Such a poem as McAndrew's Hymn is a masterpiece of realism in its clear insight into the real significance of common things, and in its magnificent expression of it. Here Mr. Kipling is at his best, revealing the admirable quality of his imaginative vision and obeying the true command of his genius. It is not strange that the insistence of his varied and vigorous talents should often, during youth, when the exercise of talents is so delightful and so delusive, have interfered with his perfect obedience to the higher law of his inward being. And the less strange is it because of the ready acceptance of the work of talent by the world and by the critics, and their frequent lack of readiness of appreciation of the novel modes of genius. Moreover, this age of ours, like every other age, is full of false and misleading doctrines of art, of which the fallacies are often to be discovered by the artist only through his own hard experience. But the interested reader of Mr. Kipling's verse will not fail to note that almost from the beginning there were indications of his being possessed by the spirit which, whether it be called realist or idealist, sees things as they are; delights in their aspect; finds the shows of the earth good, yet recognizes that they all are but veils, concealments, and suggestions of the things better than themselves, of ideals always to be striven after, never to be attained. The dull-eyed man finds life dull and the earth unpoetic. He is McAndrew's "damned ijjit" who asks, "Mr. McAndrews, don't you think steam spoils romance at sea?" But the poet finds to-day as entertaining as any day that ever dawned, and man's life as interesting and as romantic as it ever was in old times. Yet he is not satisfied; he reveals this human life to himself as well as to his fellows; he gives to it its form of beauty; but for himself there is a something for which he longs, which he seeks for, and which always eludes him. It is his beloved, it is his ideal; it is what Mr. Kipling, in one of his most beautiful poems, and one in which he gives expression to his deepest self, calls the True Romance. This poem begins:—
"Thy face is far from this our war,
Our call and counter-cry,
I shall not find Thee quick and kind,
Nor know Thee till I die:
Enough for me in dreams to see
And touch Thy garments' hem:
Thy feet have trod so near to God
I may not follow them."
It is this poem which more than any other gives the key to the interpretation of Mr. Kipling's work in general, and displays its controlling aim. And more than this, it gives assurance of better work to come than any which Mr. Kipling has yet achieved. For as with every man who holds to a high ideal, pursuing it steadily, each step is a step in advance, so is it with the poet. The imagination, if it be a genuine faculty, and not a mere quality, is not to be worn out and exhausted by use. Nay, rather, it grows stronger with exercise; it is constantly quickened by each new experience; its insight becomes deeper and more keen. It is the poets in whom imagination is a secondary quality who, as they grow old, fail to equal their youthful selves. But the poets whose imagination is the essence of their being lose nothing, but gain always with advance of years. They are the real idealists.
I have said too little, in what precedes, concerning the gifts possessed by Mr. Kipling which would be matters of chief consideration with a minor poet,— gifts subsidiary to his imagination, though dependent on it for their excellence,—the frequent perfect mating of word with sentiment, the graphic epithet, the force, freedom, directness, and simplicity of diction, the exquisite movement and flow of rhythm, the felicity of rhyme. It would be easy to illustrate these qualities of his poetry by the selection of verses in which they are displayed; but there is little need to do so, for the poems are already familiar, not only to the readers of poetry, but to many who have hardly read any other verse. The Barrack-Room Ballads, set to old tunes, are already sung wherever the British soldier plants his camp. The correspondent of the London Times, who accompanied the recent expedition to Dongola, told in one of his letters how, while he was writing, he heard the soldiers outside his tent singing one of Kipling's songs.
The study of the forms of Mr. Kipling's verse must be left for some other occasion. It is enough now gratefully to recognize that he continues the great succession of royal English poets, and to pay to him the homage which is his due.