Happy Birthday, Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling was born in Bombay, India on December 30, 1865.

“I woshipped Kipling at 13, loathed him at 17, enjoyed him at 20, despised him at 25, and now again rather admire him.”
– George Orwell, 1936

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 followed 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). Kipling is seen as a patriotic jingoistic supporter of violent Empire (and only a fantasist in total denial would claim that that that was not, in some part, true. However, this view of him is simplistic. There’s more going on there, as well as conflicting feelings about what he was supporting. And 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: it’s 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: what Empire looked like to those who believed in it, what Empire DID (not to mention how to write a freaking poem. Some people have real trouble removing content from form. I get it. But it’s important to try to do so.) There is much that is distasteful in Kipling’s views, especially seen in a modern-day light, but he was a man of his OWN era, not of ours. (The fact that I need to even say this shows the dire state of current education.)

Yes, Kipling shilled for Empire. And remember, my ancestry is Irish, and Kipling was vicious towards the Irish desire towards independence. He was a bigot. But still, I read his stuff, and think, Damn, every Empire should have such a talented shill!

Orwell wrote:

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.

Orwell’s essay on Kipling (excerpt here) is not to be missed. Christopher Hitchens has also written quite a bit on Kipling (one excerpt here).

Kipling’s work clamors with voices: shouts, catcalls, dialects. You can feel the dust and heat of India in them, the cacophony of accents, the bustling world. These are not poems written in quiet isolation. They rustle, rumble, jostle for position. Kipling has his ear to the ground.

I will always love Kipling for the following section from 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 these words 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 a writer helps explain you to yourself.

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 when Kipling wrote.

Schmidt writes:

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 pointing fingers at them, naming names, calling them out. (Again, this is the kind of subtlety of message one misses if you dismiss Kipling as not worth listening to ever.) 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. I am not one of you.”

No wonder George Orwell and Christopher Hitchens love the guy, because that’s pretty much all they did.

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.

The Islanders

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!

Ouch. It’s searing.

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 of that. Perhaps his reporter’s instinct was always in gear, to capture “how it was for us”, “what it was like”, “how we spoke,” “who we were,” because he knew, somehow, that 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.

There is some very good advice here. Words to live by.

If–

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!

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22 Responses to Happy Birthday, Rudyard Kipling

  1. kellyofsiam says:

    I remember reading Kipling from my school days in the 50’s & early 60’s. I came to appreciate him while serving in the army during the Vietnam conflict. I really enjoyed his no nonsense poems on the soldier’s life.

    Later as I read history, I disliked Kipling’s politics but still admired his skill and his respect for the soldiers…I admired Ezra Pound but not his politics…though Pound sat in a cage at Pisa his genius can not be denied.

    Years later, I was a public school teacher on a small island in NW Washington state on a small island near Victoria, BC. I taught both middle & high school. For 15 years I taught 7th grade Language Arts and one of the most delightful memories is having the students read Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. They seemed to enjoy the story and taking turns reading it aloud. They insisted that I show the film. On this small island, everyone knows everyone and parents would relate to me how much their children, who at this age, were pretending sophistication still were delighted with Rikki-Tikki.

  2. sheila says:

    kellyofsiam – It totally warms my heart to hear your stories of teaching this to middle schoolers. I can totally get why they would click with it – it’s such a good story! And Rikki Tikki Tavi is a terrific hero.

    And it’s very nice to hear a soldier’s perspective. I think that’s one of the reasons why I love his stuff: you really feel the dust, the boots in the dirt, the FEELING of battle. He was a man of his time. That’s okay. Makes him interesting! And, always, a hell of a writer.

    Happy new year to you!

  3. D. C. says:

    I loved Rikki Tikki Tavi, too. I was about the same age when I saw it. It’s interesting how, as a child, you just enjoy things for what they are, without any thought or pretense to the person or persons related to it. I have the same fond memories of all those old monogamous classics – Rudolph, Frosty, Charlie Brown, the Grinch. A walk down memory lane, ideed.

  4. sheila says:

    I mean, look at that artwork! Chuck Jones was a wonder. The whole thing is on Youtube if you want to relive it further.

  5. D. C. says:

    Aiye, don’t get me started on Chuck Jones. I could talk about that man for pages (lol). He was one of my idols growing up, along with Charles Schultz, Walt Kelly, and of course Hanna-Barbera.

  6. sheila says:

    Go ahead and talk! I’d love to hear! Have you read the interview Peter Bogdanovich did with him in Bogdanovich’s collection Who The Devil Made It? Great appreciative piece – they knew each other.

    Jones to Bogdanovich: “These cartoons were never made for children. Nor were they made for adults. They were made for me.”

  7. sheila says:

    “If you want to hire an animator today to do something for you in a classic style – if ours was classic – you’d have to hire the same man you hired in 1940. Many of the new animators can’t do it because they have only learned to answer the needs of Saturday morning. Well, you can learn that in six months or less if you can draw. But if you want to animate, it takes almost as long as it does to become a doctor – six years of hard work to become a full animator.” – Chuck Jones to Bogdanovich

  8. D. C. says:

    Nope, never heard of that one. I should clarify – it is his cartoons I could talk about for hours. I’m ashamed to admit I don’t know a lot about the man personally. I just loved his cartoons. His creations were a great inspiration and influence for me as a young artist and I feel privileged to have been around to watch them. Sadly, they don’t make them like that anymore.

