Sunday, April 17, 2011

Orwell on Kipling, A Critique

A commenter on a previous post mentioned Orwell's piece on Rudyard Kipling. It is both more favorable and more perceptive than one would expect of a discussion of Kipling by a British left-wing intellectual c. 1940. Orwell recognizes Kipling's intelligence and his talent as a writer, pointing out how often people, including people who loath Kipling, use his phrases, sometimes without knowing their source. And Orwell argues, I think correctly,  that Kipling not only was not a fascist but was further from a fascist than almost any of Orwell's contemporaries, left or right, since he believed that there were things that mattered beyond power, that pride comes before a fall, that there is a fundamental mistake in 
heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
There is a good deal of truth in Orwell's discussion, but I think it is mistaken in two different ways, one having to do with Kipling's view of the world, one with his art.

On the first, Orwell writes:
It is no use claiming, for instance, that when Kipling describes a British soldier beating a ‘nigger’ with a cleaning rod in order to get money out of him, he is acting merely as a reporter and does not necessarily approve what he describes. There is not the slightest sign anywhere in Kipling’s work that he disapproves of that kind of conduct — on the contrary, there is a definite strain of sadism in him, over and above the brutality which a writer of that type has to have. 
 There are passages in Kipling—not Loot, the poem Orwell quotes, but bits of Stalky and Company—which support the charge of a "strain of sadism." But the central element which Orwell is misreading is not sadism but realism. Soldiers loot when given the opportunity, and there is no point to pretending they don't. School boys beat each other up. Schoolmasters puff up their own importance by abusing their authority to ridicule the boys they are supposed to be teaching. Life is not fair. And Kipling's attitude, I think made quite clear in Stalky and Company, is that complaining about it is not only a waste of time but a confession of weakness. You should shut up and deal with it instead.

A second, and to me more important, error in Orwell's essay is his underestimate of Kipling as an artist, both poet and short story writer. Responding to Elliot's claim that Kipling wrote verse rather than poetry, Orwell responds that Kipling was actually a good bad poet:
What (Elliot) does not say, and what I think one ought to start by saying in any discussion of Kipling, is that most of Kipling’s verse is so horribly vulgar that it gives one the same sensation as one gets from watching a third-rate music-hall performer recite ‘The Pigtail of Wu Fang Fu’ with the purple limelight on his face, AND yet there is much of it that is capable of giving pleasure to people who know what poetry means. At his worst, and also his most vital, in poems like ‘Gunga Din’ or ‘Danny Deever’, Kipling is almost a shameful pleasure, like the taste for cheap sweets that some people secretly carry into middle life. But even with his best passages one has the same sense of being seduced by something spurious, and yet unquestionably seduced. 
I am left with the suspicion that Orwell is basing his opinion almost entirely on Kipling's best known poems, such as the two he cites here. Kipling was a popular writer, hence his best known pieces are  those most accessible to a wide range of readers. He did indeed use his very considerable talents to tell stories and to make simple and compelling arguments, but that is not all he did. There is no way to objectively prove that Kipling wrote quite a lot of good poetry, and Orwell, unfortunately, is no longer around to prove it to, but I can at least offer a few examples:

The Mary Gloster: This is Kipling's version of a Browning monolog, and I think better than any of Browning's.

Hymn of Breaking Strain: A modern poem in a sense in which most modern poetry isn't; the central metaphor is the table of breaking strains at the back of an engineering handbook.

The Palace: Kipling's modest account, if I read it correctly, of the function of his own art. "After me cometh a builder. Tell him, I too have known."

Sestina of the Tramp Royal: Writing a sestina, a form in which every verse has the same end words with the order permuted, and not being obvious about it is a non-trivial project; Kipling makes it look effortless.

The Song of the Men's Side: The story this accompanies, The Knife and the Naked Chalk, is told by a member of a tribe of stone age shepherds who bought for his people the knowledge of how to make bronze knives with which to defend themselves and their sheep—and paid for it with an eye. The poem is the same story from the point of view of the tribe. In both, the central point is that the real cost is not the loss of his eye but the loss of his status as a human being; his fellows now regard him, and treat him, as a god.

