Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Rudyard Kipling - if only...

On 30th December 1865 in Mumbai, India, John Lockwood Kipling and his wife Alice celebrated the birth of a son, whom they named Rudyard.

150 years later Kipling is known (if not always loved) for such timeless classics as the poem, If, his Jungle Book stories (no less than two new animated feature films of which are in production) as well as a host of other easily memorable verse and expertly-crafted stories.

He is, perhaps, less well known as Britain's first winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (and the youngest winner ever) or the man who, while dubbed the 'bard of empire' nevertheless manages to think the unthinkable and express both admiration and understanding for Britain's (then) subject creeds and cultures. There seems to be a slight embarrassment about him, based on simplistic, literal readings of some of his apparently tub-thumping texts.

Yes, he was a propagandist; yes, he was an unabashed (but not unashamed) imperialist. But he was also an establishment figure who saw and spoke up against the hypocrisy and folly of the ruling classes, a friend of kings and princes who understood and loved the ordinary man - whether Tommy Atkins or Kimball O'Hara.

He was also the writer of many memorable phrases that people know and use to this day without often realising that Kipling was their author:

  • East is East, and West is West.
  • Take up the White Man's burden... (send forth the best ye breed - go, bind your sons to exile to serve your captives need).
  • What do they know of England who only England know?
  • The female of the species is more deadly than the male.
  • Somewhere East of Suez.
  • We have forty million reasons for failure, but not a single excuse.
  • We're all islands shouting lies to each other across seas of misunderstanding
  • A woman's guess is much more accurate than a man's certainty.
  • For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.
  • If any question why we died, tell them, because our fathers lied.

That last, especially, should give lie to the myth of Kipling as a jingoistic war-monger. Kipling the man was an intelligent, sensitive critic of establishment prejudice and pride. Kipling the writer was - like the best writers - a ventriloquist, able to utterly inhabit views and mimic voices for literary effect. It's what writers do. That he held views now utterly objectionable to most people is undoubtedly true. But he was also self-aware enough to appreciate his own folly, not least in what he came to most regret - attempts to instil such patriotic fervour into the youth of empire that their numbers would further swell the ranks of the volunteers for war, one of whom - his only son, Jack, was among the millions never to return.

And it is as a war poet, perhaps surprisingly, that Kipling achieves some of his most powerful effects. Long before Wilfred Owen's work was first seen ('the old lie') Kipling was already indicting the morally bankrupt ruling classes who he blamed for sending a generation to their deaths, as in this, one of his finest works, on the British defeat in 1915 at Kut el-Amara, and published two years later under the title, 'Mesopotamia'. 

They shall not return to us, the resolute, the young,
    The eager and whole-hearted whom we gave:
But the men who left them thriftily to die in their own dung,
    Shall they come with years and honour to the grave?

They shall not return to us, the strong men coldly slain
    In sight of help denied from day to day:
But the men who edged their agonies and chid them in their pain,
    Are they too strong and wise to put away?

Our dead shall not return to us while Day and Night divide—
    Never while the bars of sunset hold.
But the idle-minded overlings who quibbled while they died,
    Shall they thrust for high employments as of old?

Shall we only threaten and be angry for an hour?
    When the storm is ended shall we find
How softly but how swiftly they have sidled back to power
    By the favour and contrivance of their kind?

Even while they soothe us, while they promise large amends,
    Even while they make a show of fear,
Do they call upon their debtors, and take counsel with their friends,
    To conform and re-establish each career?

Their lives cannot repay us—their death could not undo—
    The shame that they have laid upon our race.
But the slothfulness that wasted and the arrogance that slew,
    Shall we leave it unabated in its place?

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