Books June 2002

A Man of Permanent Contradictions

The paradox underlying all of Kipling's work is a horror of democracy combined with an exaltation of the common man

In his generous and beautiful elegy for William Butler Yeats, W. H. Auden affirmed, "Time that is intolerant," nonetheless "Worships language and forgives/ Everyone by whom it lives." Putting this poetic faith to what he evidently regarded as a strenuous test, he asserted,

Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.

But the relation between time and tolerance turns out to be more uneasy than that. When he was alive many critics thought Kipling to be a bad writer, and also a bullying and jingoistic one, and many readers today agree. Moreover, much of Kipling's work, inarguably, was hasty and poorly written. Dick Heldar, in The Light That Failed (1890), says, "Four-fifths of everybody's work must be bad," and one feels Kipling speaking more truly than he knew when his character adds, "But the remnant is worth the trouble for its own sake." A great deal of his fiction is still a chore or an embarrassment (never mind the "politics"); and he overproduced verse in a quite promiscuous manner, often for the most short-term and propagandistic motives. The shock effect of some of Kipling's compositions has actually faded; they now afflict the reader more with a sense of faint amusement than with horror or disapproval. There is the beery sentimentality; the gruff, husky, and rather painful male bonding; the agonizing affectation of demotic or plebeian speech; the writhe-making racial condescension. But there is also this:

What is a woman that you forsake her,
And the hearth-fire and the home-acre,
To go with the old grey Widow-maker?

I paid a call on Jorge Luis Borges in Buenos Aires in late 1977, and fell into a trap from which I had no desire to escape. He was blind and lonely, and said he liked my voice, and asked me if I would stay and read to him for a while. He knew exactly where on the shelf to find the Kipling, and on what page I would find "Harp Song of the Dane Women."

She has no house to lay a guest in—
But one chill bed for all to rest in,
That the pale suns and the stray bergs nest in.

"Long sips, please—more slowly," the old man beseeched as I reached the lines

Yet, when the signs of summer thicken,
And the ice breaks, and the birch-buds quicken,
Yearly you turn from our side, and sicken—
Sicken again for the shouts and the slaughters,—
You steal away to the lapping waters,
And look at your ship in her winter quarters.

I had never read the poem with such attention before. And, though I knew it expressed something profound and eternal about men and women and warfare, I had not noticed until then that it is made up of Old English words. It was a leathery old aficionado of Anglo-Saxon, sitting in a darkened room many leagues below the Equator, who lovingly drew this to my attention.

Twenty-two years later in Hong Kong, as I witnessed the closing moments of the British Empire, a Royal Guards band struck up the perfect hymn: "The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, Is Ended." Those who do not know this modest yet stirring feature of the Anglican or Episcopalian evensong may also not know the words or the music to "Eternal Father, Strong to Save," sometimes titled "For Those in Peril on the Sea." But if by chance you do know the latter anthem, you can hum the opening staves of Rudyard Kipling's "Recessional."

God of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far-flung battle-line,
Beneath whose awful Hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

When he was living among the whores and shore-leave drunks on the Thames Embankment, by Charing Cross (and writing The Light That Failed), Kipling used to go to music halls and pick up the melodies of the masses. When he was keeping company with regiments overseas, he would attend church parade, and attend to the hymnal. During the Boer War he was made to feel slightly uneasy when Sir Arthur Sullivan (partner of Sir William Gilbert) set one of his patriotic doggerels to music. But his entire success as a bard derived from the ability to shift between Low and High Church, so to speak. He was a hit with the troops and the gallery because of the very vulgarity that Max Beerbohm despised, Oscar Wilde rather envied, and Henry James could only admire. But he was also, because of his capacity for sonority and high-mindedness, the chosen poet of the royal family and the Times. (In my opinion, he declined the laureateship so that he could keep one foot in each camp.)

There is something about twilight that appeals to the English, and that expresses itself in the Beating of the Retreat, the singing of "Abide With Me," the bugles calling the Last Post, the shades lengthening over cloisters and cricket grounds, and the melancholy "drawing-down of blinds" so perfectly caught by Wilfred Owen. "Recessional"—the dying music of the evensong choir as it withdraws—has all this netted in one word. To those born or brought up in England after 1914, let alone 1945, the sense of a waning day is part of the assumed historical outcome. It was Kipling's achievement to have sounded this sad, admonishing note during the imperial midday, and to have conveyed the premonition among his hearers that dusk was nearer than they had thought. David Gilmour's title is therefore exceptionally well chosen, because between the first chill of realization and the eventual recognition there falls—or fell—a shadow.

Presented by

Christopher Hitchens

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Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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