Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Rudyard Kipling

My earlier post on Kipling got a fair amount of response, so I thought I would expand on it. Kipling has been my favorite poet since I was about ten, and there are a fair number of his poems I am particularly fond of.

My overall favorite is probably "The Mary Gloster." It's a Browning Monologue, a poem in which a single speaker reveals a great deal about himself in the process of speaking. I prefer it to the ones by Browning I know, such as "My Last Duchess."

The speaker is a dying 19th c. shipping magnate, a self-made wealthy entrepreneur, speaking to his worthless son. One of the things that impresses me about the poem is the degree to which the poet persuades us to the speaker's point of view. The son's interest in "books and pictures" ought to appeal to the modern reader--but doesn't. "Your rooms at college was beastly, more like a whore's than a man's" ought to turn the modern reader off--but doesn't. What remains is the picture of the bitterly unhappy old man whose only remaining wish is to be buried at sea by the wife who died when they were both young, the wife whose memory has been the driving force in his life ever since.

Not that he remained entirely faithful to her memory. "For a man he must go with a woman, as you could not understand/But I never talked them secrets, I paid them out of hand."

Another poem I reread recently is "Cleared." It's a piece of ferocious invective against the Irish independence movement--in particular its terrorist dimension. We almost always see that movement from the favorable side, thanks to folk singers such as the Clancy Brothers and poets such as Yeats. It's interesting to see it from the other side.

"Less black than we were painted? Faith, no word of black was said
The lightest touch is human blood and that, you know, runs red."

Kipling had a very high reputation, especially as a short story writer, early in his career, but fell out of critical favor later, I think mostly for bad reasons. Certainly he had politically unpopular views--but they weren't the views generally attributed to him.

Perhaps the clearest example is the often quoted "For East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet," taken to describe the fundamental gulf between European and Asian cultures. In fact its point is almost the precise opposite, as one can see by reading the rest of the verse, and still more clearly by reading the poem.

"Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God's great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!"

Similarly on race. Kim, his one really successful novel, is set in India. Most of the attractive characters are non-European. The Llama, after Kim the central figure, is a convincing portrayal of a saint--and Tibetan. While there are a few positively portrayed European characters, on the whole the Europeans, both the English and their European opponents, come across as incompetents dealing with a culture they do not understand very well, sometimes well meaning, sometimes not.

The book obviously regards British rule over India as a good thing--but not because of the superiority of the British. For further evidence, consider the two stories (A Centurion of the Thirtieth and On the Great Wall) set in Roman Britain, where the Roman conquerors, positively portrayed, are the imperialists, and the British the ruled.

I like many of the short stories, especially the historical ones, and have reread Kim many times. But it is the poetry that really sticks. For other examples:

The Palace. "After me cometh a builder/Tell him I too have known."
The Peace of Dives. An allegory of interdependence as a force for peace. If I ever put together a collection of literature to teach economics, it will be included.
A Code of Morals. The risks of inadequate encryption on an open channel.
A General Summary. Nothing much has changed in the past few tens of thousands of years.
Arithmetic on the Frontier. Economics of colonial warfare. "The captives of our bow and spear/Are cheap, alas, as we are dear." A point of perhaps renewed relevance today.
Jobson's Amen and Buddha at Kamakura both show just how far Kipling was from the usual cartoon version of the British imperialist.
Cold Iron and The Fairies Siege are about the limits of physical force--and so, I suppose, of political realism--while Gallio's song is an approving description of how an empire deals with religious conflict.
The Last Suttee has one of my favorite examples of the use of meter in storytelling:
We drove the great gates home apace:
White hands were on the sill:
But ere the rush of the unseen feet
Had reached the turn to the open street,
The bars shot down, the guard-drum beat --
We held the dovecot still.
I'll stop now. For a pretty complete webbed selection, just click.


Anonymous said...

I like "The Mary Gloster," too, and the other bookend, "McAndrew's Hymn." Others I particularly like include "Lukannon," "The Land," "The Hymn of Breaking Strain," "A Death-Bed," "The Roman Centurion's Song," "Lalage," and "Certain Maxims of Hafiz."

I agree with you about how striking "'Cleared'" is. It shows Kipling savagely angry, and I'm quite ambivalent about his anger: he was dealing with the murderous terrorists of his own time, but on the other hand I can't feel that the British Empire had any just claim to rule Ireland. But, my god, it's clearly expressed. And had you noticed that the scansion's a perfect fit to the tune of "The Wearing of the Green"? If that was deliberate, it makes the effect even more brutal.

David Friedman said...

Re William's comment ...

I had not noticed the scansion, but I can believe it was deliberate.

The problem you raise with the argument is clearest in the lines "They're only traitors to the Queen and rebels to the Crown." It takes it for granted that they shouldn't be, that they owe the Crown their allegiance.

But it's an impressive piece of rhetoric.

rickthefightguy said...

I tend to start people with 'The Betrothed', and then 'Tommy'. I also love 'the Ballad of the King's Mercy', and the whole set of humorous Barracks Room Ballads, including the Heliograph one and 'Pink Dominoes'.

