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. Its first line is often quoted, sometimes to ascribe racism to Kipling, particularly in regard to the Empire.[1] 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.

Critical analysis[edit]

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 most 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)

Plot summary[edit]

The story of the ballad is simple, to do with theft, honour and strength—like many of the border ballads. Kamal, a chieftain of the lawless North west Frontier, raids into British territory, and in the course of his raid, steals 'the Colonel's mare'. The Colonel's son, an officer in the Guides,[2] follows him on "a raw rough dun" (poor quality horse) until he sees the white of the mare's eye. He fires, twice—and misses.

'Ye shoot like a soldier,' Kamal said. 'Show now if ye can ride!'

So the chase continues, until the dun stumbles and falls, whereupon Kamal turns back, and, after knocking the pistol out of the Colonel's son's hand, reveals that they have all along been covered by his men, hiding behind the rocks and thorn. The Colonel's son speaks defiantly of the vengeance that will be exacted should he be killed:

'And if thou thinkest the price be high, in steer and gear and stack,
'Give me my father's mare again, and I'll fight my own way back!'

This earns Kamal's respect, whereon the Briton tells Kamal to

'Take up the mare for my father's gift—by God, she has carried a man!'

The ballad ends with the mare, who has nuzzled the British chest, returning to the Colonel's son; Kamal accepting the son's pistols, and sending his only son to be a trooper in the Guides. This is enough for the British officer to order an end to all the blood-feuds within the native troops:

'Ha' done! ha' done!' said the Colonel's son. 'Put up the steel at your sides!
'Last night ye had struck at a Border thief—to-night 'tis a man of the Guides!'


  1. ^ 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. 
  2. ^ "In the Indian army the name of ‘Guides’ is given to a regiment of cavalry and infantry attached to the Punjab Frontier Force. It was raised by the late Sir Henry Lawrence, chiefly with the view to the men acting as scouts." Voyle & Stevenson (3rd ed, 1876) A Military Dictionary, p. 173, cited in OED