( Originally Published 1907 )
MR. RUDYARD KIPLING is the first Englishman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He is the first Englishman to be crowned in the Court of Literary Europe. He is chosen as our representative man of letters, while George Meredith, Thomas Hardy, and Algernon Charles Swinburne are still amongst us. The goldsmiths are passed by and the literary blacksmith is exalted. We do not know the grounds of the decision; but we do know that Mr. Kipling is not our King. " Where O'Flaherty sits is the head of the table." Where George Meredith sits is the throne of English literature.
Twenty years ago Mr. Kipling went up in the sky like a rocket a rocket out of the magic East; scattering its many-coloured jewels in the bowl of night. Never was there such a dazzling spectacle. The firmament with all its stars was a mere background of blackness for its sudden splendour. Today we see that the firmament with its stars is still there. What of the rocket?
It was a portent. It proclaimed the beginning of a decade of delirium, which was to culminate in a great catastrophe, twenty thousand British dead on the South African veldt and the saturnalia of Mafeking night in London. The rocket that rose in the East completed its arc in the Transvaal. Mr. Kipling, in a word, was the poet of the great reaction. " This voice sang us free," says Mr. Watson of Wordsworth. It may be said of Mr. Kipling that " this voice sang us captive." Through all the amazing crescendo of the 'nineties, with its fever of speculation, its Barney Barnatos and Whitaker Wrights, its swagger and its violence, its raids and its music-hall frenzies, the bard of the banjo marched ahead of the throng, shouting his songs of the barrack-room, telling his tales of the campfire and the jungle, proclaiming the worship of the great god Jingo. What did they know of England, those pitiful, mean-souled Little Englanders, prating of justice, slobbering over natives, canting about the " righteousness that exalteth a nation "? Righteousness! Had we not the mailed fist, and was not the God of battles with us?
For the Lord our God most High He bath made the deep as dry, He hath smote for us a pathway to the ends of all the Earth.
Was not this fair earth ours by purchase and right of race? Had we not bought it from Jehovah by blood and sacrifice?
We have strawed our best to the weed's unrest,
And should we not do as we would with our own? The Indian in India, the Boer in the Transvaal, the Irishman in Ireland what were they but food for our Imperial hopper? " Padgett, M.P., was a liar," a wretched emissary of Exeter Hall, prowling around the quarters of gentlemen and cackling about the grievances of Indians. What did he know of India? What were the natives that they should have grievances? And the Irish, what were they but traitors—traitors against the Chosen People of the God of blood and iron of his inflamed vision, that God
Beneath Whose awful Hand we hold
And Labour? What was the insurgence of Labour but the insolent murmurings of the Walking Delegate? For the Chosen People were few. They did not include the miserable rabble who toiled and who only became interesting to the god-like mind when they took the shilling and entered " the lordliest life on earth." The Chosen People, in a word, had Mr. Cecil Rhodes at one end of the scale and the" raw recruity" at the other. And the Empire was an armed camp, governing by drum-head court-martial, its deity a strange heathen god of violence and vengeance.
The war came, and Mr. Kipling turned contemptuously to the " little street-bred people," and commanded them to " Pay, pay, pay." It was their paltry share in the glorious enterprise of conquest and Empire. And when peace followed, and down at Rottingdean Lady Burne-Jones, the aunt of the poet, pointed the moral by hanging out the legend from Naboth's vineyard, " Hast thou killed, and also taken possession," and the people, with the dregs of the war-fever in them, came about and demonstrated violently, there emerged from the house a small dark man in spectacles with words of soothing and peace. It was Mr. Rudyard Kipling face to face with the passions that he had done so much to kindle.
It is all like a bad dream, the tale of those years a bad dream, with the strum of the banjo sounding through it a sort of mirthless, demoniac laugh the laugh heard at its most terrible in the " Gentlemen Rankers ":
We're poor little lambs who've lost our way,
What was the secret of the hypnotism he exercised?
It was partly the magic of an appeal perfectly attuned to the temper of the time. Israel had waxed fat, and had turned to the worship of the golden calf. It was the emergence of the baser passions, the lust of power without a purpose, of wealth without industry. The gold of South Africa had set up a fever in the blood. It was as though the nation had left the temples of its ancient worship to fall down before the Baal of the Stock Exchange. And in its haste to grow rich it turned passionately upon the stupid little pastoral people that stood insolently in its path, and
Drunk with sight of power, we loosed
In that momentary flash of the " Recessional," Mr: Kipling pierced to the heart of the disease, and delivered his own merciless sentence.
