The Remarkable Rightness of Rudyard Kipling

Kipling could get an audience for tales and ballads and jungle-books; but the moment he tried to speak nationally, he could not get an audience. Even now, they would rather read H. G. Wells.

It looks Chestertonian as I write it. As if a world of concrete things were to be gathered into the titular abstraction; or as if Kipling's rightness were presently to be proved remarkable in that it is all wrong.

And yet, I think, Chesterton or no Chesterton,—where is he, by the way?—I mean precisely what I have set down: Rudyard Kipling's remarkable rightness. Right, because time has sustained him against scoffers; remarkable, because no one originally expected that particular kind of rightness from him.

This is not to be a discursive or an exhaustive discussion of Kipling's utterances on planetary or even racial questions. I have not annotated his complete works with his 'rightness' in mind. Indeed, to treat him exhaustively would be a very difficult task; for the sum of his wisdom is made up, not of a few big 'works,' but of an infinite number of significant brevities. My wily excuse for dealing with him at all is that I have lived a long time with the prose and verse of Kipling, and that my knowledge of him has reached what Henry James called the point of saturation. I will not pretend that I have read every word he has ever printed in the Allahabad Pioneer or even in the London Times; but I know him very well. I belong to the generation that took its Kipling hard. My friends who are five years older or five years younger never took him quite so hard as that. They knew other gods.

Rudyard Kipling, in his later life, has suffered under two great disadvantages: his insistence on a political point of view which was unpopular, and the gradual diminishing of his flow of masterpicces. The dullest people will tell you smartly that he is 'written out'; the cleverest will tell you that he was precocious, but always cheap, if not vulgar. Perhaps someone will fling The Female of the Species at you. This paper is not to be a catalogue of Kipling's virtues, nor yet of his achievements. But I should like you to consider with me for a few moments that little volume of verse, The Five Nations. I take The Five Nations purposely, for it is the Kipling of The Five Nations that I mean. Not the better known Kipling of the Barrack-Room Ballads or The Seven Seas. But supremely the Kipling I refer to.

Two things changed the Kipling we first knew: renewed residence in England, and the Boer War. Of course, he was always an imperialist; he always loved Lord Roberts—as long ago as the Plain Tales, when Kipling was at once younger and cleverer than anyone else. But he saw these things, then, from the angle of India; he was an imperialist only in embryo. He cared more for the British army—in red—than for the British navy; and Anzacs were not within his vision.

Then—by devious paths—he returned to England; and England held him as it held the man and the woman in An Habitation Enforced. The Boer War came; and The Five Nations tells how he reacted. He has gone on very consistently from that day developing, but never swerving from the path of his conviction. England did not listen to him: the Liberals of the first decade did not propose to listen to anyone who wrote short stories for the sake of the plot and verse for the sake of a Tory idea. They were much too serious in Great Britain, in those days, to hearken to Rudyard Kipling. And, so far as I know, neither Lord Roberts nor Kipling ever said, 'I told you so.'

Yet listen to 'The Lesson':—

It was our fault, and our very great fault—and now we must turn it to use;
We have forty million reasons for failure, but not a single excuse!

How one has heard that rough-and-ready poem reviled—in the early nineteen-hundreds! Even now one recalls abusive editorials in American newspapers about the poem which mentioned

... the flannelled fools at the wicket ... the muddied oafs at the goals.

'Oblige me by referring to the files.' I remember those taunting comments very well. Not an editor but was so sane that he could make his little mock of Kipling as an extremist. But if you will get out The Five Nations and read 'The Islanders' through soberly, you will curse those editors for fools. 'Preparedness' is so familiar to us all now, not only as a word but even as an idea, that we can hardly believe intelligent people were calling a man names fifteen years ago for stating axioms. We are always thinking the days of Galileo are over. But they are not; they never will be; the human race instinctively and always has it in for Galileo. Kipling could get an audience for tales and ballads and jungle-books; but the moment he tried to speak nationally, he could not get an audience. Even now, they would rather read H. G. Wells.

Do ye wait for the spattered shrapnel ere ye learn how a gun is laid?
For the low red glare to southward when the raided coast towns burn?
(Light ye shall have on that lesson, but little time to learn.)

'Yes, thanks,' came the sarcastic answer from all the wise British millions; 'we jolly well do wait.' And they 'jolly well' did; and a dozen years later it all came true, and their sarcasm was put where it belonged. That is, if they had the sense to see it.

Will ye pray them or preach them, or print them, or ballot them back from your shore?
Will your workmen issue a mandate to bid them strike no more?

Well: it very nearly came to that. But I suggest that you re-read 'The Islanders.' I cannot quote any more. Every word of 'The Islanders' is true to make one weep; and it was the storm-centre of The Five Nations. How many thousands of people felt that, in writing 'The Islanders,' Kipling had destroyed his own reputation! Doubtless the Germans would have felt the same way about 'The Parting of the Columns'; though, if they had read it and had taken the trouble to believe it, it would have saved them a good many millions spent in propaganda. But the Germans were quite as stupid as the British public.

