Some Thoughts on Kipling

Written on October 19, 2007 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in Arts & Cultures & Societies


Rolf Strom-Olsen

Several days ago, my fellow contributor Santiago Iniguez posted his comments about ‘If’, the well-known poem by Rudyard Kipling, who among other things remains the youngest winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (an achievement that was not threatened by this year’s recipient). Reading those well-known verses, I was reminded how much Kipling remains a fairly misunderstood character. His name is still closely associated with the late nineteenth century jingoism of the British Empire, the poet laureate of the Gatling gun. His reputation, once unassailable, has tumbled along with the British Empire with which he is so closely associated. Much of Kipling’s writings has been eclipsed, or at least coloured by, the perception that he was cheerleading a British imperial impulse founded on exploitation and racial superiority. After all, this was the man who wrote, in response to America’s tentative efforts as an imperial power (in the Philippines),

                        Take up the White Man’s burden–
                        Send forth the best ye breed–
                         Go bind your sons to exile
                         To serve your captives’ need;
                         To wait in heavy harness,
                         On fluttered folk and wild–
                         Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
                         Half-devil and half-child.

There’s plenty in those verses and the rest (The cry of hosts ye humour (ah, slowly!) toward the light:– "Why brought he us from bondage, our loved Egyptian night?") to send any of us running to buy a copy of Edward Said‘s Orientalism to atone.  But despite wearing the prejudices of his era comfortably, Kipling is much more than jingoistic ethnocentrism. In another of his famous poems, Mandalay, Kipling reminds us that for many a poor British soldier, ‘the East’ represented a freedom unavailable in Britain: economic freedom, but more importantly class and social freedom. The lines are intoxicating:

                        I am sick o’ wastin’ leather on these gritty pavin’-stones,
                        An’ the blasted English drizzle wakes the fever in my bones;
                        Tho’ I walks with fifty ‘ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand,
                        An’ they talks a lot o’ lovin’, but wot do they understand?
                        Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
                        Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst;
                        For the temple-bells are callin’, an’ it’s there that I would be —
                        By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea.

Kipling is not particularly considered a great poet. His penchant for versifying the London cockney that was a stock association with the common British soldier often makes reading his poetry laborious – particularly to a modern reader. But those lines, both as verse and sentiment, are as good as anything written.

Kipling is also a precursor to that generation of English poets who emerged from the carnage of horror of the Great War having discovered, for want of a better term, realism. Much like the 1927 Generation, these writers challenged profoundly the artistic and aesthetic foundations of an earlier generation. (Paul Fussell has carefully outlined the trajectory of this conversion in his book The Great War and Modern Memory and if you haven’t read it, it is an outstanding and enduring masterpiece of modern scholarship). Henry Newbolt’s "Vitaï Lampada" is the exemplar of the prevailing Edwardian mentality – war as cricket, ugh:
                        But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks-
                        "Play up! Play up! And play the game!"

This Edwardian world view is still visible today: every November, citizens across the British Commonwealth pin small red poppies to their lapels. This totem is linked to the First World War thanks to the poem by John McCrae that has made poppies a symbol of the dead, practically since its publication (in Punch in 1915): 

                        In Flanders Fields the poppies blow,
                         between the crosses, row on row,
                         That mark our place….

The sentiment, however, deteriorates by the end and the initial promise of a sombre memento mori becomes a rather crass recruiting campaign (to borrow from Fussell’s blunt description). Kipling, while widely associated with this older generation, rarely, if ever, indulges in such pat sentimentality. Contrast McCrae’s call in 1915 for redemption through a death avenged with Kipling’s blunt advice from the 1890s to the young British soldier. Having observed the likelihood of contracting cholera, being cuckolded, and finally abandoned  on the field, Kipling concludes grimly:

                        When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
                        And the women come out to cut up what remains,
                        Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
                        An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.

Ouch! That’s a long way from the playing fields of Eton, and a pretty unflinching image. And in Tommy, Kipling’s voice may be a little thick on the faux-cockney, but I suspect these lines rang pretty true:

                        We aren’t no thin red ‘eroes, nor we aren’t no blackguards too,
                        But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you;
                        An’ if sometimes our conduck isn’t all your fancy paints,
                        Why single men in barricks don’t grow into plaster saints….

Kipling’s own son, John (for whom he penned ‘If’) was killed at Loos in France in 1915 and he never got over the loss ("These were our children who died for our lands," he wrote, with a hidden emphasis on the possessive our). But even before this tragedy befell him, Kipling’s verse was more than the usual stuff of the British Empire, even if it was steeped in a racist and imperial lingo that divided the world hierarchically along lines of, inter alia, religion and colour. I doubt Kipling’s reputation will ever fully recover from the judgments of a post-colonial discourse, and I am not sure it should. But his ouevre is well-worth a look and there’s plenty to enjoy even for the most discriminating post-modern palate.

Postscript: The British author and poet (and great-nephew of Leopold von Ranke) Robert Graves also saw action at Loos. Graves’ reputation as a poet has always been secondary, but "Persian Version," in which Graves provides an imagined Persian gloss on the Battle of Marathon, contains some of the finest irony ever penned, and is an enduring testament to the way in which conflict begets political spin.

                        Truth-loving Persians do not dwell upon
                        The trivial skirmish fought near Marathon.
                        As for the Greek theatrical tradition
                        Which represents that summer’s expedition
                        Not as a mere reconnaissance in force
                        By three brigades of foot and one of horse
                        (Their left flank covered by some obsolete
                        Light craft detached from the main Persian fleet)
                        But as a grandiose, ill-starred attempt
                        To conquer Greece – they treat it with contempt;
                        And only incidentally refute
                        Major Greek claims, by stressing what repute
                        The Persian monarch and the Persian nation
                        Won by this salutary demonstration:
                        Despite a strong defence and adverse weather
                        All arms combined magnificently together.


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