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.
More
III

All these later quotations go to show merely that Kipling need not have been so slanged for The Five Nations, since in much of The Five Nations he has pretty well expressed fundamental British feeling—as is now, day by day, being proved. And—let us face it squarely—fundamental British feeling is on the whole the most decent on earth. As Americans, we like to think that we share it. No one, to be sure, paid much attention to the poems just cited: they took it out in criticizing things like 'The Lesson,' 'The Islanders,' and 'The Old Men.' Now we find that in those much-execrated poems he told the simple truth. Why not admit it? Admit, that is, ungrudgingly, not only that he has been right since 1914, but that he was right much earlier, and that it is the other people who have had to shift their point of view.

But policies—as well foreign as domestic—have, from of old, made bitter enemies and excited acrimonious controversy. No one could have said anything worse about Kipling than political folk in all the serious English reviews were saying (before the war), all the time, about their political opponents. You could never take up one of those famous periodicals without feeling that vitriol had been spilled in your very presence. If there is a special rhetoric of vituperation, the English political article was its textbook. We milder Americans gasped. No Southern gentleman, on the floor of the Senate, ever went quite so far.

So we should expect Kipling to be called horrid names by those who disagreed with him politically, because that is English political manners. No one really minds, except as one has always resented the doom of Cassandra. What one does mind, what one does resent, is the judgment of the 'intellectuals' on Kipling's general human knowledge. They seem to agree with Oscar Wilde that, in turning over the pages, 'one feels as if one were seated under a palm-tree reading life by superb flashes of vulgarity.... From the point of view of literature Mr. Kipling is a genius who drops his aspirates.... He is our first authority on the second-rate, and has seen marvelous things through key-holes, and his backgrounds are real works of art.' Even Henry James spoke of him tentatively, as a young man who had gone a long way before breakfast. Politics always make people see red; but the human emotions in general, people ought to be able to discuss amicably. And the intellectuals have never been willing to discuss Kipling at all. When he is dead, they will, of course. But at present they still consider him negligible.

Now no one—unless Rudyard Kipling himself—is less tempted than I to set Rudyard Kipling up as 'saint and sage,' or to try to establish a Kipling philosophy or a Kipling cult. You may take a man seriously without taking him religiously, I should hope. But the intellectuals take other people religiously, not to say seriously; and why Kipling is to be forever relegated by our arbiters of taste to the ranks of the frivolous or the hysterical or the vulgar, passes the normal understanding.

Two demands can respectably be made on a writer, in order that he should be taken 'seriously': that he should be to some extent a master of style, and that he should have sane and serious things to say about life. To those who insist that Kipling is not a master of English style, one has, really,—now I come to think of it,—nothing to say. Especially as many of them will tell you, with straight faces, that Galsworthy, or Arnold Bennett, or someone else, is a master of style. Mostly, it means that they care so little about what he says that they belittle his way of saying it. They persist in taking a purely momentary point of view. Kipling, I fancy, can afford to await the judgment of posterity. He is destined to become a great English name.

There are probably several reasons for this critical scorn. One is that he writes short stories, and short stories are not yet as dignified as novels—unless the writer be Maupassant. Some of the critics have never read anything but the earliest Kipling. Largely, it is because they have not the faintest approximation to a Chaucerian or Shakespearean sense of life,—life, good and bad, high and low, grave and gay,—and they find no charm, no 'distinction' in the blessed, common, earthy Englishness of the English scene. Most of all, they are uninterested in the very universality of the emotions and events he deals with: patriotism, love, childhood and parenthood, duty, and death. Nor have they much taste for laughter. As for tradition, they are so busy scrapping it, that they are not concerned with illustrations of its continuity and deathlessness.

I could get up a better brief for Kipling on the human score, if I were not making it a point of honor to stick to The Five Nations. For Kipling has gone on very much, even since then. The Five Nations deals particularly with the Boer War and reactions after the Boer War. His more explicitly 'human' wisdom is not to be found there in greatest measure. Yet in some ways The Five Nations came home to us just now more than other things, when we were in the midst of the very war which he therein prophesied.

Take the 'Chant-Pagan.' When the war is over, there will be some millions of Englishmen (to leave out the other Allies) who will come home singing that chant—if not literally, then in spirit. In fact, that is the most encouraging thing in all Kipling for the reformers—except that I do not believe the returned soldier will care much more for the English industrial paradise than for the 'Squire an' 'is wife.' Even old-age pensions and the abolition of great estates, and all the other articles of Lloyd George's faith, are not going to make him happy. He is going to know too much about real values. There is just a chance that, after having saved England in the field, he may save England at home. There will—God send!—be so many of him. No man can prophesy; and yet already, in America, one hears people wondering about our own boys, in the very sense of the 'Chant-Pagan'.

Naturally, as I say, the more personal human relations are not dealt with in The Five Nations. But there remains 'The Second Voyage.' I do not know that anything saner or wiser or more poignant has ever been written about that love between man and woman which is the bulwark of Occidental civilization. No one can deal more tenderly than Kipling with the idyll between boy and girl—look at 'The Brushwood Boy.' He can even deal convincingly with the great illicit love (though it is not a favorite theme of his)—witness 'Without Benefit of Clergy' and the great paragraph in 'Love o' Women.' But the love that he most often treats is the love between husband and wife: the love that is built on shared tears and laughter, on deep domestic sympathies and clean sex-attraction, the love that many waters cannot quench. In 'The Second Voyage' he explicitly renounces all others; it expresses love, if you like, more or less according to the prayer-book. He sacrifices to the god of Romantic Marriage. If you choose to put it that way, there ain't a lady livin' in the land as he'd change for 'is dear old Dutch. Perhaps that is why they call him vulgar. Many of our 'serious' contemporaries appear to resent any account of human relations that is both vitally human and essentially decent, because it leaves at one side their two preferred groups: the very sophisticated, and the criminal classes.

