Mr. Rudyard Kipling
( Originally Published 1919 )[an error occurred while processing this directive]
1. The Good Story-teller
MR. KIPLING is an author whom one has loved and hated a good deal. One has loved him as the eternal schoolboy revelling in smells and bad language and dangerous living. One has loved him less, but one has at least listened to him, as the knowing youth who could tell one all about the ladies of Simla. One has found him rather adorable as the favourite uncle with the funny animal stories. One has been amazed by, his magnificent make-believe as he has told one about dim forgotten peoples that have disappeared under the ground. One has detested him, on the other hand, as the evangelist with the umbrella—the little Anglo-Indian Prussian who sing hymns of hate and Hempire.
Luckily, this last Kipling is allowed an entirely free voice only in verse. If one avoids Barrack Room Ballads and The Seven Seas, one misses the worst of him. He visits the prose stories, too, it is true, but he does not dominate them in the same degree. Prose is his easy chair, in which his genius as a, humorist and anecdotalist can expand. Verse is a platform that tempts him at one moment into the performance of music-hall turns and the next into stump orations the spiritual home of which is Hyde Park Corner rather than Parnassus. Recessional surprises one like a noble recantation of nearly all the other verse Mr. Kipling has written. But, apart from Recessional, most of his political verse is a mere quickstep of bragging and sneering.
His prose, certainly, stands a third or a fourth reading, as his verse does not. Even in a world which Henry James and Mr. Conrad have taught to study motives and atmospheres with an almost scientific care-fulness, Mr. Kipling's " well-hammered anecdotes," as Mr. George Moore once described the stories, still refuse to bore us.
At the same time, they make a different appeal to us from their appeal of twenty or twenty-five years ago. In the early days, we half-worshipped Mr. Kipling because he told us true stories. Now we enjoy him because he tells us amusing stories. He conquered us at first by making us think him a realist. He was the man who knew. We listened to him like children drinking in travellers' tales. He bluffed us with his cocksure way of talking about things, and by addressing us in a mysterious jargon which we regarded as a proof of his intimacy with the barrack-room, the engine-room, the racecourse, and the lives of generals, Hindus, artists, and East-enders. That was Mr. Kipling's trick. He assumed the' realistic manner as Jacob assumed the hairy hands of Esau. He compelled us to believe him by describing with elaborate detail the setting of his story. And, having once got us in the mood .of belief, he proceeded to spin a yarn that as often as not was as unlike life as A Yankee at the Court of King Arthur. His characters are inventions, not portraits. Even the dialects they speak—dialects which used to be enthusiastically spoken of as masterly achievements of realism—are ludicrously false to life, as a page of Mulvaney's or Ortheris's talk will quickly make clear to any one who knows the real thing. But with what humour the stories are told !. Mr. Kipling does undoubtedly possess the genius of humour and energy. There are false touches in the boys' conversation in The Drums of the Fore and Aft, but the humour and energy with which the progress of the regiment to the frontier, its disgrace and its rescue by the' drunken children, are described, make it one of the most admirable short stories of our time.
His humour, it must be admitted, is akin to the picaresque. It is amusing to reflect as one looks round the disreputable company of Mr. Kipling's characters, that his work has now been given a place in the library of law and order. When Stalky and Co. was published, parents and schoolmasters protested in alarm, and it seemed doubtful for a time whether Mr. Kipling was to be reckoned among the enemies of society.. If I am not mistaken, The Spectator came down on the side of Mr. Kipling, and his reputation as a respectable author was saved.
But the parents and the schoolmasters were not nervous without cause. Mr. Kipling is an anarchist in his preferences to, a degree that no bench of bishops could approve. He is, within limits, on the side of the Ishmaelites—the bad boys of the school, the " rips " of the regiment. His books are the praise of the Ishmaelitish life in a world of law and order. They are seldom the praise of a law and order life in a world of law and order. Mr. Kipling demands only one loyalty (beyond mutual loyalty) from his characters. His schoolboys may break every rule in the place, provided that somewhere deep down in their hearts they are loyal to the " Head." His pet soldiers may steal dogs or get drunk, or behave brutally to their heart's content, on condition that they cherish a sentimental affection for the Colonel. Critics used to explain this aspect of Mr. Kipling's work by saying that he likes to, show the heart of good in things evil. But that is not really a characteristic of his work. What he is most interested in is neither good nor evil but simply roguery. As an artist, he is a born rebel and lover of mischief. As a politician he is on the side of the judges and the lawyers. It was his politics and not his art that ultimately made hire' the idol of the genteel world.