Anonymous said...

humorous Barracks Room Ballads

I think those were actually the "Departmental Ditties." Very few of them are about soldiers or the military life. The "Barrack Room Ballads" are things like "Danny Deever" and "Tommy."

Anonymous said...


I share your love of Kipling. My favorite, a real hymn to industrialism with an almost Randian feel to it, is his "Son's of Mary"

Jonathan said...

I like Kipling too. I'm more of a one for prose, but I followed your links and was glad to read the poetry. (Your link to Buddha at Kamakura doesn't work.)

David Friedman said...

"Your link to Buddha at Kamakura doesn't work."

Thanks. Fixed.

Jonathan said...

Thank you, rather. I have a few favourite Kiplings and seem to need reminders to branch out and read more of his stuff. As you say, Arithmetic on the Frontier and The Peace of Dives remain particularly apt today.

Daniel A. Nagy said...

I am wondering if you are aware of the extreme popularity of Kipling's poetry in Russia, due in part to excellent Russian translations? Kipling's poems and other writings have a very strong influence on Russian literature (esp. drama) and cinema.
On the dark side, I would say that Kipling's writings are one of the deepest-rooted reasons for the fundamental mistrust towards the English (and, by extension, Americans) in Russia. Many officers in Russia's military and Russian diplomats read Kipling with a "know thy enemy" attitude. The current foreign minister, Lavrov, is very well versed in Kipling's writings and makes references to them quite often when speaking to an English-speaking audience.

But it is "The Gipsy Trail" that is by far his most popular poem in the Russian-speaking world. Its Russian translation actually became part of the Russian-speaking Gipsy culture. Here is a performance by Nikita Mikhalkov with Gipsy dancers and musicians from a classic Soviet movie.

I am sure that most immigrants from the former USSR you might know can recite it by heart (in Russian translation).

Daniel A. Nagy said...

On a recent visit to Uzbekistan, I found it ironic that Russian-speaking Central Asians (Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kazakhs) read (and love) Kipling's poetry in Russian translation. While the British Empire more-or-less completely lost the Great Game in those parts (although, in some sense, it is still on, just like Kipling predicted), Kipling's poetry went on conquering Central Asia along with the rest of the Russian Empire, becoming part of the school curriculum in Russian-language schools.

Here is a performance of "The Gipsy Trail" in Kazakhstan's version of "American Idol" (which happens to be a Russian-language TV program).

Anonymous said...

David writes: "The Llama, after Kim the central figure, is a convincing portrayal of a saint--and Tibetan."

We should remember the wisdom of Ogden Nash:

The one-l lama,
He's a priest.
The two-l llama,
He's a beast.
And I will bet
A silk pajama
There isn't any
Three-l lllama.*

-- Ogden Nash

atg13 said...

I love R.Kipling from the time when I was a teenager, grewing in the USSR. Although he was dubbed the romantic of the British Imperilaism ( since then I hated the so-called "political correctness"- read censorship)and thus was semi-banned in the USSR, I managed to get some of his books.

Here for those , who understand Russian, I provide my translation of "Gypsy Trail"

Дикий кабан на иссушенный торф
Красный журавль на свои камыши
А цыганку к цыгану зовут
Узы бродячей души

Змея в пятнах в скальную щель,
Бычок на равнину камней,
А цыганку к цыгану влечет
И опять они в путь поскорей
И опять они в путь,опять, поскорей

Идут за прочерченным следом морским
Идут за цыганским знаком- крестом
Мир обойдут и вновь назад
Пойдут за знаком таким

Идут за знаком вслед
Идут на Север, где айсберг плывет,
Где нос корабля от брызгов мерзлых сед,
Где мачты закованы в прочный лед

Идут за знаком цыганским всегда.
Идут на звездный свет туда
Где Южный бриз божьей метлой
Метет моря пол добела

Идут за знаком - решено
Идут на Запад, на закат
Туда, где в дрейфе паруса.
И Запад, и Восток одно

Идут к Востоку, где молчанье
Сиреневой волной в тоске
На пляж опаловый вползает
Среди тиши лесов Махами

Дикий ястреб к ветренному небу
Олень на прекрасную целину
А сердце мужчины к сердцу девы
Как это было в старину

Сердце мужчины к сердцу девы
Свет моего жилья , лети
Утро ждет у края земли
И весь мир под ногами лежит.

Anonymous said...

I only recently became introduced to Kipling in this late part of life, unfortunately for me. How I envy your boyhood dreams and adventures reading his great existential poetry. I was raised on Dickinson, Whitman and Twain, regretting only that I haven't found Kipling until now. I find his poetry so exquisite. I just finished reading "Cleared" and was totally encompassed by its brashness, the starkness of his words in that extremely riveting tone, yet the entire thing (if you could climb into my mind) sounded like a music calliope of such intensely laid meter so as to match any other I've ever read. Absolutely marvelous. I found your site researching the poem. Was this poem based on an actual even that occurred in Ireland?

David Friedman said...


The references are to the Phoenix Park murders, the Parnell Commission and, more generally, activities in favor of Irish independence, some of which we would describe as terrorism.

I expect a brief web search would produce more details.