Thursday, October 03, 2013

A Kipling Question

For no particular reason, I was thinking this morning about a poem by Kipling whose context I do not know:

             The Flight

When the grey geese heard the Fool's tread
Too near to where they lay,
They lifted neither voice nor head,
But took themselves away.

No water broke, no pinion whirred-
There went no warning call.
The steely, sheltering rushes stirred
A little--that was all.

Only the osiers understood,
And the drowned meadows spied
What else than wreckage of a flood
Stole outward on that tide.

But the far beaches saw their ranks
Gather and greet and grow
By myriads on the naked banks
Watching their sign to go;

Till, with a roar of wings that churned
The shivering shoals to foam,
Flight after flight took air and turned
To find a safer home;

And, far below their steadfast wedge,
They heard (and hastened on)
Men thresh and clamour through the sedge
Aghast that they were gone!

And, when men prayed them come anew
And nest where they were bred,
"Nay, fools foretell what knaves will do,"
Was all the grey geese said.

The poem was written in 1930, near the end of Kipling's life. What I have wondered is whether that is late enough to make it a reference to Jews fleeing Germany in response to the rise of Hitler and the increasing threat of anti-semitism.

Hitler did not take power until 1933, but 1930 was the election that made the Nazis the second largest party in parliament, which would fit the final two lines of the poem. A quick google failed to find any information on what actual events, if any, the poem is referring to. Does anyone know?

I did find a reference to Kipling having the swastika, an Indian good luck symbol which he had used long before Hitler used it, removed from his books after Hitler's rise to power.


Tibor said...

I think that people outside the country were not that much aware of the details of what was going on there. My grand-grandparents (from one side) were Jewish and they apparently had little information about what was going to come here (to then still Czechoslovakia)...before it was too late for them to leave. And so it was for many more like them which suggests to me that there was little accurate information about what was going on in Germany outside of the country (or a less likely explanation - people were more gullible and German propaganda better than most that followed). So either Kipling was really very well informed about Germany, or the poem is most likely not about Jews and Nazis.

Ak Mike said...

It was not lack of information; it was denial. My grandfather (in New York) begged his brothers and sisters and their families to get the hell out of Hungary and Czechoslovakia and come to America in the late 1930s and into the early 1940's, but until the war started they did not take him seriously. In part due to U.S. immigration restrictions, he was only able to save one nephew.

Tibor said...

Ak Mike: I guess you may be right (and therefore my previous argument about the poem is much weaker). After all, none of those people have ever experienced a truly totalitarian state before and they probably did not thing it could be "as bad as they say"...until it was too late. And with communists it was not unlike that as well. At least here before the 1946 elections they said they would support small farmers and they kept repeating that they don't want to introduce the soviet kolchoz system and nationalize these farms entirely...and I guess a lot of people who were then robbed of pretty much all they had actually believed them and voted for them. The problem was also that a lot of western journalists and authors who visited the Soviet union in the 1920s-40s were either fanatical communists themselves, or were extremely naive and were shown only what they were supposed to see, since their descriptions of the soviet union were just complete fairytales. I think that Orwell has written a critique of the kind of thinking "the enemy of my enemy is a friend" a lot of the people on the left then used when talking about the soviet union (and likewise, the those on the right closed an eye or two when they looked at the third reich just because they were the enemy of the communists...despite the fact that Hitler made it clear a few times in his speeches that nazis are socialists and oppose capitalism). Still, Kipling might have seen through all of that misinformation and realized what was to come.

Anonymous said...

I can't help you with the meaning of the poem, but your final statement did remind me of a Kipling book I saw in a flea market once which had a swastika on the cover. I remember I looked inside to see when it was printed. If I remember correctly, it was from the early '20s, before the Nazis were a major force.
I later regretted not having bought it.

Patrick Sullivan said...

1930 is too early to have any real appreciation of the dangers of Hitler. Kipling was probably more worried about Communism then. He'd called Labour, 'Bolshevism without the bullets'.

Will McLean said...

In a 1933 letter, he notes an influx of Jewish refugees in Monte Carlo:

Will McLean said...

Kipling was concerned about the threat of Hitler no later than 1932, evidenced both by his letters and his poem Storm Cone.

Will McLean said...

Reading his letters, it seems that Storm Cone was not intended to be about Hitler, but a warning that the depression would be worse and longer than some politicians claimed.

Anonymous said...

I'm no expert but if this poem is about a war, might it be about WW1. WW1 was very important to Kipling. He lost his only son in an important battle ground at Loos.

"Rudyard Kipling lost his only Son in the carnage at Loos on the Western Front in September 1915. He had been killed in the action just six weeks after his 18th birthday...Last seen stumbling blindly through the mud, screaming in agony after an exploding shell had ripped his face apart."

[Loosely quoting an article:]

Apparently Kipling remained obsessed with finding his son alive and at getting back at the British military establishment.

Not all uses of the symbol, even if closely dated or contemporary to WW2, necessarily relate to the death of the Jewish people.