2. The Poet of Life with a Capital Hell
Everybody who is older than a schoolboy remembers how Mr. Rudyard Kipling was once a modern. He might, indeed, have been described at the time as a Post-Imperialist. Raucous and young, he had left behind him the ornate Imperialism of Disraeli, on the one hand, and the cultured Imperialism- of Tennyson, on the other. He sang of Imperialism as it was, or was about to be—vulgar and canting and bloody and a world that was preparing itself for an Imperialism that would be vulgar and canting and bloody bade him welcome. In one breath he would give you an invocation to Jehovah. In the next, with a dig in the ribs, he would be getting round the roguish side of you with the assurance that:---
If you've ever stole a pheasant-egg behind the keeper's back,
This jumble—which seems so curious nowadays-of delight in piety and delight in twopence-coloured mischiefs came as a glorious novelty and respite to the oppressed race of Victorians. Hitherto they had been building up an Empire decently and in order, ; no doubt, many reprehensible things were being done, but they were being done quietly : outwardly, so far as was possible, a respectable front was preserved. It was Mr. Kipling's distinction to tear off the mask of Imperialism as a needless and irritating encumbrance ; he had too much sense of reality-too much humour, indeed—to want to portray Empire-builders as a company, of plaster saints. Like an enfant terrible, he was ready to proclaim aloud a host of things which had, until then, been kept as decorously in the dark as the skeleton in the family cupboard. The thousand and one incidents of lust and loot, of dishonesty, and brutality and drunkenness—all of those things to which builders of Empire, like many other human beings, are at times prone—he never dreamed of treating as matters to be hushed up, or, apparently, indeed, to be regretted. He accepted them quite frankly as all in the day's work ; there was even a suspicion of enthusiasm in the heartiness with which he referred to them. Simple old clergymen, with a sentimental vision of an Imperialism that meant a chain of mission-stations (painted red) encircling the earth, suddenly found themselves called upon to sing a new psalm : ---
Ow, the loot !
Frankly, I wish Mr. Kipling had always written in this strain. It might have frightened the clergymen away. Unfortunately, no sooner had the old-fashioned among his readers begun to show signs of nervousness than he would suddenly feel in the mood for a tune on his Old Testament harp, and, taking it down, would twang from its strings a lay of duty. " Take up," he would sing ---
Take up the White Man's burden,
Little Willie, in the tracts, scarcely dreamed of a thornier path of self-sacrifice. No wonder the sentimentalists were soon all dancing to the new music—music which, perhaps, had more of the harmonium than the harp in it, but was none the less suited on that account to its revivalistic purpose.
At the same time, much as we may have been attracted to Mr. Kipling in his Sabbath moods, it was with what we may call his Saturday night moods that he first won the enthusiasm of the young men. They loved him for his bad language long before he had ever preached a sermon or written a leading article in verse. His literary adaptation of the unmeasured talk of the barrack-room seemed to initiate them into a life at once more real and more adventurous than the quiet three-meals-a-day ritual of their homes. He sang of men who defied the laws of man, ; still more exciting, he sang of men who defied the laws of God.. Every oath he loosed rang heroically in the ear like a challenge to the universe, ; for his characters talked in a. daring, swearing fashion that was new in literature. One remembers the bright-eyed enthusiasm with which very young men used to repeat to each other lines like the one in The Ballad of " The Bolivar," which runs---
Boys, the wheel has gone to Hell—rig the winches aft !
Not that anybody knew, or cared, what " rigging the winches aft " meant. It was the familiar and fearless commerce with hell that seemed to give literature a new horizon. Similarly, it was the eternal flames in the background that made the tattered figure of Gunga Din, the water-carrier, so favourite a theme with virgins and boys. With what delight they would quote the verse;---
So I'll meet 'im later on,
Ever since the days of Aucassin, indeed, who praised hell as the place whither were bound the men of fashion and the good scholars and the courteous fair ladies, youth has taken a strange, heretical delight in hell and damnation. Mr. Kipling offered new meats to the old taste.
