us there), but rather hinging around the lines:

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.”

He’s yearning for the experience of “a cleaner, greener land” “where the best is like the worst” - and his memories of that life meld together into a mélange of romantic Orientalist images; ones that Kipling uses to conjure an impression of the Burmese Far East, intended for a parochial English audience.

[B\Enterprise**'s explanation 9that it’s not supposed to be a literal thing, and that it’s Burma as a whole that’s doing the talking) explains some of the issues, including those apparently land-locked flying fish (if it’s the country as a whole, then it can see out to sea from Moulmein, or somewhere else along the coast).
But I still can’t see how you can see the dawn “come up like thunder outer china crost the Bay” when China isn’t across the Bay, and is, in fact, at your back when you’re facing out over the bay from anywhere in Burma. I have to torture that line to have it make any kind of sense.

Enterprise’s explanation (that it’s not supposed to be a literal thing, and that it’s Burma as a whole that’s doing the talking) explains some of the issues, including those apparently land-locked flying fish (if it’s the country as a whole, then it can see out to sea from Moulmein, or somewhere else along the coast).
But I still can’t see how you can see the dawn “come up like thunder outer China crost the Bay” when China isn’t across the Bay, and is, in fact, at your back when you’re facing out over the bay from anywhere in Burma. I have to torture that line to have it make any kind of sense.

Perhaps because “come up like thunder out of India across the bay” doesn’t scan, and even Rudyard Kipling can’t hack the words around to make it scan.

Yeah, except the dawn doesn’t “come outta Injah crost the Bay”, either. The sun sets over there. What bugs me is that Kipling manages to make several kinds of hash out of geography with that one line.

It’s a real accomplishment.

I’m reading ‘crost the bay’ not to mean that the dawn is coming up across the bay, but that it is shining across the bay. So the dawn comes up (like thunder) out of China (which I’m guessing might mean ‘Indochina’, or just shorthand for east) and it shines across the bay. It’s not the clearest, but seems to be the only reading that makes sense to me.

Also, the ‘Flotilla’ refers to this.

My thoughts if you take it literally is that the soldier originally met the girl in or on the way to Mandalay, and she has gone to the ‘Moulmein Pagoda’ in her grief (maybe to be by the ocean and thus closer to him, or to worship ol’ Budd’). Presumably if he came back she’d return home.

There’s at least two explanations I can come up with: 1. Kipling messed up; not so hard to imagine. For a somewhat distant comparison, look at the way Shakespeare messed up Italian geography. Again, I like Kipling, but he’s not necessarily the most brillant lyricist, and he may have opted for bay for the obvious rhyme and the connection with the sea in the first line. 2. Kipling knew something we don’t, afterall, from Mandalay it’s just across the mountains to China, and there may be some geographic feature locally known as a bay.

And on preview, you already came up with 1., so I’m leaving you to ponder 2…

Thanks to all. I suspect that “China” = “IndoChina” might be the missing link, and that panamajack’s interpretation of the Dawn Coming Up might be what Kipling meant.

I don’t quite buy the geographical confusion. There’s no evidence Shakespeare was ever in Italy, and his lack of geographical knowledge is consistent with “faraway setting”. But Kipling actually was in India, as was much of his intended audience. It seems more likely that the apparent geographical ignorance is really commonly used shorthand that, taken literally, makes no sense today.

I’m not quite sure I’m buying this. Why would Indochina make more sense than China, and why would it stand for the east in general terms? That seems unnecessarily complicated, especially as Kipling is using apostrophes to cut off words where he needs, but doesn’t in the case of China. And why couldn’t China stand for the east, if it comes to that?

If I’m parsing this correctly, the final lines are a sentence that says:

Can’t you hear their paddles chunkin’ on the road to Mandalay, where the flyin’-fishes play and the dawn comes up like thunder outer China across the Bay!

The road to Mandalay might arguably be the Irrawady, in which case we have a problem with reading the bay as the Bay of Bengal as well. But this parsing also makes it difficult to read this to mean the dawn is shining anywhere, simply because the operative verb is very obviously “come up”.

I’m just not sure the text supports that reading at all–and I’m genuinely curious why we need the China='China=Indochina connex here.

Yes, I’ve been mulling this over and had concluded that the Road to Mandalay is indeed the Irawaddy - to me, at least. Hence the flying fishes (not necessarily the marine variety) and the paddles on said ‘road’.

As for the Dawn from China, I presume it could be said in the same way that places in the west of Ireland say ‘next parish America’. It’s fanciful and incorrect, but a vague ‘over yonder’ indication of a direction.

I don’t think there is such a thing as a Burmese fresh water flying fish. the only kind I know is marine (I’ve seen them), and that’s all Wikipedia lists:


There’s a note on the internet about some African freshwater fish that’s similar to flying fish, but that’s not Asia.

What about river fish that jump out of the water - of which there are many, particularly at the approach of a noisy boat - but that don’t provide the right alliteration for a poet. Especially one who’s just chucking a load of random Orientalist imagery around.

Like the Irawaddy dolphin?

Well, this is rather far-fetched,but… The British soldier is obviously no longer in Burma. So let’s say he’s posted in India, on the west side of the Bay of Bengal. From his perspective, the dawn will rise like thunder across the bay.

Of course you’ll have to disconnect the last line of the stanza from the rest of the verse, so that that part is not set in Burma. It just might make sense.

The more I think about, the less likely “Indochina” seems to be right. Given that China is actually east of Burma for a large part of it, I think this case is more likely:

The reference is to being in Mandalay, from which China is indeed to the east. ‘Bay’ is meant to refer to the place in the river where Mandalay is, where the river is in fact a couple miles wide. Problematically this is likely a novel usage for bay, and yet it seems to have been picked up by some, most famously in Las Vegas. I have no doubt those uses all trace back to Kipling.

The other problem is the use of ‘across’. Mandalay is situated on the east side of the river. Possibly the British camp was on the other side of the river when they attacked. Or it is the use of ‘across’ to mean ‘spanning’, in the sense that the dawn spans the bay. (That it is coming up doesn’t force it to be directional, since the dawn over the hills often does come up all at once, and the image fits pretty well). I still favor the latter.

I found a brief note that suggests this reading, in this book (warning - that link took a long time to load for me and may have problems). If you load it, search for ‘dawn’ in the text.

Despite the problems with this, I think it fits in with the other lines around it, suggesting that this must be on the ‘road’ itself. I’d feel more confident if there were some other citations for ‘bay’ on a river.

Oops, I misread the map of the river - it’s not that wide; it splits into several channels of several hundred yards each. I doubt it was much different in Kipling’s day. So it’s not quite a broad area that might be thought of as a bay, but it still seems to fit with the later usages. Here’s a satellite picture.