Although it’s in a very different style, this poem shares its central situation with Ford o’ Kabul River: two men are in the army, one is killed and the other is… well, ‘heartbroken’ seems the only word. The loss of a beloved close friend is initially sketched in lightly, even flippantly, by a speaker who knows that other people aren’t grieving as much or at all. By the end of the poem, the same plain diction expresses an overwhelming loss:
’E was all that I ’ad in the way of a friend,
An’ I’ve ’ad to find one new;
But I’d give my pay an’ stripe for to get the beggar back,
Which it’s just too late to do.
Right at the end, there’s a kind of lexical focus-pull: the song shifts registers to speak from somewhere outside the speaker:
Oh, passin’ the love o’ women,
2 Samuel, chapter 1, verse 26: “I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.” I remember my mother citing this to me in the course of a “some people are gay” conversation when I was quite young (she almost certainly didn’t use the word ‘gay’).
So, was there a gay subtext? It depends what you mean by ‘subtext’. Was Kipling writing, in a way he thought his readers would understand without having it spelt out, about two lovers? Certainly not – I think the idea would have horrified him, not to mention his audience. Was he writing about a loving friendship between two men, who were closer to each other than either of them was to a woman? Yes – it’s right there in front of you. And, for me at least (and I am writing as a straight man), whether or not we think of this particular loving friendship as sexual is much less important than the attention and tenderness with which the poem brings it to life. Growing up in a gender-segregated environment, young men like these could both have been straight and still never have had any emotional involvement with a woman to match the friendship they had. Lives are complicated, sex lives in particular.
I learned this from Peter Bellamy’s recording on Keep on Kipling, where it’s accompanied by Chris Birch’s violin as well as Bellamy’s anglo concertina. Adapting an anglo accompaniment for an English concertina isn’t always a good idea; the chordal accompaniment you can hear is mostly my own work.