A new volume of poetry from the hand of a man of recognized power is like a message brought from a battlefield. One's chief interest is in learning how the battle is going. Whether the messenger arrives on foot or on horseback, whether he gasps his tidings in quick, breathless sentences, or weaves them into elaborate parable and allegory, are merely matters of detail. The main question is, Are we winning or losing? No doubt, whenever a poet makes a fresh report upon human life, the manner in which he phrases his verdict demands close scrutiny, because without that musical phrase he might almost as well be inarticulate. But, granting him the gift of magical utterance, what, after all, is the verdict which he brings in? Better equipped than the rest of us as to eye and mind and tongue, what has he to tell us of the world, and the soul, and the life of man in organized society?
This very old query asserts itself with quiet persistence as one turns the pages of The Five Nations.1 Here is verse written by one of the most widely known authors of the English-speaking world. Many of these poems have been cabled across the seas and discussed as events of international significance. They have been produced by an exceptionally interesting man. Winning his first successes as a journalist, and carrying something of the journalistic knack into almost all his subsequent work, Mr. Kipling gained fame at twenty-three, and has held it deservedly. His artistic resources are unquestionable: in keenness of observation, in technical knowledge of his chosen fields, and in sheer myth-making imagination, he leads the writers of his day. He has traveled greatly, and has written about men and animals and things, up and down the globe, with an eagerness, a vividness, and a sincerity of conviction that have carried him very far. He has made easy conquest of the hearts of children, first with his wonderful Jungle Books, where his best powers have had their freest play, and latterly with the delightful Just So Stories,2 which have now taken their place in the long row of volumes of the Outward Bound Edition. It is needless to say that Mr. Kipling belongs in the very front rank of living story-writers, and he has proved his capacity to write poems which instantly irritate or uplift a whole nation.
His earliest verse, indeed, was uncommonly barren, both in ideas and form. It showed imitative dexterity in practicing upon the styles of many masters, and little more. Among the works of even third-rate English poets it would be hard to find more consistently uninteresting metrical experiments than those which Mr. Kipling has chosen to preserve.3 But before long came the Barrack-Room Ballads of 1889-91, and The Seven Seas, revealing a maturer hand and the stamp of a virile personality. Verse so challenging in its front, so novel in its rhythmical patterns, so irresistible in its humor and pathos, could not fail to make its way. In view of such incontestable positive force, its occasional defects of taste and its frequent lapses into mere rhymed boisterousness were easily forgiven. It is true that these poems were curiously deficient, as a whole, in new felicities in the interpretation of Nature. They spoke but little to the mind. Back of the eye that caught so avidly at many varieties of the human species, there was evident, in almost all of his many poems dealing with alien races, a hard racial pride. Yet The Seven Seas touched the unquiet heart of youth. Its glorification of brute force was synchronous with a recrudescence of theories of "white man's" government, the world over. Its vigorous character-drawing, as in Tomlinson and in McAndrew's Hymn, pleased not only the secretly feeble literary folk who love the praise of action, but also the non-literary persons who would have been deterred by such consummate character-studies as The Northern Farmer or Fra Lippo Lippi. Finally, in depicting certain moods and temperaments, as in the Wanderlust or the homesickness of Mandalay, the L'Envoi to Life's Handicap, the Anchor Song and For to Admire, Mr. Kipling showed extraordinary psychological insight and produced genuine poetry of the human heart.
All this rich achievement lingers in the memory as one reads The Five Nations. Here is the same personality coloring every page. But has the author grown, either in wisdom or in stature? The title of the volume indicates its political drift. The London Spectator says: "The name is in itself an act of imperial interpretation, and signifies that within our free empire stand the five free nations of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and 'the islands of the sea.'" Is the book mainly a clever example of pamphleteering in verse,—a passionate defense of the Imperial England that now is,—or does it betray a prophetic soul dreaming of things to come when there shall be better watchwords for humanity than are to be found in militant Anglo-Saxonism?
The new volume opens with one of those dedicatory poems which have often proved the fundamental seriousness with which Mr. Kipling confronts his poetic task: and it closes with the well-known Recessional of 1897. Between these limits there are examples of most of the types of verse with which the author has caught the ear of his generation. There is little that exhibits new aspects of his genius, and those readers who have followed his recent verse as printed in the periodicals will scarcely find in the score or more of unpublished pieces anything to modify substantially their estimate of Mr. Kipling as a poet. Of advance in the technique of his art there is nothing to record. His command of verse has lain hitherto either in cunning modulations of rhythm or in the sheer swing and crash of full-flung lines, rather than in purity of melody or richness of harmony. But some of the verses in The Five Nations are perversely unrhythmical, and even unmetrical. Nor is this perversity or carelessness confined to poems like The Islanders, where the author was obviously composing with angry haste. The measures borrowed from Swinburne and Morris and Browning are handled neither better nor worse than in Mr. Kipling's other volumes. Old ballad metres he can work his will with, as always, and the technical skill of some of his choruses intended for music-hall rendering is masterly. In poems like The Bell Buoy and The Destroyers there is scarcely a muffled line, and the grave and noble movement of the Recessional is mated to the nobility of his theme. Yet not to advance in such a subtle art as that of a poet is probably to decline, and it must be confessed that Mr. Kipling's average performances in The Five Nations is disappointing.