Kipling, “Men” and “They”

I’ve already written a comment responding to Daniel Karlin’s defence of his interpretation of Kipling’s The Sleepy Sentinel (I say it’s about a soldier executed for sleeping at his post; he says it’s about a sleeping man surprised by the enemy) I ‘ve been thinking more, though, about a rather subtle point that Professor Karlin makes. He writes:

‘they’ also implies an impersonal, if not alien force. Compare the more humane use of ‘men’ in another of the Epitaphs, which is definitely about execution, ‘The Coward’.

Here are the two poems he is contrasting:


Faithless the watch that I kept: now I have none to keep.
I was slain because I slept: now I am slain I sleep.
Let no man reproach me again; whatever watch is unkept—
I sleep because I am slain. They slew me because I slept.



I could not look on Death, which being known,
Men led me to him, blindfold and alone.

So the question is – why did Kipling use “they” in the first poem, and “men” in the second?

Well, in the first poem Kipling has already used “man” in “Let no man reproach me”. To use it again would give the word a great deal of prominence – and notice how the metre of line 3 leaves “man” unstressed; this is not a poem about masculinity.

Whereas “The Coward” maybe is. In wartime discourse “man” and “soldier” were sometimes used as synonyms, and the coward or deserter was seen as unmanly. Isn’t the coward accusing himself of unmanliness when he contrasts himself with the “Men”?

And “The Sleepy Sentinel” (in my interpretation) is about the relation between the rights of the individual and the needs of the  community – a key theme of Kipling’s. The “I” juggles the logic of this difficult question, and finally acquiesces to the demands of “them”.

Or that’s what I think.

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