The Ballad of East and West

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"The Ballad of East and West" is a poem by Rudyard Kipling. It was first published in 1889, and has been much collected and anthologised since.

The poem[edit]

Kamal, a tribal chieftain in the North-West Frontier (then on the boundary of the British Raj, nowadays in Pakistan),[1] steals the British Colonel's prize mare. The Colonel's son, who commands a troop of the Guides, asks if any of his men know where Kamal might be. One does, and tells him, and warns him of the dangers of entering Kamal's territory guarded by tribesmen concealed among the rocks and scrub. The Colonel's son sets off on a dun horse in pursuit. He catches up with Kamal at the edge of his territory and fires his pistol at him but misses. Kamal challenges him to a riding contest, and they gallop until dawn; after 20 miles, the dun falls. Kamal turns and knocks the pistol out of the son's hand. Kamal says that it was only by his permission that the son had ridden unharmed through his territory. The son counters that his death would cost Kamal's tribesmen the high price of feeding and quartering a large punitive expedition ("If there should follow a thousand swords to carry my bones away ..."). He demands that Kamal return the mare, and proposes to "fight [his] own way back" to his territory. Kamal advises him that the theft of the mare, which after all didn't belong to him personally, shouldn't provoke him to place his life at risk with such rash demands. The Colonel's son reiterates the demand on behalf of his father, at which point the mare returns to him on her own accord. Kamal respects the mare's choice of owner ("'We be two strong men ... but she loveth the younger best.'") and offers to let the Colonel's son also keep the fine horse furniture with which Kamal has equipped her. The son offers a pistol to Kamal as a return gift between friends, which Kamal accepts. Kamal then commands his only son to protect the Colonel's son on his return journey and to serve valiantly under him for the British Raj, even if he has to fight against Kamal "for the peace of the border-line". Kamal foretells his own death by hanging, and the promotion of his son to a high rank in the cavalry. The Colonel's son and Kamal's son swear blood brotherhood. The two young men ride back to the British fort, where Kamal's son is greeted with hostility by the guards. The Colonel's son admonishes them that his companion is now no longer a border thief, but a fellow soldier.

Critical analysis[edit]

Its first line is often quoted sometimes to ascribe racism to Kipling, particularly in regard to the British Empire.[2] Those who quote it thus often completely miss the third and fourth lines. The full refrain, with which the poem opens and closes, includes a contradiction of the opening line.

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God's great Judgment seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!

This may be read as saying that 'it is indisputable that geographic points of the compass will never meet in this life, but that when two strong men [or equals] meet, the accidents of birth, whether of nationality, race, or family, do not matter at all—the mutual respect such individuals have, each for the character, prowess, and integrity of the other, are their only criteria for judging and accepting one another. Any differences in ethnicity between such individuals are never even considered. The poem is written in the style of a border ballad. It is printed as rhyming heptameters, two of which are equivalent to a ballad stanza; some texts print these in quatrains (groups of four lines). The vocabulary, stock phrases and rhythms are reminiscent of the old ballads, and the culture described is not unlike that of the Border Reivers: the first line of the actual story, for example, is "Kamal is out with twenty men to raise the Border-side" to mean that a raid is in progress to cause trouble in the Border (here the North West Frontier, and originally the English/Scottish Border); the second line contains 'lifted', a Scots term for 'stolen', and the fourth 'calkin' (a technical term of horseshoes, here used to describe a trick of horse-mounted brigands, reversing the horseshoes to leave misleading tracks); and the second quatrain (line 9) has the stock phrase, also found in Sir Patrick Spens (s:Sir Patrick Spens), "Then up and spoke the [Colonel's son] that led a [troop of the Guides]", with a traditional driving rhythm. Such echoes are to be heard throughout the poem: there is a couplet that is repeated with slight variations several times:

There is rock to the left, and rock to the right, and low lean thorn between
And ye may hear a breech-bolt snick where never a man is seen.
(ll 19-20; cf. 35-6 and 43-44)

T. S. Eliot included the poem in his 1941 collection A Choice of Kipling's Verse.


  1. ^ The poem mentions Abazai and Peshawur, which fix the location.
  2. ^ John McGivering (June 27, 2010). "Notes on "The Ballad of East and West"". The New Readers' Guide to the works of Rudyard Kipling. The Kipling Society. Retrieved June 24, 2016.