In the end the ayes have it
RUDYARD KIPLING: THE COMPLETE POEMS with a foreword by M. M. Kaye Kyle Cathie, £12.99, pp. 702, ISBN 1856266699 ✆ £10.39 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655 It is 30 years since Carl André’s infamous bricks went into the Tate Gallery and Sir Osbert Lancaster made his immortal comment, ‘I think the fellow needs to have his hod examined.’ Faced, in the intervening years, by such Turner Prize exhibits as Tracey Emin’s stained bed and the light that went on and off (not unlike the one in your kitchen), I have found the Lancastrian pun a soothing stand-by. As they say, if you didn’t laugh, you’d cry.
The latest winner of the Turner Prize was the usual inanity masquerading as art: a shed was dismantled and converted into a boat; the boat was floated, then turned back into a shed again. (O frabjous day! Canoe! Chalet!) The annual tripe was talked about how, whether you liked the work or not, it had at least got people talking about art, and that must be a good thing, mustn’t it? It would get people talking if I murdered my granny; that does not necessarily mean it is something worth doing.
I thought of two literary puns that would meet the case of shed-into-boat-into-shed. One was a reversal of Mark Antony’s ‘If you have tears, prepare to shed them now’ — ‘if you have sheds, prepare to tear them now.’ I was fairly pleased with that, but am not sure I don’t prefer my rejigging of Kipling — ‘If you can keep your shed when all about you are losing theirs...’ (Perhaps the revised Kipling poem could be retitled ‘Skiff’?) It was natural for me to adapt a quotation from Kipling; Jad Adams, in the latest (admirable) biography of him (2005), states, ‘He added more phrases to the language than any writer except Shakespeare and the translators of the King James Bible.’ The Guinness Book of Records claims that ‘If —’ is the world’s most popular poem. In 1995 it was voted Britain’s favourite poem in a BBC poll. Kipling wrote in Something of Myself that it had been ‘anthologised to weariness’. It gave Lindsay Anderson the title for his 1968 film ‘if...’ (The title was chosen to lull the headmaster of Anderson’s old school, Cheltenham College, into allowing the school buildings to be used for the film which — little he knew — was about a bloody schoolboy insurgence against publicschool ritual and sadism. The film has also been seen as a ‘radical updating’ of Kipling’s schoolboy saga, Stalky and Co.) And Dennis Hopper quotes the poem as the photojournalist in Apocalypse Now, when praising Colonel Kurtz to Willard:
Hey, man, you don’t talk to the Colonel. You listen to him. The man’s enlarged my mind. He’s a poet-warrior in the classic sense. I mean sometimes he’ll, uh, well, you’ll say hello to him, right? And he’ll just walk by you, and he won’t even notice you. And suddenly he’ll grab you, and he’ll throw you in a corner, and he’ll say do you know that if is the middle word in life? 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 — I mean I’m no, I can’t — I’m a little man, he’s, he’s a great man.
Kipling’s ‘If —’ was inspired by Leander Starrr Jameson, whose ‘raid’ of 1895-6 is one of the most discreditable episodes in the history of British imperialism. Because Kipling was perceived as an apologist for and inspirer of imperialism, he was reviled in the 1960s — when Oh, What a Lovely War! was staged, hippies guyed the military by dressing in uniforms bought in the Portobello Road market, and a shop opened called I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet. But the anti-Kipling movement had flourished some 60 years earlier. It was led by Max Beerbohm.
Kipling’s biographers are divided as to why ‘Max’ was so poisonous about Kipling. Some put it down to his abhorrence of Kipling’s attitude during the Boer war; but Lord Birkenhead is perhaps nearer the truth in suggesting that Max’s ‘fastidious soul’ was repelled by Kipling’s realism, which he saw as vulgarity and as a prostitution of what he acknowledged was a genuine talent. Max was puzzled at his own virulence. ‘I can’t stop it,’ he admitted, on being told that Kipling was aggrieved at his persecution. In Max’s The Poets’ Corner (1904), one caricature was captioned ‘Mr Rudyard Kipling takes a bloomin’ day aht, on the blasted ’eath, along with Britannia, ’is gurl’. An even more effective hit at Kipling came in Max’s book of parodies, A Christmas Garland (1912). His story ‘P. C. X. 36’ is about a policeman’s violent arrest of Santa Claus for emerging from a chimney with a sack. It is prefaced by a verse purportedly from ‘Police Station Ditties’, clearly a send-up of Kipling’s Barrack Room Ballads. Max wrote:
Then it’s collar ’im tight, In the name o’ the Lawd!
’Ustle ’im, shake ’im till ’e’s sick!
Wot, ’e would, would ’e? Well,
Then yer’ve got ter give ’im ’Ell An’ it’s trunch, trunch, truncheon does the trick!
By making the scansion of this spoof irregular, Max may have intended to suggest that Kipling was an imperfect technician; more probably, the duff lines are evidence that Kipling’s verse is harder to mimic than people suppose. It is a great mistake to think of him as just a tumpty-tum traditionalist. With him, sense and language are always in synch; the medium is part of the message. Look at ‘If —’. Statements are inverted, contrasted or twisted unexpectedly. From the first two lines onwards, concepts are densely packed:
If you can keep your head when all about you Are losing theirs and blaming it on you...
