Lest we forget – what?

Among the most often quoted phrases on November 11 each year is the solemnly intoned “lest we forget, lest we forget.” Like a church bell “tolling the knell of parting day” they ring out to end ceremonies at Cenotaphs around the world although the words of Rudyard Kipling were never written to remember those who died in “dust of conflict and through battle flame.”
They were written to remind Queen Victoria in 1897, her Diamond Jubilee year, that her Empire would not last forever; and to warn her subjects that their power and pride as a nation was not an immortal right. That one day the sun would set on the British Empire, as it had set on other great empires since small clans and tribes united and became nations.
Kipling’s Diamond Jubilee poem became a hymn, aptly known as “Recessional”, and still sung today as choirs and clergy leave their appointed places at the end of a service. The first verse reminds that England has been blest to be granted “dominion over palm and pine” and prays “Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet – lest we forget”. Lest we forget that with great power come great responsibilities.
It’s an appeal Great Britain never heard – or ignored – as did every empire than once dominated the world. Be it Greek or Roman in ancient times, British until a few decades ago and now the United States and Russia with China pushing hard for the top nation spot, they all find it hard to believe that one day “the tumult and the shouting” of triumphs “ will die (their) captains and their kings depart.”
In courageous prophecy Kipling warned the Queen “far called our navies melt away, on dune and headland sinks the fire/ Lo all our pomp of yesterday” is fading and we are forgetting why.
In his final stanza comes a final warning that it is a “heathen heart that puts (its) trust in reeking tube and iron shard, all valiant dust that builds on dust, and guarding calls not Thee to guard.”
Next time you hear the Recessional sung, listen beyond the glorious music but hear and mark Kipling’s final two lines of prayer: “For frantic boast and foolish word, thy mercy on thy people Lord.”
And next November 11 when you hear “lest we forget, lest we forget” remember what it really is that we’re failing to remember – and why? (Readers interested in a more detailed analysis of Recessional can find at http://kiplingsociety.co.uk/rg_recess1.htm)

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