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.” His most famous epitaph has the same epigrammatic conciseness; few talents of this century have been given to epigram, a form more difficult to master – for it demands pure content and direct expression – than discursive forms. “If any question why we died / Tell them, because our fathers lied.”
That is awfully chilly good stuff.
T.S. Eliot said that there is little difference in Kipling’s use of language between his prose and his verse. It is his greatest strength, and what sets him apart.
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.”
That is pretty much my experience of him as well.
I’m a Kipling fan from way back, from childhood. It was the cartoon version of Rikki Tikki Tavi, shown on television back then, that did me in completely. I saw it when I was 7, 8 years old? I remember it vividly. I LIVED that story. Narrated by Orson Welles!
Kipling is good for kids. I took his stuff out of the library and read some of it. I liked the adventure of it, the exotic setting … and I also loved books about animals. So with Rikki Tikki Tavi I was all set. The story 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!_’
How could you NOT keep reading after such an opening? Even now, re-reading that, it makes me want to pick it up again!
I was haunted by the image of the bird PRETENDING to be wounded in order to lure Nagaina the cobra-wife away from her eggs. I was so frightened by that! I wondered if I would have the courage to behave in such a way if I needed to.
As a child, I had no idea that Kipling was controversial. I just loved the stories and the beat of the poems, which reminded me of Longfellow (“hardly a man is now alive who remembers that day and year”). It is compulsively readable stuff. His verse has, what Michael Schmidt calls “metrical drubbing”, a drumbeat that forces you to continue, a rat-a-tat-tat of sound. I think some people dismiss him because his views aren’t “correct” and it’s probably obvious what I feel about such people. There is much that is distasteful in Kipling’s views but to throw him out completely because of that would be a shame. Kipling’s views on Irish independence suck, and obviously I have strong feelings about that issue. But Kipling is a WRITER. He was also a man of his time. As we all are “of our time”. Shakespeare was of his time. Yeah, let’s just write him off, too, because he doesn’t line up with our precious 21st century way of thinking. Yes, Kipling shilled for Empire. So? Every Empire should have such a talented shill!
ut 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 is not to be missed – and Christopher Hitchens (the heir to Orwell) has also written quite a bit on Kipling. All very interesting stuff for Kipling lovers. It’s not about turning a blind eye to the more unsavory aspects of the world Kipling describes. It’s about appreciating his talent as a story-teller, first of all, and putting him in the correct context. I wrote more about that here.
Besides, anyone who captivated my imagination from before the age of 8 has a “forever” place in my heart because … well, you never forget those people who sweep you away before you really know who you are, before you worry about things like context and controversy … when you just like what you like because you like it. It’s that simple.
Kipling’s work clamors with voices. Shouts, catcalls, different dialects … You can feel the dust and heat of India in them, the cacophony of accents, the world … These are not poems in quiet isolation. They rustle, rumble, jostle for position … Kipling has his ear to the ground.
I will also always love Kipling for the following line, which I would actually remember on occasion in high school, when I felt insecure about not being like other people, or not wanting to go along with the pack … I had read the story when I was a kid, and it struck a nerve, and these words would come back to me. Actually, they still do. I really find them comforting. They are from Kipling’s story “The Cat That Walked By Himself.”
The Cat. He walked by himself. He went through the wet Wild Woods, waving his wild tail, and walking by his wild lone.
I think that is marvelous. That line actually helped explain me to myself. Not that I didn’t have friends – I had the best friends! – but to see myself as the cat who “walked by himself” as opposed to some FREAK who didn’t want to drink or have sex or the other things going on in high school … it was really helpful. I am just “walking by my wild lone”, and that’s my nature. It’s okay. It’s okay.
Michael Schmidt, from Lives of the Poets:
His father was a talented teacher of sculpture at the Bombay School of Art and later curator of the museum at Lahore, responsive to the rich multitude of cultures in which he and his family lived. His mother was sister of Lady Burne-Jones and of Stanley Baldwin’s mother. Thus one of his backgrounds was intellectually lively and socially privileged. The other shared in different and older cultures. India in his early years was real to him, not as something inferior or dominated but as something mysterious and compelling. It helped constitute his imagination and memory. As a young child he was under the care of an Indian nurse, and he became proficient in Hindustani as well as English. When as a little sahib he returned to England with his sister, he stood at an awkward angle to the colonial world; the country he came to lacked the warmth, color and easy intimacy of the one he had left. When he returned to India as a young man, he had changed, but it was India that seemed different, no longer second nature to him. He invests much of his writing in reclaiming the first India for himself, and for others – children and adults.