The opening line sets up expectation, which is fulfilled in a dire but comedic way in the second line. Kipling compounds the crisis by the chaser ‘blaming it on you’. It is so simple that it seems as though anyone could have written it, and that is his exceptional skill. A pedant might object that, literally speaking, if you lose your head you are not capable of blaming anybody for anything; and a feminist might want the poem to end ‘you’ll be a woman, my daughter’ but that really wouldn’t scan. The usual interpretation of the poem is as an unthinking manifesto of Victorian stiff-upper-lip virtues; but it contains too much intelligence, variety and insight to be classified in such a narrow way. Its philosophy is closer to the Buddhist ‘middle way’; a poem Kipling wrote 17 years earlier than ‘If—’, ‘Buddha at Kamakura’ (1892) demonstrates both sympathy for and knowledge of the religion.
What of Kipling the despised imperialist? I do not think he was being hypocritical when he described the White Man’s burden — ‘To seek another’s profit, And work another’s gain’ — though no doubt it was quoted by those who saw the empire as a milch-cow to be ruthlessly exploited. His poem ‘Recessional’ has been misinterpreted, especially the lines:
For heathen heart that puts her trust In reeking tube and iron shard.
The word ‘heathen’ suggests Christian superiority over godless natives. But in fact the poem is criticising those who profess a Christian, godly standard, but forget God when the chance of material power presents itself. The ‘heathen heart’ is not the native, but the white man, besotted with military conquest through musket and cannon (‘reeking tube’). In the same poem Kipling wrote of ‘lesser breeds without the law’ — actually referring to Germans misbehaving in Africa. George Orwell wrote, ‘This line is always good for a snigger in pansy-left circles.’ He would have grasped the subtle subversion underlying the poem’s trumpet paeans: it warns of the hubris of empire.
With his journalist’s eye, Kipling sees clearly; but he is not a cynic. He understands that there is love, and demonstrates it in ‘Rahere’, one of his less anthologised poems. Rahere is the King’s jester and a powerful figure. Kipling brings him low with an overwhelming spiritual crisis which makes all his worldly success meaningless. At ‘reeking Smithfield where the crowded gallows are’ he chances upon a hideous leper and a woman who loves him regardless of his condition. That is the standard of love Kipling demands — not romance, pretence or convenience.
It is misleading to quote small excerpts, single lines or stanzas from this poet, because something which is stunning in context becomes far less so in isolation. He works very much by building up, intensifying and carefully preparing for the moment that cuts to the quick. Often a mundane situation has a lofty speculation woven into it. Together they are exquisite. Taken separately they lose their force.
Kipling was born in 1865 in the middle of the Victorian age, yet he seems a modern writer — more so than Yeats, born in the same year. There is a minimal affectation. He works within the framework of rhyme and metre, but does so effortlessly, like a tightrope-walker who seems bound to topple but always reaches the other end of the rope. The complexity of image and language in ‘Rahere’ mirrors the poem’s subject (perhaps with a slight debt to Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’):
Suddenly his days before him and behind him seemed to stand Stripped and barren, fixed and fruitless, as those leagues of naked sand When St Michael’s ebb slinks outward to the bleak horizon-bound And the trampling wide-mouthed waters are withdrawn from sight and sound.
Kipling’s poetry was influenced by Tennyson, Browning, Swinburne and Ralph Waldo Emerson, though not, as Jad Adams points out, by ‘the more contemplative Matthew Arnold’. I think he may also, most surprisingly, have been influenced by Hopkins. He could certainly have seen some Hopkins’ poems in anthologies by Alfred Miles and Canon Beeching, long before Robert Bridges published his selection in 1918. I know that Kipling corresponded with Bridges. Is it possible that Bridges showed him ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ in manuscript? Kipling’s ‘The Sea and the Hills’ (1902) is uncannily Hopkinsian:
Who hath desired the Sea? — the immense and contemptuous surges?
The shudder, the stumble, the swerve, ere the star-stabbing bowsprit emerges?
The orderly clouds of the Trades, the ridged, roaring sapphire thereunder Unheralded cliff-haunting flaws and the headsail’s low-volleying thunder His Sea in no wonder the same — his Sea and the same through each wonder ...
His Sea that his being fulfils.
Michael Roberts justifiably chose Hopkins to be the first poet in The Faber Book of Modern Verse (1931). So, whether Kipling was influenced by Hopkins or arrived at a Hopkinsian style independently, he is a modern.
Jad Adams writes:
After 1891 [Kipling] was attacked by the critics yet adored by the public; as the 20th century wore on he fell from favour with the public but increasingly began to enjoy the grudging respect of critics.
Kipling also influenced some late 20thcentury poets, such as Charles Thomson, a poet admired by John Betjeman. (He is also well known for having founded, with Billy Childish, the Stuckist art group.) Thomson follows Kipling in segueing from the mundane to a deeper psychological insight or wider historical or spiritual perspective on a given subject. Like Kipling, too, he uses refrains. Kipling’s ‘The Glory of the Garden’ has a refrain in which the words take on a different meaning. Through most of the poem the garden is the everyday one behind each house, but in the last stanza the appearance of Adam changes the scene to the biblical Garden of Eden. Thomson took the phrase ‘Is it Art?’ from Kipling’s ‘The Conundrum of the Workshops’ (1890) as both the title and the refrain of one of his own poems.
Cramming all of Kipling’s verse into one paperback takes up a lot of room; but I would not have wanted to lose one line of the foreword by M. M. Kaye, an inspired choice as introducer. (She wrote the essay in 1990.) She records that on the day Kipling’s ‘Danny Deever’, one of his best poems, first appeared in print,
Professor Mason, well-known as an authority on Milton, brought a copy of it into his classroom and, waving it at his students, shouted: ‘Here’s literature! Here’s literature at last!’ an opinion that was endorsed by Tennyson, who told a friend that ‘young Kipling’ was ‘the only one of them to have the divine fire’.