Kipling: A Celebration in Silence
By ANTHONY BURGESS le Prim Kipling centenary is passing as quietly
c. as the paws of a fieldmouse whisker- twitching through the grounds of a Bateman's Which seems to dream—so little of him is left there—of incumbents earlier than its most famous one. That is a Kipling sort of trick—the image that gets out of hand and fails to illuminate. In 'The Return of Imray,' as Mr. Tompkins reminds us,* lightning 'spattered the sky as a ,st thrown egg spatters a barn-door.' In 'The Light is that Failed' (a good title for an essay on the xl ipling simile), the camel-guns open up lanes in
he Mandi's forces, and these are compared to :n 'the quick-closing vistas in a Kentish hop-
e seen when a train races by at full speed.' of What applies to the simile applies also to the 01 thing plainly described. At the beginning of ht 'Love-o'-Women,' a spot of blood on the parade- ly ground is dried and then pulverised and then le blown about by the wind. I doubt if ever Kipling i8 really saw that happen, but it is the sort of 10 thing a myopic man might imagine as being
available to normal sight. This is not just Beetle ering on the touchline; it is the eye of Allah. Visual fancy often takes the place of straight ob- ervation. That business of the egg on the barn- our has nothing to do with lightning: it belongs With the green digressions of Milton's hell or omer's bardic oadenzas—the epic simile which
not a concentration on the thing in hand, but a temporary release from it.
K ipling had much of the epic poet's equip- ent, but he could not write an epic. I don't, of urse, mean a verse epic; I mean a great novel. e novels he did write are interesting, but they
structural failures: even Kim is pasted to- ether. Kipling did not have the architectural
Looking at a collapsed empire, we feel that It ought, in its greatest days, to have been re- corded in some huge Tolstoyan unity, and that ipling ought to have been the man to do it. e was too small, however; the halo of greatness hich his devotees make sit on him is really an Inanation of that vast wasted subject-matter. any of us want him so much to have sung that finished empire—Britain's only epic theme in a thousand years—that we sometimes dream he actually did it. Perhaps the centennial silence is a sending to Coventry: Kipling let us down.
Or did he? Literature, like history, is what was done, not what might have been done. If Kipling had not been born, there would not have been even a fragmentary record of the Indian Empire from the viewpoint of the men who maintained it; the soldier would have had no voice; warnings about British hubris might never have been delivered in public language that suggests ceremonial robes hastily put on over a sandfly-bitten body. And yet he is the pendent to his age, not the encloser of it. Some of his insights remain astonishing, but he does not ride above history. One does not have to be Hamlet to understand Shakespeare, but Kipling makes most sense to men who have been Private Ortheris or to women who, repatriated with their husbands, find the blasted English drizzle genuinely waking the fever in their bones. The expression of 'general truths' was not Kipling's business as a poet; he was a poet of a sector of life, and this diminishes him.
But it is as a poet that he must ultimately be be judged, not as a writer of conies a clef. He must be read entire in the Definitive Edition of his verse,t not in that dangerous Eliot selec- tion which restored Kipling's name (reassuringly chaperoned on the book's spine) to the shelves of intellectuals. What emerges from a total re- reading of the whole vast verse corpus is an unfailing technical professionalism which—one of art's horrible anomalies—proclaims him as indubitably minor. With a great poet, tech- nique fails along with inspiration; with a minor poet, technique has to get used to sub- sisting on very little. Kipling could do anything —free verse, couplets, Wesleyan hymns, ballads, sestinas, Sapphics—and he never sank to Words- worth's level at its lowest. When he had nothing to say, he could still simulate the accents of the gnomic or profound, invoking Biblical phraseology or contriving neat antitheses or alliterations (form as a substitute for meaning). And yet there is something heart-lifting about the resourcefulness and virtuosity, just as there is something admirable about the stretching of vocabulary to incorporate the exotic and demotic. This is an engine-room more than a poet's bower; Kipling is a sort of MacAndrew.
This easy stigmatisation of Kipling as a minor poet begs, I admit, too many questions. It is not enough to say that the greatest poets are introspective and complex; Lycidas and Mar- vell's 'Horatian Ode' are public utterances, true 'occasional' pieces, but they are magnificent. When Kipling addresses the Americans on their taking up of the, white man's burden, or asks for God's mercy on an empire-building nation, he is performing feats of emotional engineering no less remarkable. But look again at Milton and Marvell, and you find a personal quirkiness, a conscious subjective qualification of a required public sentiment. Kipling does not dare let him- self go, even on the margin, in this way. He has to assume a persona, whether of tommy, high priest, or bard, before he can speak; other- wise he may betray neurosis. What he needed to do, and never could do, was to fuse the poet and the story-teller. The stories are full of schizophrenic imagery, and their very subject- matter has become a mine for amateur psychi- atric investigation. The split, myopic Kipling was scared of seeking catharsis in verse; reading his verse, we always feel vaguely cheated.
Yet, with some poets, we must always be will- ing to forgo depth for the sake of breadth, to accept that the scholar's selection or the bunch of anthology pieces cannot admit us to their essence; they are existential poets. Kipling's best- known poems are a sort of gloss on the daily papers, and there is a great deal to be said for a kind of writing which exalts the ephemeral or finds an exact articulation for our inchoate attitude to the current of events. But when the events are over, we look to their poet for a residue of lasting rhetoric—a distillation from fruit that most of us leave to rot in the trees. Kipling's rhetoric cannot match that of another poet who followed the news and who shares his centenary—W. B. Yeats. At best, Kipling is pub-gnomic, hymnal, Bible-echoing; at worst, Yeats is always himself, whatever orts of decayed Dublin oratory he is chewing. Kipling only gave us something of himself, he withheld. That partly explains the silence.
* THE ART OF RUDYARD KIPLING. By J. M. S. Tompkins. (University Paperbacks, 9s. 6d.) t Hodder and Stoughton, 42s.