Known unto God

It seems that the Australians have abandoned a plan to reword the inscription on the tomb of their Unknown Soldier. There had been a suggestion that Kipling’s ‘Known unto God’ should be replaced by some words from a speech by politician Paul Keating: ‘We do not know this Australian’s name, we never will’ and ‘He is one of them, and he is all of us.’
It seems that the proposal was not intended to marginalise religion, or even to sideline a British writer, but was inspired by a desire to commemorate Mr Keating’s speech, which was apparently a moving one.
I’m glad, though, that there has been enough protest to ensure that Kipling’s words will remain. Even to an unbeliever like myself, they pack so much into just three words, reminding us that the dead man was not just a citizen doing his duty to his country, but was a human soul, and unique. When I first saw them on a gravestone in Belgium, my eyes welled up.
‘He is one of them, and he is all of us,’ by contrast is rhetoric. The first half of the sentence is true, if banal; the second half offers us readers a privilege we have not earned. He is not all of us; he is one of those who did more than we will probably ever be asked to do.

8 Comments

  1. IL
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

    “‘He is one of them, and he is all of us,’ by contrast is rhetoric. ”

    It’s all “rhetoric” in the strict sense. It’s just that you find Kipling more persuasive. Moreover, I find both examples “banal” but none the less persuasive for that.

  2. Roger
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

    The Unknown Soldier is very different to an unknown soldier. An unknown soldier may be ‘Known unto God’ and known only unto god; the Unknown Soldier is known to many people, even if they don’t know who he is. I don’t know if we should try to distinguish between them in the inscriptions, because the Unknown Soldier represents all the unknown soldiers and that is what he is famous for.

    But if we do, ‘He is one of them, and he might be all of us’, perhaps. We may have done more than we will probably ever be asked to do, but we can hope we could do as much if we had to, and the claim that he is ‘Known unto God’ is just as much a hope when you look at it.

    • oger
      Posted October 30, 2013 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

      whhops!

      Last sentence should be
      “He may have done more than we will probably ever be asked to do, but we can hope we could do as much if we had to, and the claim that he is ‘Known unto God’ is just as much a hope when you look at it.”

  3. Posted October 30, 2013 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    Kipling’s quote humanizes the unknown man; “he is all of us” flatters the viewer. Perhaps in our self-regarding age the latter is more appropriate, unfortunately.

  4. Richard Eastbourne
    Posted October 30, 2013 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

    It is striking to me how resonant Kipling’s Protestant message remains in an ostensibly secular age: ‘Known unto God’ is to stand naked before God’s mercy without intercession. A challenge from Kipling to all who follow, surely.

  5. Bill
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    The problem is, this always reminds me of the words attributed to Amalric at Beziers, “Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius” (Kill them (all), for the Lord knows those who are his). Both derive from the same biblical root, I imagine.

    • Posted January 31, 2014 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

      An interesting point – though I doubt that the similarity is one that bothers many of the visitors to Thiepval.

  6. Bill
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    Actually, I’ve been corrected. I’m told Kipling took his words from the Acts of the Apostles, whilst Amalric’s words are closer to Timothy.


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