There has been more than one reason, as I have said, for the waning of Kipling's popularity. In the first place, he does not give us so many good stories as once, in the full flush of his genius, he did. That is a perfectly legitimate reason. Then, too, he has had an unlucky trick of seeing ahead. When 'The Edge of the Evening' was first published (in 1913), it passed for hysteria. Only 'fools' believed in German spies—in 1913. But there are other causes more insidious and more potent. He stands, not only politically for the highest type of Toryism,—at least, one fancies he does,—but for a lot of other outdated things: pious attachment to the soil; romantic love, enduring, clean outside and in; the beauty of childhood and the bitterer beauty of parenthood; patriotism unshrinking; and unashamed; loathing of the mob and the mob's madness and meanness; the continuity of the English political tradition, from Magna Charta down; religious toleration; scrupulous perception of differences between race and race, type and type; the White Man's Burden. And I doubt if, even now, he is an ardent believer in Woman Suffrage.

Almost any one of these attitudes would have been enough to damn him with the British democracy. One quite understands that The Five Nations would not have been Mr. Lloyd George's vade mecum. One perfectly sees why Mr. Asquith, following the usual tradition, passed Kipling over for the Laureateship in favor of a gentleman whom few people had heard of and no one could read. ('The Widow at Windsor' probably shocked Balliol as much as it shocked Queen Victoria.) No Kipling-lover, for that matter, particularly wanted Kipling to be Laureate. One even realizes—though this time with amusement—why he is persona non grata to 'the brittle intellectuals that crack beneath the strain.' The intellectuals say that he is good at times for children, and often for the vulgar, and take their refuge in not taking him seriously. The intellectuals have been Russianizing themselves, in these last years; and Kipling's laughter at that phenomenon must have been unholy. They could scarcely afford to feel him remarkably right, it would prove them so remarkably wrong.

As I say, one quite understands why the gorged and flattered workingman, the demagogue, and the 'brittle intellectual' have not read him or listened to him; but it is none the less a mystery that someone should not have listened to him and seen that he was eminently sane on many vital points. There is, after all, no one living in England who writes so well, who is so nearly master of the English language. But one has to conclude that his audience has made up its mind only to be amused during a train-journey.

II

There was a merry little international correspondence in 1914 or 1915 over 'The Truce of the Bear.' What did Mr. Kipling say now? It was all a great joke on him. People also raked up 'The Man Who Was.' I believe Mr. Kipling never replied to his humorous questioners, or, if he did, it was to the effect that a man, like a government, might change his foreign policy with changing conditions. Still, everybody was very much amused, and for some reason (it can have been I only his unpopularity) very much pleased. Perhaps they had not forgiven some of the other poems in The Five Nations, and looked to discredit Kipling by pitching on 'The Truce of the Bear' as they had once pitched on 'The Islanders.' With Russia driving back the Teutons on the eastern front, I do not see that Kipling, as a patriot, could proceed to defend his ancient position very loudly. But I do not remember—here I speak under correction, for his war-poems are very elusive—that even since 1914 he has written of Russia as he has written of France. And I have often wondered if, in the last months, he has not taken a very private comfort in his own refrain of years ago,—

Make ye no truce with Adam-zad, the bear that walks like a man.

He may at least feel that he was essentially right about Russia, if incidentally wrong. If I am not mistaken, 'The Truce of the Bear' was written on the occasion of the invitation to the first Hague Conference. We took it that it was the Tsar whom England was to mistrust. Very likely. But I cannot help believing that Kipling had a private suspicion that the Hague Conference was all tommy-rot. Which, obviously, it was, pragmatically judged. The sheer decency and competence of certain Russian generals did save the world in the first year of the war: let us never forget it. There never was a Russian steam-roller, but the Germans thought there was going to be one. Let us, as I say, never forget it. But for the last year, the Russian people has been behaving allegorically in the sense of the poem.

When he stands up like a tired man, tottering near and near;
When he stands up as pleading, in wavering, man-brute guise....

When he shows as seeking quarter, with paws like hands in prayer,
That is the time of peril—the time of the Truce of the Bear!

Eyeless, noseless, and lipless, asking a dole at the door,
Matun, the old blind beggar, he tells it o'er and o'er;
Fumbling and feeling the rifles, warming his hands at the flame,
Hearing our careless white men talk of the morrow's game;

Over and over the story, ending as he began:—
'There is no truce with Adam-zad—the bear that looks like a man!'

I should be particularly sorry to say anything that German propagandists would like to have said. It is perfectly impossible for the average person to know what is the proper and what the improper attitude to take to Russia at the moment. Even those in high places might be forgiven for being perplexed. What the average person perceives is that the Russians are behaving very much, and very vividly, like 'the bear that looks like a man.' Certainly they stood up at Brest-Litovsk 'in wavering, man-brute guise.'

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