    What Chuck did was art, in the truest sense of the word; it came from his heart. Not like today where cartoons are a few cheesy frames slapped together with about as much substance as a cardboard box. Chuck’s creations had character, style, and life. They were funny because they were original. As Chuck himself said, “Each character represented a trait that resides in me.”

    I feel the same way about my own artwork today. For me it isn’t about drawing flat 2D graphics, but about taking a dream, an idea, an inspiration, and giving it life in a truly unique and memorable way. This is what Chuck did for me. His cartoons have character and personality. Through his creations he showed me how much he cared. And I believe that should be the driving force behind any great creative endeavor; that you don’t do it because you can, but because you love it.

  9. sheila says:

    // about taking a dream, an idea, an inspiration, and giving it life in a truly unique and memorable way. //

    Very nice. The interview is great – it’s all about his work. He is so woven up in my childhood – I didn’t even know who he was but I had seen almost ALL of his work – it’s cool to hear how he did it.

  10. sheila says:

    And yes: what he did was art. I mean look at those first four screengrabs of Rikki Tikki Tavi. That’s art. It all is- but I love the nighttime scenes the best. I love the opening too – with the rain falling on all the statuary.

  11. D. C. says:

    I love how Chuck Jones is mentioned alongside Howard Hawks. Hawks is one of my favorite film makers of all time. Of course this just goes to prove again my point that truly great creations come from the heart. Hawks cared as much for his films as Chuck did for his animations.

    My favorite Hawks film is Rio Bravo. Although he made some great classics with Cary Grant (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, I Was a Male War Bride).

  12. sheila says:

    Oh, and don’t get ME started on Howard Hawks!! :)

    My favorite Howard Hawks is Only Angels Have Wings, which is in my top 5 movies of all time. Never get sick of it. N.E.V.E.R.

    But I love them all. Scarface, His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby – all of ’em!!

  13. D. C. says:

    Well, if I started discussing Hawks I would have to go into how much I love The Duke, and we could be here all year. But hey…what a great way to start the new year, eh?

  14. D. C. says:

    You can get all kinds of fun and interesting Chuck Jones tidbits on Chuck Redux – a blog by Chuck’s grandson, Craig Kausen. Although it was not a Chuck Jones one, there is a Daffy Duck cartoon which stands out in my mind. It was Quackodile Tears, in which Daffy is forced to sit on this egg by his domineering wife.

    Honeybunch: Oh darling…..? (brief pause) Hey stupid!
    Daffy: Um…uh….um, yes dear?
    Honeybunch: It’s your turn to sit on the egg.
    Daffy: But, Honeybunch, sitting on eggs is sissy stuff!
    Honeybunch: Stop mumbling and sit on that egg!
    Daffy: I’m not sitting on no egg!
    Honeybunch: Sit on that egg or I’ll…
    Daffy: Nope, no sitting!
    (there’s a muffled whump! and Daffy walks back to the nest with his butt kicked up above his head)
    Daffy: Someday she’s gonna go too far.

    I laughed so hard I cried.

    Sorry, I kind of sidetracked away from Kipling. So back to our regular scheduled programming (lol).

  15. sheila says:

    Ha!!!!

    Classic screwball stuff.

    And yes – Kipling goes with Chuck Jones goes with the Duke – it all makes sense here at chez Sheila.

  16. Nick says:

    Remember Auden’s discarded ending for “In Memory of William Yeats”:

    Time that is intolerant
    Of the brave and the innocent,
    And indifferent in a week
    To a beautiful physique,

    Worships language and forgives
    Everyone by whom it lives;
    Pardons cowardice, conceit,
    Lays its honours at their feet.

    Time that with this strange excuse
    Pardoned Kipling and his views,
    And will pardon Paul Claudel,
    Pardons him for writing well.

    Truer words seldom spoken.

    Besides, we are each creatures of our time, like you said. Miss a lot of great stuff if you go round judging people too harshly.

    Kipling’s one of the greats.

  17. Charles J. Sperling says:

    Kipling does seem to invite complicated responses: George Gissing has Harvey Rolfe reading *Barrack Room Ballads* in *The Whirlpool* (1897), and in his correspendence stated that he’s not endorsing Kipling’s views while recognizing the power of the verse.

    (Incidentally, when you mentioned reading *The Same Man,* I remembered that Orwell was getting together some notes for an essay on Waugh when he died, and while he had his doubts about *Brideshead Revisited* because of the use of the first person, on the whole, he thought Waugh was about the best novelist Britain could boast at the time. Given Waugh’s marginalia on Cyril Connolly, I can’t see him being as generous to Orwell — but maybe I’m wrong. What a shame he didn’t write that essay — or that it couldn’t be discovered after his death, as his essay on Gissing was.)

    Not a word about Donovan’s “Rikki Tikki Tavi,” though?

  18. rae says:

    Well, dang, now all I want to do is rewatch Rikki Tikki Tavi. I think we still have it on VHS!

  19. Fiddlin Bill says:

    Those epigrams are breath-taking. Reading this piece of yours, “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” came to mind: a portrait of an occupying army, the everydayness of it, the way the army is a kind of home. The humane quality of Brittle’s solution to the problem of the hostile force facing him stood out to me the last time I watched the film. Don’t massacre them (Custer’s solution, and Col. Thursday’s failed approach in Fort Apache), just run off their horses and they’ll walk home, defeated.

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