Gentleman ranker

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A Gentleman ranker is an enlisted soldier who may have been a former officer or a gentleman qualified through education and background to be a commissioned officer.[1] This suggests that the signer was born to wealth and privilege but he disgraced himself, and has enlisted as a common soldier (perhaps at the lowest rank, as a private or corporal) serving far from the society that now scorns him.

Kipling's poem, "Gentlemen-Rankers", and its musical settings[edit]

The term appears in several of Rudyard Kipling's stories and as the title of a poem he wrote which appeared in Barrack-Room Ballads, and Other Verses, first series, published in 1892.

In Kipling's poem "Gentlemen-Rankers", the speaker "sings":

To the legion of the lost ones, to the cohort of the damned,
    To my brethren in their sorrow overseas,
Sings a gentleman of England cleanly bred, machinely crammed,
    And a trooper of the Empress, if you please.
Yea, a trooper of the forces who has run his own six horses,
    And faith he went the pace and went it blind,
And the world was more than kin while he held the ready tin,
    But to-day the Sergeant's something less than kind.
We're poor little lambs who've lost our way,
    Baa! Baa! Baa!
We're little black sheep who've gone astray,
    Baa—aa—aa!
Gentlemen-rankers out on the spree,
Damned from here to Eternity,
God ha' mercy on such as we,
    Baa! Yah! Bah!
Oh, it's sweet to sweat through stables, sweet to empty kitchen slops,
    And it's sweet to hear the tales the troopers tell,
To dance with blowzy housemaids at the regimental hops
    And thrash the cad who says you waltz too well.
Yes, it makes you cock-a-hoop to be "Rider" to your troop,
    And branded with a blasted worsted spur,
When you envy, O how keenly, one poor Tommy being cleanly
    Who blacks your boots and sometimes calls you "Sir".
If the home we never write to, and the oaths we never keep,
    And all we know most distant and most dear,
Across the snoring barrack-room return to break our sleep,
    Can you blame us if we soak ourselves in beer?
When the drunken comrade mutters and the great guard-lantern gutters
    And the horror of our fall is written plain,
Every secret, self-revealing on the aching white-washed ceiling,
    Do you wonder that we drug ourselves from pain?
We have done with Hope and Honour, we are lost to Love and Truth,
    We are dropping down the ladder rung by rung,
And the measure of our torment is the measure of our youth.
    God help us, for we knew the worst too young!
Our shame is clean repentance for the crime that brought the sentence,
    Our pride it is to know no spur of pride,
And the Curse of Reuben holds us till an alien turf enfolds us
    And we die, and none can tell Them where we died.
We're poor little lambs who've lost our way,
    Baa! Baa! Baa!
We're little black sheep who've gone astray,
    Baa—aa—aa!
Gentlemen-rankers out on the spree,
Damned from here to Eternity,
God ha' mercy on such as we,
    Baa! Yah! Bah!

Commentary on the poem[edit]

Kipling's poem, in translation, was set to music by Edvard Grieg in 1900 (EG 156, Gentlemen-Menige.) However, after he had completed it, he received a copy of the English original and was so dismayed by the omission of important passages that he did not publish it; it was published posthumously in 1991.[2]

The poem was also set to music and sung at Harvard and Yale in the early 1900s. According to Whiffenpoof historian James M. Howard, "...this song is known to have been sung at Yale as far back as 1902... Whatever its origins, 'Gentlemen-Rankers' was frequently sung at Yale in 1907–1909, mostly by the Growlers, '08, with whom it was a favorite." The words were famously adapted by Meade Minnigerode and George Pomeroy to become "The Whiffenpoof Song". According to Howard, the musical setting is often attributed to Tod B. Galloway, but is almost certainly the work of a Harvard student named Guy H. Scull, who in turn may have borrowed from a Negro spiritual.[3]

Branded with the blasted worsted spur   refers to the emblem of a spur, embroidered with wool, that was sewn onto the uniforms of the British Army mounted troops in such (distant and uncomfortable) places as India.

James Jones' award-winning bestseller From Here to Eternity, about American soldiers in Hawaii on the eve of the U.S. entry into World War II, takes its title from the poem.

And the Curse of Reuben holds us,   this refers to the Biblical story of Reuben, who, for sexual misconduct, was told by his dying father, "Rueben, thou art my first-born .... Unstable as water, thou shall never excel...." (Genesis 49:3-4).

Billy Bragg borrows part of this poem in his song "Island Of No Return": "Me and the corporal out on the spree, Damned from here to Eternity ".

References[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ "KITCHENER'S NEW ARMY.; Its Personnel, Spirit, and Training Described b...". The New York Times. 1915-01-31. Retrieved 2008-06-09. 
  2. ^ Finn Benestad. Edvard Grieg: Letters to Colleagues and Friends. Peer Gynt Press. pp. 660–1. ISBN 978-0-9645238-2-1.  Based on a recent recording by Monica Groop, it sounds as though the "Baa! Baa! Baa!" choruses were omitted.
  3. ^ James M. Howard. "An Authentic Account of the Founding of the Whiffenpoofs" (PDF). Retrieved 2008-07-30. 

Bibliography[edit]

  • Gentleman Ranker, John Jennings, Reynal & Hitchcock (1942), OCLC 1373887.
  • The Gentleman Ranker and Other Plays, Leon Gordon, Kessinger Publishing 2007, ISBN 0-548-40091-1.

External links[edit]