Gentlemen-rankers, out on the spree,
began to wear halos in the undergraduate imagination. Those " seven men from out of Hell " who went
Rolling down the Ratcliff Road,
were men with whom youth would have rejoiced to shake hands. One even wrote bad verses oneself in those days, in which one loved to picture oneself as
Cursed with the curse of Reuben,
though so far one's most desperate adventure into reality had been the consumption of a small claret hot with a slice of lemon in it in a back-street public-house. Thus Mr. Kipling brought a new violence and wonder, a sort of debased Byronism, into the imagination of youth ; at least, he put a crown upon the violence and wonder which youth had long previously discovered for itself in penny dreadfuls and in its rebellion against conventions and orthodoxies.
It may be protested, however, that this is an in-complete account of Mr. Kipling's genius as a poet. He does something more in his verse, it may be urged, than drone on the harmonium of Imperialism, and transmute the language of the Ratcliff Road into polite literature. That is quite true. He owes his fame partly also to the brilliance with. which, he talked adventure and talked " shop " to a generation that was exceptionally greedy for both. He, more than any other writer of his time, set to banjo-music the restlessness of the young man who would not stay, at home—the romance of the man who lived and laboured at least a thousand miles away from the home of his fathers. He excited the imagination of youth with deft questions such as-
Do you know the pile-built village, where the sago-dealers trade—Do you know the reek of fish and wet bamboo ?
If you did not know all about the sago-dealers and the fish and the wet bamboo, Mr. Kipling had ,a way of making you feel unpardonably, ignorant and the moral of your ignorance always was that you must go—go—go away from here. Hence an immense increase in the number of passages booked to the colonies. Mr. Kipling, in his verse, simply acted as a gorgeous poster-artist of Empire. And even those who resisted his call to adventure were hypnotized by his easy and lavish manner of talking " shop." He could talk the " shop " of the army, the sea, the engine-room, the art-school, the charwoman ; he was a perfect young Bacon of omniscience. How we thrilled at the unintelligible jingle of the, Anchor Song, with its cunning blend of " shop and adventure:---
Hell ! Tally on. Aft and walk away with her !
Well, ah, fare you well for the Channel wind's took hold of us,
The worst of Mr. Kipling is that, in verse like this, he is not only omniscient ; he is knowing. He mistakes knowingness for knowledge. He even mistakes it for wisdom at times, as when he writes, not of ships, but of women. His knowing attitude to women makes some of his verse—not very much, to be quite fair absolutely detestable. The Ladies seems to me the vulgarest poem written by a man of genius in our time. As one reads it, one feels how right Oscar Wilde was when he said that Mr. Kipling had seen many strange things through keyholes. Mr. Kipling's defenders may, reply that, in poems like this, he is merely dramatizing the point of view of the barrack-room. But it is unfair to saddle the barrack-room with responsibility for the view of women which appears here and elsewhere in the author's verse. One is conscious of a kind of malign cynicism in Mr. Kipling's own attitude, as one reads The Young British Soldier, with a verse like----
If your wife should go wrong with a comrade, be loth
That seems to me fairly to represent the level of Mr. Kipling's poetic wisdom in regard to the relations between the sexes., It is the logical result of the key-hole view of life. And, similarly, his Imperialism is a mean and miserable thing because it is the result of a keyhole view of humanity. Spiritually, Mr. Kipling may be said to have. seen thousands of miles and thousands of places through keyholes. In him, wide wanderings have produced the narrow mind, and an Empire has become as petty a thing as the hoard in a miser's garret. Many of his poems are simply miser's shrieks when the hoard seems to be threatened. He cannot even praise the flag of his country without a shrill note of malice :
Winds of the world, give answer ! They are whimpering to and fro
Mr. Kipling is a good judge of yelping.
The truth is, Mr. Kipling has put the worst of his genius into his poetry., His verses have brazen go and lively colour and something of the music of travel; but they are too illiberal, too snappish, too knowing, to afford deep or permanent pleasure to the human spirit.
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Mr. Rudyard Kipling
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