If you have clicked on the link in the sidebar, you know who my favorite poet is. I’m fond of Browning as well, and ‘Banjo’ Patterson, Goethe, T.S. Eliot in small doses, and some of G. K. Chesterton’s poems when I can find them. “Ballad of the White Horse” is probably going to be the last epic in the English tradition, I suspect/fear. But the poet I go back to, well, author, since I read his short stories and novels every so often, is Rudyard Kipling. George Orwell called him a “good-bad” poet, and Chesterton admired his skill and his gift for praising the ordinary but disapproved of Kipling’s apparent fondness for the regimentation and cosmopolitan nature. Other critics disliked hi jingoism, his over-fondness for meter, and his lack of sophistication. And supposedly he also wrote bawdy or scurrilous verses about the royal family. For my part, I grew up on Kipling and return to him more than to any other non-religious writer.Kipling is in bad repute (still). He’s jingoistic, imperialistic, chauvinistic, racist, sexist, species-ist, and writes nothing but jingles and bad stories. He’s also very highly regarded in . . . India, based on many of his poems and the novel Kim, which some South Asian scholars consider the first great novel of India. Some of his work makes even his most ardent fans squirm, either because it is soooo British Empire rah-rah, or because it is so strange (“By the Hoof of the Wild Goat” is one of those.) And some of Kipling’s novels are just bad. He did far better in the shorter form, the Just So Stories and Jungle Book, Puck of Pook’s Hill and the follower Rewards and Fairies, and Plain Tales from the Hills are all worth reading and sometimes rereading. They also include goodly amounts of poetry, and it is as a poet that I tend to think of Kipling first and foremost.
I don’t recall the first Kipling poem that I heard, although I suspect it was in the Just So Stories or Jungle Book, because my parents read them to me at bedtime. I know the flow of the words, the rhyming verses, pulled me in. As Patterson said, Kipling was a master of rhythm. I dare you to read the horse race in “The Ballad of East and West” without feeling the canter and gallop of the men’s horses as they cross the Tongue of Jagai. Just try it. Or the dialect in poems like “Gunga Din” and “Belts.” Some poems sailed over my head when I was younger because they dealt with things like adultery, murder, corruption, death, politics: “Ballad of the Red Earl” and “Bonfire on the Ice,” “Russia to the Pacifists,” all went past me. But I could see the reeds at Runnymede “the reeds that bend and never break/ that keep the sleepy Thames awake/ With tales of John at Runnymede.” And I could smell “the wattle round Lichtenberg, riding in, in the rain.”
Once you start reading Kipling’s poems and novels, really reading them, you start to see what he was not racist in the modern sense. He thought some cultures and religions were superior to others, but he admired bits of almost everything he encountered. He’d listen to anyone, according to people who knew him, and could coax stories out of anyone, British colonial administrator or army private or Afghan border bandit. Some critics decried how Kipling wrote about animals and children and even machines, rather than staying with proper topics. I’m glad he strayed, so to speak, because “Pack Law” is wonderful. If you go past the opening of “The Ballad of East and West,” or read all the way through “Gunga Din,” you’ll see that indeed, there is neither border, nor breed, nor birth among the honorable, noble, and brave. Nor is there class, as you can see from the ‘Tommies’ in the Barrack Room Ballads. I point out to my students that “White Man’s Burden” is as much a warning as anything, and that you can read it today, think about foreign aid and UN missions, and see the same things that Kipling described.
Yes, he’s Anglo-centric. Yes, he focuses on men (and male animals). Yes, he was an unapologetic fan of the British Empire, at a time when people (pace Orwell) were starting to question the very idea of colonies and empires. Orwell disapproved of him because his poems were so very entertaining and memorable, and they perpetuated the wrong things. I suspect by the time he died Orwell may have come around a little, at least as far as favoring order to the chaos that he saw erupting from Communism. Chesterton felt that Kipling was not English enough, was too cosmopolitan. I have trouble squaring that with some of Kipling’s work, especially “Puck of Pook’s Hill,” but it may have been true. But I dare you to read through his collected verse, a mere 700+ pages, and not find something that makes you smile.
Which may be part of the problem. Kipling is fun as well as thoughtful. He wrote “Road Song of the Bandar Log” as well as “Recessional” and “The City of Brass” and “Gods of the Copybook Headings.” “Lichtenberg” brings tears to my eyes because I’ve been there: I’ve caught a sniff of something familiar on the wind that pulled me home. But then there’s the Cat Who Walked by Himself, and Elephant’s Child, who was eaten up with ‘satiable curiosity. And tales of marriages gone “wrong,” and blackmail, and a heliograph message read by . . . well, you’ll see 🙂
For a very long time Kipling’s works remained under copyright. They are seeping into the public domain, slowly, and I dearly hope to see an e-book of Rudyard Kipling’s complete verse in the near future. Apparently he is very popular with the NATO troops in Afghanistan, because bullets still fly down the Pass and whistle that all flesh is grass, and “two thousand Pounds of education/ drops to a ten-rupee jezail” even today. Although it is closer to fifty-thousand Pounds, one suspects, given inflation and other expenses.
On June 15 of this year, we will be at the 800the anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta. I leave you with this:
The Reeds of Runnymede
Magna Charta, June 15, 1215
At Runnymede, At Runnymede, What say the reeds at Runnymede? The lissom reeds that give and take, That bend so far, but never break, They keep the sleepy Thames awake With tales of John at Runnymede. At Runnymede, at Runnymede, Oh, hear the reeds at Runnymede:-- "You mustn't sell, delay, deny, A freeman's right or liberty. It makes the stubborn Englishry, We saw 'em roused at Runnymede! "When through our ranks the Barons came, With little thought of praise or blame, But resolute to pay a game, They lumbered up to Runnymede; And there they launched in solid time The first attack on Right Divine-- The curt, uncompromising 'Sign!' That settled John at Runnymede. "At Runnymede, at Runnymede, Your rights were won at Runnymede! No freeman shall be fined or bound, Or dispossessed or freehold ground, Except by lawful judgment found And passed upon him by his peers. Forget not, after all these years, The Charter Signed at Runnymede." And still when Mob or Monarch lays Too rude hand on English ways, The whisper wakes, the shudder plays, Across the reeds at Runnymede. And Thames, that knows the moods of kings, And crowds and priests and suchlike things, Rolls deep and dreadful as he brings Their warning down from Runnymede!