And partly it was due to the astonishing intensity of his vision. Coleridge said of Kean that to see him act was like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning. Mr. Kipling sees life by flashes of lightning, and sets it down in phrases that strike like lightning. It is a world filled with sudden and sinister shapes-not men, but the baleful caricatures of men; not women, but Maenad sisters, with wild and bloodshot eyes and fearful dishevelled locks; with boys that drink and smoke and swear like dragoons; animals that talk and machinery that reasons like a Yellow journalist. It is all a disordered, frenzied motion, soulless and cruel a world seen in a nightmare, with all the intensity and literalness of a nightmare and all its essential untruth. It is
Fantastic mockery, such as lurks
There is the essential fact. Mr. Kipling is a precocious boy with a camera. He has the gift of vision, but not the gift of thought. He sees the detail with astonishing truth, but he cannot co-ordinate the parts. He gives the impression of encyclopaedic knowledge, for everything he sees is photographed on his retina and everything he hears is written down in his brain. There is nothing he does not seem to know, from the habits of Akela the wolf in the jungle or the seal in the Behring Straits to the building of a bridge and the mechanism of a liner; from the ways of Fuzzy-Wuzzy in the desert to the ways of the harlot in White chapel. All lands are an open book to him; the Seven Seas as familiar as the Serpentine. He uses the dialect of M'Andrew or Mulvaney as readily as the jargon of the East, and is as much at home in the Ratcliff highway as on the road to Mandalay. He is like the Encyclopaedia Britannica, fused with imagination at white heat. And as the Encyclopedia is to literature so is he to life. He knows everything except human nature. He knows all about life; but he does not know life, because he does not know the heart of man.
And to the intense vision of the boy he joins the passions of the boy. I am told by one who was with him when he came from India to England to school that he remembers him chiefly by the pranks he used to play at the expense of a mild Hindoo, kneeling on board at his devotions. It was the instinctive dislike of the boy of the thing outside the range of his experience. Mr. Kipling has never outgrown that outlook. It is the outlook of the unschooled mind, vivid and virile, confident but crude, subject to fierce antipathies and lacking that faculty of sympathy that is the highest attribute of humanity. He dislikes every-thing he does not understand, everything which does not conform to that material standard which substitutes Mayfair for Sinai and speaks its prophecies through the mouth of the machine-gun.
A further cause of the unrivalled sway he exercised over the mind of the public was his fervid patriotism. He sang of England with a defiance that sounded a challenge to the world and sent the blood singing through the veins. It was said of General Kleber that merely to look at him made men feel brave. To read Kipling made men feel martial and aggressive. We went out like the children of Hamelin town to the sudden rattle of a drum. But the England of his hot passion was not the little England that we know, the England of Shakespeare and Milton, the England of a high and chivalrous past, that freed the slave, stretched out its hand to the oppressed and taught the world the meaning of liberty. " What do they know of England who only England know," he cried scornfully as he marched on singing his fierce songs of an England that bestrode the world like a Colossus, treading the little peoples of the earth into the dust beneath its iron heel. It was an appeal to the patriotism not of a people proud of its splendid services to humanity, proud of having been ever "foremost in the files of time," but of a people filled only with the pride of material conquest. It was not the soul of England that he loved and sang, but the might of England, the thunder of its battleships and the tread of its armies across the plains.
Mr. Kipling, in short, was not the prophet of a philosophy or of an ideal, but of a mood. The world of his imagination is a world without a meaning or a purpose, for it is divorced from all moral judgments and values. His gospel of violence leads nowhere except to more violence. The lesser breeds are trodden in the dust, but the Chosen People are touched to no fine issues by their victory. They have enslaved their foes without ennobling themselves. Justice and liberty, mercy and tolerance all that gives humanity vision and nobleness is sacrificed to an idol whose nostrils breathe fire and smoke and whose eyes blaze with vengeance.
From all this it is doubtful if he is of the Immortals. With all his wonderful gifts, his swift phrase, his imaginative power, his intellectual energy, he is temporary as the moment's passion, transient as the moment's hate. For his vision is of the lightning, fantastically real; not of the sun, sovereign and serene. Hence his astonishing influence while the mood to which he appealed was in the ascendant, and his subsidence when that mood had passed. He knows much of hate, but he knows little of love, and in literature, as in the angel's recording book, it is Ben Adhem's name, the name of him who loved his fellow-men, that leads all the rest. He knows much of the street, but nothing of the stars. "And indeed," wrote Tennyson, " what matters it what a man knows or does if he keep not a reverential looking upward? He is only the subtlest beast of the field." A reverential looking upward ! Where in all that literature of passion and horror, of the humour of the death's head, and the terrible gaiety of despair, of a world " without a conscience or an aim," do we find the recognition that man has a soul as well as faculties, a moral law as well as the law of the jungle? Once only, and in all the little ironies of literature, there is none more significant than that Mr. Kipling will probably be best remembered by that flash of a nobler inspiration when he turned and rent himself and the gospel that he preached:
For heathen heart that puts his trust