Rudyard Kipling was born in Bombay, India on December 30, 1865.
“I worshipped Kipling at 13, loathed him at 17, enjoyed him at 20, despised him at 25, and now again rather admire him.”
– George Orwell, 1936
I think Orwell’s progression of reactions to Kipling is a pretty universal one (that is, if you don’t start out with the attitude of dismissing Kipling as not worth reading in the first place).
Michael Schmidt, in his wonderful book Lives of the Poets writes:
In Kipling as in Hardy we find a poetry from the turn of the century without traces of poetic weariness, without the rhythmic overemphasis of Swinburne, the esoteric qualities of Arthur Symons, or the twilight of early Yeats. He was a plain-speaking poet, nowhere more pithily than in his “Epitaphs of the War”. These brief, uncompromising last words illustrate his skill in poetry of summary declaration, tough yet humane. “The Coward” is the best of them: “I could not look on death, which being known, / Men took me to him, blindfold and alone.”
Lucy Maud Montgomery (author of Anne of Green Gables and almost 40 other novels) wrote in her journal about Barrack-Room Ballads:
“They are capital — full of virile strength and life. They thrill and pulsate and burn, they carry you along in their rush and swing, till you forget your own petty interests and cares, and burst out into a broader soul-world … We can never be quite so narrow again.”
James Joyce wrote in 1907:
“If I knew Ireland as well as R[udyard] K[ipling] seems to know India, I fancy I could write something good.”
Kipling inspired a generation, many of whom broke away totally from his example. The generation that came after Kipling’s was the generation that saw the destruction of Empire in the first World War.
It was the Chuck Jones animated cartoon version of Kipling’s Rikki Tikki Tavi, shown on television when I was a kid, narrated by Orson Welles, that hooked me in as a child. I LIVED that story and LIVED for whenever it was on. That cobra-head!!
Rikki Tikki Tavi opens:
This is the story of the great war that Rikki-tikki-tavi fought single-handed, through the bath-rooms of the big bungalow in Segowlee cantonment. Darzee, the tailor-bird, helped him, and Chuchundra, the musk-rat, who never comes out into the middle of the floor, but always creeps round by the wall, gave him advice; but Rikki-tikki did the real fighting.
He was a mongoose, rather like a little cat in his fur and his tail, but quite like a weasel in his head and habits. His eyes and the end of his restless nose were pink; he could scratch himself anywhere he pleased, with any leg, front or back, that he chose to use; he could fluff up his tail till it looked like a bottle-brush, and his war-cry, as he scuttled through the long grass, was: ‘_Rikk-tikk-tikki-tikki-tchk!_’
As a child, I had no idea that Kipling was controversial. I loved the stories and the beat of the poems. I loved all of the animals. Kipling’s verse has what Michael Schmidt calls “metrical drubbing”, a drumbeat that forces you to continue. Some people dismiss him because his attitudes aren’t “correct” or they are “problematic” (oh, that word, that word!). Well, yes, all of that is true. But he came from another time? Maybe … uhm … we can learn a lot about that time by reading the words of a man who was fully immersed in it? Yes? No? Okay, suit yourself. Your loss. Kipling is seen as a patriotic jingoistic supporter of violent Empire (and only a fantasist in total denial would claim that that was not, in some part, true. Of COURSE it’s true.) However, this view of him is simplistic. There was more going on with him than that, and he also had conflicting feelings about what it was he was supporting. It’s also important to remember that Kipling wrote one of the greatest anti-war rhymes of all time, a brutal two-line sentiment filled with rage about governments sending young men off to fight in ridiculous wars on trumped-up excuses: “If any question why we died / Tell them, because our fathers lied.”
So, you know: Kipling is complicated.
If the work stunk AND it was propaganda, then yes, put it on the trash-heap, except as a curiosity. But it doesn’t stink. It’s wonderful. It’s revealing. He was hugely imitated in his time and after. He helps us understand a lot of things because he is an eyewitness on the ground: what Empire looked like to those who believed in it, what Empire DID, how it operated, what the people who participated felt and said. He also helps us understand how to write a freaking poem. Some people have real trouble separating content from form. I get it. But it’s important to try to do so. I’ve never had an issue with it. Or, it’s rare that I have an issue with it. This pisses some people off but I’m sorry, I can’t help it. It may seem elementary but it should be repeated: Kipling was a man of his OWN era, not of ours.
