50 previously unpublished poems by Rudyard Kipling will be included in a massive three-volume collection of his complete poetry, soon to be published by Cambridge University Press. (Complete, of course, until someone discovers another unpublished poem. The energetic man wrote over 1,300 and gave many brief forgotten lines away as gifts.)
We all owe thanks to the scholar responsible for this new collection, Thomas Pinney, who has for years been scrupulously editing authoritative collections of Kipling’s assorted letters, prose, and poetry, and has personally hunted across the country for many of these new poems.
You can read the press release here, though for added value Alison Flood at the Guardian has scooped a few lines from the new poems, and included in her post a terrific complete poem called “The Press”, which no doubt draws on his contempt for American journalists. The American press hated Kipling for his taciturnity, but he hated them more. Here’s an excerpt of a magnificent passage from his little-known PJ O’Rourke-style work, American Notes, where he speaks his mind to a Chicago reporter who crashes funerals to interview the widows and overturns wreaths to see who sent them.
HE (with his note-book ready)—…How do you regard it?
I—It makes me regard your interesting nation with the same shuddering curiosity that I should bestow on a Pappan cannibal chewing the scalp off his mother’s skull. Does that convey any idea to your mind? It makes me regard the whole pack of you as heathens—real heathens—not the sort you send missions to—creatures of another flesh and blood. You ought to have been shot, not dead, but through the stomach, for your share in the scandalous business, and the thing you call your newspaper ought to have been sacked by the mob, and the managing proprietor hanged.
Alison Flood gets wrong Kipling’s lines from his “Epitaphs of the War”, “If any question why we died / Tell them, because our fathers lied.” She attributes them to his regret at his enthusiasm for the war, but that’s wrong. George Simmers at an excellent little blog, Great War Fiction, has this to say:
Alison Flood is giving it the interpretation that modern futility-of-war critics would like it to have. But the lies that Kipling was decrying before the War were those of politicians who were in denial about the need to finance Britain’s defences. This is from a speech given in the year before the War:
“…we have no security within our borders; that is why we tell each other lies to cover our own fears and yet know all the time our lies are useless.
“In this matter we must take refuge behind no self-paid member of Parliament. The power to change this wasteful state of affairs lies in the hands of the people of England. The responsibility is ours and the punishment if we persist in our folly, in our fraud, and in our make-believe – the punishment will fall not only upon us, but upon the third and fourth generation of those that have betrayed their country.”
Which seems to me to be making exactly the same point as the ‘Epitaph’ – but before the fact.
I don’t think that Alison Flood would have got her notion about the poem from Thomas Pinney’s book. She’s just reproducing the version of Kipling that has been standard since “My Boy Jack.”Some people can’t understand that Kipling might have been personally devastated by the loss of his son, and that it might have made him even more aware of the cost of the War, but that it would not have deflected him from the belief that the War, terible [sic] as it was, must be fought to the end.
It’s typical of the literary class to be embarrassed about Kipling’s imperialism and occasional cruelty. Before he’s read, he has to be cleansed with the solemn words of absolution, “he was a genius full of contradictions.” Mary O’Toole, for instance, writes in the Dictionary of Literary Biography: “He had enormous sympathy for the lower classes … yet distrusted all forms of democratic government.” It’s hard on a man to expect him to reject the political spirit of his time in favor of the spirit of a century later. Or to expect him to have arrived at the moral consensus of Sassoon and Owen that the war was futile. Kipling was 48 when the war began. Sassoon was 27. Kipling, of course, might have understood better had he fought in the trenches, but that didn’t stop him from writing in “The Children”:
That flesh we had nursed from the first in all cleanness was given
To corruption unveiled and assailed by the malice of Heaven –
By the heart-shaking jests of Decay where it lolled on the wires
To be blanched or gay-painted by fumes – to be cindered by fires –
To be senselessly tossed and retossed in stale mutilation
From crater to crater. For this we shall take expiation.
But who shall return us our children ?
Kipling grieved, but never seems to have suffered the moral crisis of the younger Great War generation, of which Rod Dreher wrote a few days ago. Perhaps he was protected from the most painful self-searching by an already healthy sense of irony.
George Orwell comments in a 1942 essay on Kipling that he is best understood as a good bad poet. “He is as a poet as Harriet Beecher Stowe was as a novelist.” His poetry is on the order of, for example, Bret Harte’s “Dickens in Camp” or Charles Kingsley’s “When all the World is Young, Lad.” According to Orwell, it says something of our age that this work which keeps being seen as vulgar and yet continues to be read. The comparisons are good; to them I would add Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse and A.E. Housman. But the explanation is wrong.
Something in the lively but predictable meter, and the modest, pious stoicism is difficult to accept even for the sympathetic critic, who looks for art to overturn expectations, or to raise men’s imagination from their lowly station. But there is a mercy in poetry that speaks to vulgar men in their own language made beautiful, and hence blesses them, and the rhythm, sound, and thought of their own language.
That sort of rhetoric opens up the verse to possibilities barred to more refined speech. Compare the two bits of poetry, the first from Wordsworth, the second from Kipling, on the same subject of taking risks in the game of life:
Wordsworth, from “Character of the Happy Warrior”:
’Tis, finally, the Man, who, lifted high,
Conspicuous object in a Nation’s eye,
Or left unthought-of in obscurity,—
Who, with a toward or untoward lot,
Prosperous or adverse, to his wish or not,
Plays, in the many games of life, that one
Where what he most doth value must be won.
Kipling, from “If”:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss:
Wordsworth uses gambling as an abstruse metaphor for the development of character. Kipling uses actual gambling as an indicator of character, and improves on Wordsworth’s abstraction. You might call Wordsworth a bad good poet. But Kipling is unrefined—no one educated the impurities out of him. A poet for an organic age.
[I originally attributed the Orwell quotes to an editor of Kipling’s verse named RT Jones. This is now corrected.—MT]