Another Bellamy setting of a Kipling poem. The poem, which is said to be based on a true story, vividly brings out the horror of a public hanging – a contorted black shape, a whimpering cry, men shivering and fainting as they watch. But it’s not anti-hanging; it’s not even anti- this particular hanging, except in the sense of pitying what the poor man has been reduced to. The nearest thing to a narrative voice in the poem is the voice carrying the refrains (“For they’re hanging Danny Deever” and so on) – and that third voice makes it quite clear what we’re to think of Danny Deever:
They’re hanging Danny Deever – you must mark him to his place,
He shot a comrade sleeping, you must look him in the face
Nine hundred of his county and the regiment’s disgrace
They’re hanging Danny Deever in the morning.
(Gawd love yer, Rudyard, but I ain’t reproducin’ your bloomin’ vernacular punctuation for nuffink.)
Nine hundred of his county and the regiment’s disgrace – that line is at the heart of the poem, and really explains what it’s doing. To execute a man is a terrible thing; to turn out first thing in the morning, stand at attention and watch a man being executed is a terrible experience. But, in the world of the poem, it’s what the soldiers must do, when one of their number disgraces them; it’s another burden that they take on themselves. Which is a nasty theme, frankly – the self-pity of the strong, the thug’s troubled conscience – and would make for a nasty poem. I think what just about rescues this poem – making it both brutal and humane, instead of just brutally sentimental – is the vividness of Danny’s suffering and the fellow-feeling of his comrades. In this poem as in My boy Jack, Kipling’s compulsion to turn all the dials up to eleven results in something both moving and troubling.