Yes, Kipling shilled for Empire. And my ancestry is Irish, and Kipling was no friend to my people, and not at all sympathetic (understatement: he was vicious) towards their push for independence. He was a bigot. But still, his stuff is so rousing and powerful that I read it now and think: Damn, every Empire should have such a talented shill!
But in saying this, does not one unsay what I said above about Kipling’s jingoism and brutality? No, one is merely saying that the nineteenth-century imperialist outlook and the modern gangster outlook are two different things. Kipling belongs very definitely to the period 1885-1902. The Great War and its aftermath embittered him, but he shows little sign of having learned anything from any event later than the Boer War. He was the prophet of British Imperialism in its expansionist phase (even more than his poems, his solitary novel, The Light that Failed, gives you the atmosphere of that time) and also the unofficial historian of the British Army, the old mercenary army which began to change its shape in 1914. All his confidence, his bouncing vulgar vitality, sprang out of limitations which no Fascist or near-Fascist shares.
Kipling’s work clamors with voices: shouts, catcalls, countless dialects (showing the vast SIZE of the British Empire). You can feel the dust and heat of India in them, the cacophony of accents, the bustling activity. These are not poems written in quiet isolation and philosophical contemplation. They rustle, rumble, jostle, shout. Kipling has his ear to the ground.
On a personal note: I will always love Kipling for his story “The Cat That Walked By Himself.” I read the story when I was a kid, and it struck a nerve: I took it personally, even as a child, and one section in particular would come back to me again and again. They still do.
The Cat. He walked by himself. He went through the wet Wild Woods, waving his wild tail, and walking by his wild lone.
It’s not often that you read something that helps explain you to yourself. Or, even more powerfully, gives you permission to just go ahead and be yourself. Humanity is a communal experience. The group is prioritized over the individual. “Walking by your wild lone” is not understood, it’s seen as somewhat suspect. Other people – clustered up in the group – want you to submit to the group so that THEY will feel validated in their desire to always be with the group. It’s nuts, but there you are. This thing shows up in daycare, kindergarten, so it’s probably built into our cell structure, or at least encouraged by millennia of evolution. Regardless: When I needed “down time” as a child (and I needed a lot of “down time”), I thought of that cat strolling by himself through the wild woods and I understood why I needed that down time, even though my friends didn’t get it.
Michael Schmidt, in Lives of the Poets puts out there that the driving theme of Kipling’s work is nostalgia: Nostalgia for a lost land, for childhood, for old dreams like honor/courage/glory. Empire was already on the way out during Kipling’s heyday. Kipling was describing its dying gasps.
When we say he was popular, we can quantify what we mean. By 1918, Departmental Ditties, his least achieved book, had sold 81,000 copies; by 1931 it had sold 117,000 copies. Barrack-Room Ballads and Other Verses remained his most popular book, selling 182,000 copies by 1918 and 255,000 by 1931. The Definitive Edition of the poems, published in 1940, had gone through sixty impressions by 1982. Like Housman, even when his shares were no longer quoted on the intellectual bourse, and critics turned their backs on him, he remained popular with readers.
More from Michael Schmidt:
Everywhere in his poetry we are confronted by formidable skill. Though he wrote few fine lyrics, few lyric writers could achieve his balladic forms. In “The Ballad of East and West” his aptitude with long lines is unmatched: “There is rock to the left, and rock to the right, and low lean thorn between, / And ye may hear the breech-bolt snick where never a man is seen.” This is the natural, expressive style Kipling evolved: it can deal with surface reality, it can name things – anything, the style is inclusive – and it can suggest depths without damaging the surface. Though it has the veracity of speech, it also has the authority of song.
“The Islanders”, written in 1902, was one of Kipling’s more controversial pieces. It was a shuffling hat-trick: he spoke directly to those who were his most feverish supportive followers (flag-wavers, Empire lovers, xenophobic Englishmen), and then went about lampooning them, destroying them. (Again, this is the kind of subtlety of message one misses if you dismiss Kipling as not worth listening to because he doesn’t line up with “enlightened” 21st century thinking.) The poem is one of those brilliant unforgettable moments where someone who may be perceived as being on a certain “side” (even helping to articulate the philosophy of that side), turns around and says, “Nope. You got me all wrong. Let me show you what you sound like.”