I suspect that one difficulty, for the more sincere, if still brittle, intellectuals, lies in the unconventional verse-forms which Kipling often affects. They can stand any amount of slang in prose, but they cannot endure it in verse. At least, they do not believe that 'high seriousness' can wear such a garb. I dare say they would throw out even 'The Second Voyage' on the score of unconventionality. Well: let them. I was going to quote some of it, but I am too out of temper with the intellectuals. They may read it for themselves. And probably none of the moderns would be able to endure the mention of 'Custom, Reverence, and Fear.' I give it up. But they need not think that Kipling's own education in the matter of sex-relations stopped with the Gadsbys.

To the mind of the serious Kipling-lover, the thing that grows more and more impressive is his universality. Perhaps it seems to some an unimportant list of allegiances that I have mentioned: '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.' Many a man has had a tablet in Westminster Abbey for a lesser creed. And almost no one has sought his wisdom and his delight in so many places or so many classes of society. Engineers, subalterns, ladies of the manor, cockney privates, Hindu bearers, Boer farmers, half-caste Portuguese nursemaids, Gloucester fishermen, bank clerks, reporters, young English children, German scientists, law lords, public-school boys, lamas, pilots, children of the zodiac, even the beast-folk of the jungle—what a Shakespearean welter, and, humanly speaking, what a Shakespearean result! It is the 'good gigantic smile o' the brown old earth.' And the far-flung adventure has brought Kipling back to a very simple but not too easy code. At least, one cannot say that he sticks by the most English of English traditions because he has never seen anything else. He has had room and chance to choose. He has ended by being very orthodox, not to say conventional, about the fundamental human duties; and he reads history with a canny eye. But I do not think anyone can accuse Kipling of being a stick-in-the-mud. 'With the Night Mail' does not look so Jules Verne-ish now as it did when it was printed. Perhaps some day we shall even have to give the benefit of the doubt to the later 'flight of fact' called 'As Easy as A. B. C.' Though I admit that that is going far.

Just there, I did leave The Five Nations for the moment; but it is impossible to mention 'As Easy as A. B. C.' and not also quote some of 'MacDonough's Song.'

Whether the People be led by the Lord,
        Or lured by the loudest throat;
If it be quicker to die by the sword
        Or cheaper to die by vote—
These are the things we have dealt with once,
        (And they will not rise from their grave)
For Holy People, however it runs,
        Endeth in wholly Slave.

Whatsoever, for any cause,
        Seeketh to take or give
Power above or beyond the Laws,
        Suffer it not to live!
Holy State or Holy King—
        Or Holy People's Will—
Have no truck with the senseless thing.
        Order the guns and kill!

Saying—after—me:—

Once there was The People—Terror gave it birth;
Once there was The People and it made a Hell of Earth.
Earth arose and crushed it. Listen, O ye slain!
Once there was The People—it shall never be again!

Easy enough to see why Kipling is not popular. Yet Kipling is by no means the only person who is warning us that mob-rule may come and sweep away our institutions. Most people who fear that event are doing their best to ingratiate themselves with the mob before it wholly loses its temper. I confess that—politics apart, and as a mere matter of dignity—it is a comfort to hear some man speak in another spirit and sense than that of craven conciliation. I have not quoted from 'MacDonough's Song' because I think it is a great poem; but because it is perhaps the most nakedly, blatantly 'unpopular' thing Kipling has ever written. There it is, openly admitted, in all its offensiveness—his greatest crime. Damn him for it if you feel inclined, but confess that to write as uncompromisingly as that is better manners than to have loathing or fear in your heart and honey on your lips. 'We reason with them in Little Russia,' says Dragomiroff in 'As Easy as A. B. C.' Well, it looks as if, several generations ahead, that might still be the method in Little Russia. The story was written in 1912.

The Five Nations ends with 'The Recessional,' which preceded the Boer War by three years. And there is nothing to add to the 'Recessional,' even now; except that Germany needs to read it, at present, more than England does. All that I have meant to do is to point out that Kipling was right about preparedness, right about the Colonies, right about Germany, right about Russia, right about the Boers, right about Kitchener, right about demagogues and 'labor,' right about the elderly politicians, right about the decent British code, right about patriotism and the human heart—right about love. And that for all those things (except the last) he was slanged as if he were wrong. In political matters, 'thought is free,' with us, at least. But in the matter of literary criticism, it seems a pity not to realize the worth and distinction of the few people we have who possess either. I have been told that Kipling still sells better than any other author in America. When I think of Harold Bell Wright, I hope, for the credit of America, that it is true. Perhaps the attitude of the intellectuals is mere snobbishness, which cannot consent to think a best-seller literature. But, as I say, it is a pity that the greatest living master of English style (for Conrad's is a restricted field) should not be confessed to as such by the few who still profess to care about style. One would not mind so much if they did not commend such a lot of third-rate stuff.

I am glad that Kipling himself has the vulgar consolation of royalties. He has, to be sure,—I repeat,—the disadvantage of telling the truth prematurely. If we have just about caught up with The Five Nations—well, let us hope that the argument from analogy will not work in this case: that we shall never have to catch up with 'As Easy as A. B. C.'; that that, at least, may not be an instance of his remarkable rightness. For it does not make one happy about the immediate future.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Why Do Men Assume They're So Great?

Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, authors of this month's Atlantic cover story, sit down with Hanna Rosin to discuss the power of confidence and how self doubt holds women back. 


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In