This post examines the way Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ and Kipling’s ‘The Ballad of East and West’ are often misinterpreted through a literal reading of their most famous lines – when in fact their message is almost the diametrical opposite.
Born in the USA (Bruce Springsteen)
A link here.
One of Springsteen’s greatest hits, taken at face value from the chorus, the song is a simple, even jingoistic, celebration of America. But listening to the lyrics more closely tells a completely different story.
The opening lines give a clue that this isn’t a simple song:
Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
Continuing, we have passages such as:
Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man said “son if it was up to me”
And references to ‘the shadow of the penitentiary‘ and ‘nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go’ make it clear that this is a song about someone who’s had a raw deal in life, has no hopes or prospects, the complete antithesis of the American dream. It’s a lament, as many of Springsteen’s songs are, for blue collar America, and a threnody, rather than a glorification, of Vietnam and its impact:
So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land
In this light, the chorus lyrics are a bitter irony: we all know what it ‘should’ mean to be ‘Born in the USA’, but Springsteen is pointing out that for many it’s quite the opposite.
Before moving on, it’s worth saying that I don’t see the song as at all anti-American. Unlike some modern-day protesters and ‘progressives’, from what he writes Springsteen never comes across as hating his country: many of his songs celebrate and champion aspects of it (consider, for example, the various songs he wrote in the aftermath of 9/11, which are both complex and excellent). When he points out the flaws, its because he wants it to live up to the ideals he knows it is capable of. It is the sort of criticism of which Chesterton writes when he says:
Let us suppose we are confronted with a truly desperate thing – say Pimlico… It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico: in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico: for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful… if there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles.
The Ballad of East and West (Rudyard Kipling)
Everyone knows the most famous line of this poem – ‘East is East and West is West and ne’er the twain shall meet‘ – and too many condemn it for that, as if it was truly the poem’s message. But even more so than in Born in the USA, it is obvious that the true meaning is the opposite. In this case, the counterstroke follows immediately on from the (in)famous line, a devastating counterstroke that utterly inverts it:
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!
Far from saying that east and west cannot meet, Kipling is attacking that falsehood, and saying that in actual fact, a person’s character, not the accident of their birth, is what is truly important, and that nationality, race and class make no difference.
The main body of the poem shows beyond doubt that it is this, second, statement that Kipling is saying is true. The two main characters of the poem are the colonel’s brave but impetuous son and Kamal, an Afghan border raider. Throughout the poem, though both are brave and skilled, Kamal is consistently shown to be the superior man, not just militarily:
He has knocked the pistol out of his hand—small room was there to strive,
“’T was only by favor of mine,” quoth he, “ye rode so long alive:
But also in terms of honour, for he answers the colonel’s son’s insults with courtesy and civility:
“No talk shall be of dogs,” said he, “when wolf and gray wolf meet.
May I eat dirt if thou hast hurt of me in deed or breath
The poem then proceeds to have the two men exchange gifts and swear oaths as blood brothers:
They have looked each other between the eyes, and there they found no fault,
They have taken the Oath of the Brother-in-Blood on leavened bread and salt:
They have taken the Oath of the Brother-in-Blood on fire and fresh-cut sod,
On the hilt and the haft of the Khyber knife, and the Wondrous Names of God.
With the poem closing once more on the opening stanza, the message ‘‘But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth’ couldn’t be clearer.
I would say that maybe a lesson should be to not make your most quotable line the opposite of your true meaning. But both Springsteen and Kipling have been rather successful, both in general and with these works in particular, so I guess they knew what they were doing. As a listener though, these two works definitely demonstrate the value of looking at the whole piece, and not assuming you know what the writer’s message is from a single line.