No wonder George Orwell and Christopher Hitchens love the guy, because that’s pretty much all they did in their own writing lives. They were both incredibly slippery that way. Or, I would call it fluid. Intellectual independence. The opposite of “partisan hacks.”
Angus Wilson wrote of “The Islanders” that it “takes each sacred cow of the clubs and senior common rooms and slaughters it messily before its worshipers’ eyes.”
Here’s the poem.
NO DOUBT but ye are the People-your throne is above the King’s.
Whoso speaks in your presence must say acceptable things:
Bowing the head in worship, bending the knee in fear-
Bringing the word well smoothen-such as a King should hear.
Fenced by your careful fathers, ringed by your leaden seas,
Long did ye wake in quiet and long lie down at ease;
Till Ye said of Strife, “What is it?” of the Sword, “It is far from our ken”;
Till ye made a sport of your shrunken hosts and a toy of your armed men.
Ye stopped your ears to the warning-ye would neither look nor heed-
Ye set your leisure before their toil and your lusts above their need.
Because of your witless learning and your beasts of warren and chase,
Ye grudged your sons to their service and your fields for their camping-place.
Ye forced them glean in the highways the straw for the bricks they brought;
Ye forced them follow in byways the craft that ye never taught.
Ye hampered and hindered and crippled; ye thrust out of sight and away
Those that would serve you for honour and those that served you for pay.
Then were the judgments loosened; then was your shame revealed,
At the hands of a little people, few but apt in the field.
Yet ye were saved by a remnant (and your land’s long-suffering star),
When your strong men cheered in their millions while your
striplings went to the war.
Sons of the sheltered city-unmade, unhandled, unmeet-
Ye pushed them raw to the battle as ye picked them raw from the street.
And what did ye look they should compass? Warcraft learned in a breath,
Knowledge unto occasion at the first far view of Death?
So? And ye train your horses and the dogs ye feed and prize?
How are the beasts more worthy than the souls, your sacrifice?
But ye said, “Their valour shall show them”; but ye said, “The end is close.”
And ye sent them comfits and pictures to help them harry your foes:
And ye vaunted your fathomless power, and ye flaunted your iron pride,
Ere ye fawned on the Younger Nations for the men who could shoot and ride!
Then ye returned to your trinkets; then ye contented your souls
With the flannelled fools at the wicket or the muddied oafs at the goals.
Given to strong delusion, wholly believing a lie,
Ye saw that the land lay fenceless, and ye let the months go by
Waiting some easy wonder, hoping some saving sign-
Idle -openly idle-in the lee of the forespent Line.
Idle -except for your boasting-and what is your boasting worth
If ye grudge a year of service to the lordliest life on earth?
Ancient, effortless, ordered, cycle on cycle set,
Life so long untroubled, that ye who inherit forget
It was not made with the mountains, it is not one with the deep.
Men, not gods, devised it. Men, not gods, must keep.
Men, not children, servants, or kinsfolk called from afar,
But each man born in the Island broke to the matter of war.
Soberly and by custom taken and trained for the same,
Each man born in the Island entered at youth to the game-
As it were almost cricket, not to be mastered in haste,
But after trial and labour, by temperance, living chaste.
As it were almost cricket-as it were even your play,
Weighed and pondered and worshipped, and practised day and day.
So ye shall bide sure-guarded when the restless lightnings wake
In the womb of the blotting war-cloud, and the pallid nations quake.
So, at the haggard trumpets, instant your soul shall leap
Forthright, accoutred, accepting-alert from the wells of sleep.
So, at the threat ye shall summon-so at the need ye shall send
Men, not children or servants, tempered and taught to the end;
Cleansed of servile panic, slow to dread or despise,
Humble because of knowledge, mighty by sacrifice. . . .
But ye say, “It will mar our comfort.” Ye say, “It will minish our trade.”
Do ye wait for the spattered shrapnel ere ye learn how a gun is laid?
For the low, red glare to southward when the raided coast- towns burn?
