Mr. Kipling's progress as poet has been plain to those who have read the pieces from his hand which have appeared in magazine and newspaper in England and America, or have had their place in his volumes of stories during the last four or five years. A good part of this scattered verse is now gathered into The Seven Seas, but this volume is by no means a complete collection, and there are poems omitted from it which the lover of poetry can ill spare, and for which he would readily exchange some of those included in it.
But in spite of omissions and inclusions alike to be regretted, The Seven Seas contains a notable addition to the small treasury of enduring English verse, an addition sufficient to establish Mr. Kipling's right to take place in the honorable body of those English poets who have done England service in strengthening the foundations of her influence and of her fame. The dominant tone of his verse is indeed the patriotic; and it is the tone of the new patriotism, that of imperial England, which holds as one all parts of her wide-stretched empire, and binds them close in the indissoluble bond of common motherhood, and with the ties of common convictions, principles, and aims, derived from the teachings and traditions of the motherland, and expressed in the best verses of her poets. It is this passionate, moral, imperial patriotism that inspires the first poem in the book, The Song of the English, and which recurs again and again through its pages.
But if this be the dominant tone, easily recognized by every reader, the full scale which includes it and every other tone of Mr. Kipling's verse is that of actual life seen by the imagination intensely and comprehensively, and seen by it always, in all conditions and under all forms, as a moral experience, with the inevitable consequences resulting from the good or evil use of it.
The gift of imagination, with which as a quality Mr. Kipling is endowed as few men have ever been, has quickened and deepened his sympathies with men of every class and race, and given him free entrance to their hearts. He "draws the thing as he sees it for the God of things as they are;"and the thing as he sees it is the relation of experience and conduct, while the rule of life which he deduces from it is that of "Law, Duty, Order and Restraint, Obedience, Discipline." He does not enforce this rule as a preacher from the pulpit, but, as Shakespeare teaches it, by the simple exhibition of life in its multiplicity and apparent confusion.
"What is a poet?" asks Wordsworth, and he answers his question: "He is a man speaking to men, ... carrying everywhere with him relationship and love.... He binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society." And this vast empire of society includes the mean and the vulgar no less than the noble and the refined; Tommy Atkins and Bill 'Awkins as well as McAndrew and True Thomas. The recklessness, the coarseness, the brutality of Tommy Atkins, the spirit of the heast in man, all appear in the Barrack-Room Ballads, but not less his courage, his fidelity, his sense of duty, his obscure but deep-seated sentiment. The gist of all these Ballads is the display of the traits of human nature which makes this semi-savage "most remarkable like you." Yet it will not be only the fastidious and the super-refined reader who will find that some of the ballads might well be spared. There is more than one in this last volume which offends the taste by coarseness insufficiently redeemed by humor or by suggestion of virtue obscured by vulgarity, diminishes the charm of the book as a whole, and interferes with the commendation of it which might otherwise be hearty and unqualified. And yet, in condemning these few pieces, and in regretting their association with nobler work, I am reminded of a sentence in the Apologie of Poetrie of Sir John Harington, printed in the year 1591, which runs as follows: "But this I say, and I think I say truly: that there are many good lessons to be learned out of these poems, many good uses to be had of them, and that therefore they are not, nor ought not to be, despised by the wiser sort, but so to be studied and employed as was intended by the writer and deviser thereof, which is to soften and polish the hard and rough disposition of men, and make them capable of virtue and good discipline."
But enough of blame and of excuse. From the reek of the barrack-room we come out with delight to the open air and to the fresh breezes of the sea. For the sea has touched Mr. Kipling's imagination with its magic and its mystery, and never are his sympathies keener than with the men who go down upon it, and with the vast relations of human life to the waters that encircle the earth. Here too is manifest his love of England, the mistress of the sea. The ocean is the highway of her sons, and the paths of the ocean which they travel from one end of the earth to the other are paths from one region to another of her imperial dominion.
The passion for the sea, the mastery of its terrors, the confident but distrustful familiarity with it of the English seaman, have never had such expression as Mr. Kipling has given to them. From his splendid pean of The English Flag, —
"What is the flag of England, winds of the world declare,"
to The Song of the English, —
"We have fed our sea for a thousand years,
And she calls us, still unfed,
Though there 's never a wave of all her waves
But marks our English dead," —
his imagination dwells with vivifying emotion on the heroic combats—now victories, now defeats—of his race with the winds and the waves from which they draw their strength. All that belongs to the story of man upon the sea — the line-of-battle ship, the merchantman, the tramp steamer, the derelict, the little cargo-boats, the lighthouse, the bell-buoy — has its part in his verse of human experience. And so vivid are his appreciations of the poetic significance of even the most modern and practical of the conditions and aspects of sea life that in McAndrew's Hymn, a poem of surpassing excellence alike in conception and in execution, Mr. Kipling has sung the song of the marine steam-engine and all its machinery, from furnacebars to screw, in such wise as to convert their clanging beats and throbs into a sublime symphony in accord with the singing of the morning stars. He has thus fulfilled a fine prophecy of Wordsworth's, that when the time should come, if it should ever come, when the discoveries and applications of science shall become "familiarized to men, and shall be ready to put on, as it were, a form of flesh and blood, the Poet will lend his divine spirit to aid the transfiguration, and will welcome the Being thus produced as a dear and genuine inmate of the household of man."