Schmidt posits that the driving theme of Kipling’s work is nostalgia. Nostalgia for a lost land, for childhood itself.
The light verse he wrote for newspapers was collected in Departmental Ditties (1886), a book that reached an English audience. But it was Plain Tales from the Hills (1888) that made a real mark in England and paved the way for the writer’s return. He arrived in London in 1889 with a reputation. He was feted by editors and fellow writers but generally stood apart, a plain man among the literati, preferring the company of men of action, of public deeds – Stanley Baldwin, Lord Milner, Max Aitken (who became Lord Beaverbrook). This was the period of his greatest popularity. Until 1902 he was the most eloquent literary spokesman for a Tory populism that was patriotic, imperial and – above all – responsible. The privileges of being English entailed real duties, duties that were imperatives.
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 opular 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 Houseman, 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 Schmidt:
His reporting during the Boer War was brilliant, presenting “news events” that showed an understanding of the underlying causes. In retirement at Bateman’s, observing from a distance rather than reporting from the fray, and, often alone with his disappointments, he was beset by serious melancholy. The relentless themes of duty, sacrifice and devotion were elicited particularly by the First World War, in which his only son John was killed in 1915 at the Battle of Loos (the body was never found). “The Children” is about his and other parents’ loss … It is as though the biblical cadences gradually lay hold of his verse: he speaks from a moral height in a voice that contains all the voices he has spoken in before.
Here is one of Kipling’s better-known poems.
Shillin’ a Day
My name is O’Kelly, I’ve heard the Revelly
From Birr to Bareilly, from Leeds to Lahore,
Hong-Kong and Peshawur,
Lucknow and Etawah,
And fifty-five more all endin’ in “pore”.
Black Death and his quickness, the depth and the thickness,
Of sorrow and sickness I’ve known on my way,
But I’m old and I’m nervis,
I’m cast from the Service,
And all I deserve is a shillin’ a day.
(Chorus) Shillin’ a day,
Bloomin’ good pay —
Lucky to touch it, a shillin’ a day!
Oh, it drives me half crazy to think of the days I
Went slap for the Ghazi, my sword at my side,
When we rode Hell-for-leather
Both squadrons together,
That didn’t care whether we lived or we died.
But it’s no use despairin’, my wife must go charin’
An’ me commissairin’ the pay-bills to better,
So if me you be’old
In the wet and the cold,
By the Grand Metropold, won’t you give me a letter?
(Full chorus) Give ‘im a letter —
‘Can’t do no better,
Late Troop-Sergeant-Major an’ — runs with a letter!
Think what ‘e’s been,
Think what ‘e’s seen,
Think of his pension an’ —-
GAWD SAVE THE QUEEN!
Michael Schmidt, again, on Kipling’s influences:
Kipling is indebted, among his contemporaries, to Browning for his dramatic monologues, to Swinburne for some of his rhythms, to the Pre-Raphaelites; towering behind his work is the King James Version of the Bible. But ballad, hymn and short story remain his chief poetic determinants. He is a public poet first and last, despite formal inventiveness. His work develops thematically, but the style remains spry, unrepetitive, essentially stable. Eliot sees his development as a shift from “the imperial imagination into the historical imagination” – from geography and the present to history and the sources of and analogies for the presence. There’s a change, too, from a concern with the limbs of Empire – India and the army, principally – to a concern with the imperial heart, with England, with Sussex in particular as its emblem. He pursues imperial responsibilities home.
A complex man.
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 his more controversial pieces. A sort of shuffling hat-trick, where he spoke directly to those who were his most feverish followers, and named names, pointing fingers.
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!
“The Islanders” is one of those brilliant unforgettable moments where someone who may be perceived as being on a certain “side” (even helping to create the articulation of that side), then turns around and says, “Nope. You got me wrong.” No wonder George Orwell and Christopher Hitchens love the guy. They are cut from the same cloth.
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.”
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 (and if you’re a Kipling fan, you do not want to miss Orwell’s magnificent essay – link somewhere up there above):
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.
God of our fathers, known of old–
Lord of our far-flung battle line
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine–
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!
The tumult and the shouting dies;
The captains and the kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!
Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!
If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe–
Such boasting as the Gentiles use
Or lesser breeds without the law–
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!
For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard–
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding, calls not Thee to guard–
For frantic boast and foolish word,
Thy mercy on Thy people, Lord!
You can see why Schmidt sees nostalgia in Kipling’s work. In a way, he is writing about a world that is about to disappear forever, and perhaps he had some consciousness of that. Perhaps his reporter’s instinct was always in gear, to put down “how it was for us”, “what it was like”, because he knew, somewhere, that none of it could last.
I’m glad he got it all down.