And, for an example of technical virtuosity in the use of rhythm, these lines from The Last Suttee:
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.
A few more points are worth making about the Orwell essay. One is that Orwell, as usual, overestimates his own understanding of economics, with the consequence here that he is too confident that Kipling misunderstood the nature of the British Empire. Another is that Orwell shows no sign of having read the works of Kipling with which one would expect him to be most in sympathy, the short stories about English history in Puck of Pook's Hill and Rewards and Fairies. The stories he discusses are the early ones that first made Kipling famous. 

Stranger still, Orwell not only does not mention Kim, Kipling's one really successful novel, he apparently does not know that it (or Captains Courageous) was ever written, since he refers to The Light that Failed as Kipling's "solitary novel."


Jonathan said...

I spent eight years in British boarding schools. A long way removed from Kipling's experience, but nevertheless Stalky & Co. has always struck me as simple and convincing realism (making allowance for the gap in time). I've also known and liked Puck of Pook's Hill since childhood.

Gray Woodland said...

Or the bone-chilling incantatory invention of the Song of the Galley Slaves, from The Finest Story in the World.

Kipling could certainly dish up some dreadful junk food. But so, and I think for the same reasons, will any really talented and inventive cook who is seldom long out of the kitchen. Crud like Ave Imperatrix or the plinkety-plonk banjo thing or A Song of the English (whose many faults certainly don't include a shortage of vision or experiment) is the price we pay for the cream. A fellow too fastidious to have churned out the one, would surely have been too unpractised and fainthearted to have churned up the other.

Moreover, Kipling had the fundamental seriousness to deny that, simply because some poetic forms had been worked to death by hacks until persons of refinement could scarcely bear to look at them without sighing, they had lost their original power and dignity for voices that could carry them and ears that would hear them. And so - he proved himself on such.

William H. Stoddard said...

Meaning no disrespect to your examples of Kipling's good poetry, most of which are also favorites of mine, I think that "Danny Deever" has more real merit than Orwell recognizes. The verse structure has an effect much like that of traditional ballads, with the question/answer alternation and the repetitiveness (compare "Edward, Edward," for example). Some of the emotional points are made in an interestingly understated way: For example, the hardened old sergeant explaining, first, that the rear ranks are breathing hard because of the cold, and then, then the front ranks are fainting because of the hot sun—suggesting that he himself is shaken enough not to notice that he's talking nonsense. And the hint at the supernatural at the end, with the whimper of Danny's departing soul, adds to the emotional effect. Kipling was a more skillful artist in that poem than Orwell is prepared to notice. He's seldom a romantic poet, but classical restraint has its own intensities.

Anonymous said...

'The Palace' can be interpreted as a sequence of artists building on shoulders of giants (not always knowingly) as David suggests. Another interpertation is generational divide. Every young generations starts out pride and hopeful, does not listen to cautions from their elders, repeats some of their mistakes, grows wise, tries to caution the next generation (to no avail) -- with some incremental progress/improvement where each generation adds another floor. A more pessimistic view might be '12 Monkeys' motion-picture plot where each repetition destroys previous floor, rebuilds it, then it's destroyed again without any incremental building.

Chris Henrich said...

I think many people will maintain that some of Kipling's poetry is superb while much of it is "crud." But our choice of the superb poems is wildly variable. Gray Woodland dismisses A Song of the English. But when I was in my twenties, that was the poem that persuaded me Kipling was great. Decades later, it still brings tears to my eyes. Kipling can do that even when I am sure he is talking bullshit, e.g. in Norman and Saxon.

Mark Horning said...

I am relatively amused that a good half of the poems you mention as "well known" are ones that folks have set to music. (Leslie, Moonwulf, etc)

Anonymous said...

There is hardly any nation as disgusting as the British.

Jingleballix said...

".....There is hardly any nation as disgusting as the British....."

And yet you are content to write our language.