(Light ye shall have on that lesson, but little time to learn.)
Will ye pitch some white pavilion, and lustily even the odds,
With nets and hoops and mallets, with rackets and bats and rods
Will the rabbit war with your foemen-the red deer horn them for hire?
Your kept cock-pheasant keep you?-he is master of many a shire,
Arid, aloof, incurious, unthinking, unthanking, gelt,
Will ye loose your schools to flout them till their brow-beat columns melt?
Will ye pray them or preach them, or print them, or ballot them back from your shore?
Will your workmen issue a mandate to bid them strike no more?
Will ye rise and dethrone your rulers? (Because ye were idle both?
Pride by Insolence chastened? Indolence purged by Sloth?)
No doubt but ye are the People; who shall make you afraid?
Also your gods are many; no doubt but your gods shall aid.
Idols of greasy altars built for the body’s ease;
Proud little brazen Baals and talking fetishes;
Teraphs of sept and party and wise wood-pavement gods-
These shall come down to the battle and snatch you from under the rods?
From the gusty, flickering gun-roll with viewless salvoes rent,
And the pitted hail of the bullets that tell not whence they were sent.
When ye are ringed as with iron, when ye are scourged as with whips,
When the meat is yet in your belly, and the boast is yet on your lips;
When ye go forth at morning and the noon beholds you broke,
Ere ye lie down at even, your remnant, under the yoke?
No doubt but ye are the People-absolute, strong, and wise;
Whatever your heart has desired ye have not withheld from your eyes.
On your own heads, in your own hands, the sin and the caving lies!
Schmidt writes of “The Islanders”:
Magesterial, with vehement sarcasm, he turns to the flag wavers, the lazy, the malingerers, and shows them where they are likely to fail. They serve false gods, like the chosen people who, in the Bible, suffer the scourge of the angry prophets. Despite his formal variety, he always sounds a hectoring note; he insists in the way that Marlowe’s dramatic verse or the Old Testament insists, with severity.
One last summing-up quote from Schmidt:
Insider and outsider: Kipling was an innovator from within tradition, inventing forms, developing rhythms, pursuing a poetry that instructs as it entertains. The instruction is of its period; it repels readers with the experience of the Second World War behind them, and young readers who cannot abide incorrect notions. Insistence on racial superiority, on “The Blood” that binds the English, and the paternalistic note reserved for the people of the colonies, grate. But Kipling also wrote Kim. His critics deduce his politics selectively, finding in him a crude consistency of thought that the major works themselves belie. Hardy is a pessimist, but not a programmatic one, any more than Kipling is a thoroughgoing racist, sadist, protofascist or feudalist – all terms his critics have applied to him. Each poem aspires to consistency and truth to itself. But the poet is neither philosopher nor politician. He retains the essential freedom to change, to start a new book, a new poem, to find a new path or an old path through the woods. As an epitaph for journalists killed in the First World War Kipling inscriped, “We have served our day.” This is what he did, in a day when journalism was not merely a job but a vocation, and when ideals of service were not held suspect. Was he an interpreter of popular will or the inadvertent advocate of a new barbarism, the barbarism inherent in the imperial ideal? Robert Buchanan, a Gladstonian Liberal, characterized him as “the voice of the hooligan”, and – yes – we can agree, but beyond the hooligan there is the deep believer, who knows what he has seen and deduces from it what might be, against the current of what actually was happening: the Empire’s overextension and eventual decline. “Recessional” is the great poem of Empire, discursive rather than dramatic, expressing anxiety at imperial habits, the pride before the fall.
Kipling was writing about a world that was about to disappear forever. Perhaps he had some consciousness that the end was nigh. Perhaps his reporter’s instinct was always in gear, and he knew he had to capture “how it was for us”, “what it was like”, “how we spoke,” “who we were,” because he knew, somehow, that all of it was on its way out.
Mummy Gina (my grandmother on the O’Malley side) had a great affection for Kipling’s poem “If”, and could recite portions of it from memory. (My cousin Mike has carried on the tradition. In a recent email blast where we were trying to organize a family get-together, Mike said that if people didn’t respond in such-and-such a time, they would be forced to recite “If” at some point during the family gathering.) The poem always makes me think of her.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!