The Poetry of Rudyard Kipling

DURING the last two or three years, we have often heard the lament that the Victorian era of poetry was closed; that with the death of Tennyson the last great voice had fallen silent; that only the small harpers with their glees were left, such as Chaucer saw sitting at the feet of the mighty masters of old; or that if one or two who might claim to belong to the band of fame lingered on, they were now old men, and their voices were no longer heard or were faint with age. But the lament was futile, however it might seem to be justified by the verse of the new Poet Laureate. Pye was Poet Laureate at the beginning of the century, as Austin is at its end. But before Pye died Scott and Wordsworth had already secured their seats among the immortals, and England, at the end of the century no less than at the beginning, is still the nursing mother of poets; and though Tennyson and his compeers be dead, her genius, with its eternal youth, is still finding fresh expression for itself, inspired with a novel poetic spirit as genuine as any that has moulded English verse.

This splendid continuous fertility of English genius, this unbroken poetic expression of English character and life from Chaucer to Rudyard Kipling, is unparalleled in the moral and intellectual history of any other race. For five full centuries England has had such a succession of poets as no other land can boast. There is no reason to fear that the succession will fail. One dynasty may follow another, but the throne will not lack a king. It is a change of dynasty which we are witnessing now, and it was the mistaking of this for a break in succession that has given occasion to the lament that the Victorian era of poetry had ended.

As we look back over the poetry of the century, two main inspiring motives, exhibiting a natural evolution of poetic doctrine and influence, are clearly distinguishable. The one, of which Wordsworth is the representative, proceeded direct from external nature in her relations to man; while the other, with many representatives from Keats to Tennyson, Arnold, Clough, and Browning, was derived from human nature, from man himself in his various relations to the universe and to his kind. And all these latter poets, however they might differ in their look upon life, treated it either ideally and romantically, or else as matter mainly of introspective reflection and sentiment. Poetry with them was not so much an image of life as, on the one hand a scenic representation of it, and on the other a criticism of it. In their kind, the finer dramatic lyrics of Browning, scenic representations of life, may long stand unsurpassed, while for criticism and exposition of life of the intellectual order Clough and Arnold may have no rivals, as Tennyson may have none in the field of pure sentiment in exquisite lyrical form.

The poetry inspired by these motives was the adequate expression of the ideals of the age,—of its shifting creeds, its doubts, its moral perplexities, its persistent introspection. The mood lasted for full fifty years, and never did the prevailing mood of the higher life of a people find nobler or more complete utterance. But meanwhile the process of mental and spiritual evolution was going on. The mood was gradually changing; the poets themselves, by uttering it, were exhibiting its limitations; it was a phase of the spiritual life of man, of which no age exhibits the full orb. A new generation had been growing up under these poets, with its own conceptions and aspirations and its new modes of confronting the conditions of existence. It found the poetic motives of the earlier part of the century insufficient; neither external nature nor human nature in any select aspect was what it cared most about. It had taken to heart the instructions of the poets; it aimed "to see life steadily and see it whole," or, in Clough's words,

"to look straight out upon
The big plain things that stare one in the face."

It took the whole world for its realm, and was moved to depict it in its actual aspect and what was called its reality. The realists of yesterday or to-day are the legitimate offspring of the romanticists and idealists of the mid-century, following, as is often the habit of sons, a different course from that which their fathers pursued. The new spirit showed itself at first in prose fiction. It was weak and often misdirected. It waited for its poet. For realism—the aim to see the world and to depict it as it is—required for the fit performance of its work the highest exercise of the poetic imagination. The outward thing, the actual aspect, is in truth the real thing and the true aspect only when seen by the imaginative vision. To see a thing truly, a man must, as Blake says, look through, not with the eye. The common reporter sees with his eye, and, meaning to tell the truth, tells a falsehood. But the imagination has insight, and what it sees is reality.

It is now some six or seven years since Plain Tales from the Hills gave proof that a man who saw through his eyes was studying life in India and was able to tell us what he saw. And those who read the scraps of verse prefixed to many of his stories, if they knew what poetry was, learned that their writer was at least potentially a poet, not by virtue of fantasy alone, but by his mastery of lyrical versification. The rhythm of these fragments had swing and ease and variety, and there was one complete little set of verses, at the head of the last story in the book, which made clear the writer's title to the name of poet. We had not then seen Departmental Ditties and Other Verses, or Ballads and Barrack-Room Ballads: they came to us before long, and showed that the qualities which distinguished Mr. Kipling's stories were not lacking in his poems. There was the same sure touch, the same insight, the same imaginative sympathy with all varieties of life, and the same sense of the moral significance of life even in its crudest, coarsest, and most vulgar aspects. Many of these verses were plainly the work of youth,—of a boy full of talent, but not yet fully master of his own capacities, not yet wholly mastered by his own genius. They had a boyish audacity and extravagance; they were exuberant; there was too much talent in them, usurping the place and refusing the control of genius: but underneath their boyishness, and though their manner was not yet wholly subdued to art, there was a vital spirit of fresh and vigorous originality which, combined with extraordinary control of rhythmical expression, gave sure promise of higher manly achievement.

Mr. Kipling's progress as poet has been plain to those who have read the pieces from his hand which have appeared in magazine and newspaper in England and America, or have had their place in his volumes of stories during the last four or five years. A good part of this scattered verse is now gathered into The Seven Seas, but this volume is by no means a complete collection, and there are poems omitted from it which the lover of poetry can ill spare, and for which he would readily exchange some of those included in it.

But in spite of omissions and inclusions alike to be regretted, The Seven Seas contains a notable addition to the small treasury of enduring English verse, an addition sufficient to establish Mr. Kipling's right to take place in the honorable body of those English poets who have done England service in strengthening the foundations of her influence and of her fame. The dominant tone of his verse is indeed the patriotic; and it is the tone of the new patriotism, that of imperial England, which holds as one all parts of her wide-stretched empire, and binds them close in the indissoluble bond of common motherhood, and with the ties of common convictions, principles, and aims, derived from the teachings and traditions of the motherland, and expressed in the best verses of her poets. It is this passionate, moral, imperial patriotism that inspires the first poem in the book, The Song of the English, and which recurs again and again through its pages.

But if this be the dominant tone, easily recognized by every reader, the full scale which includes it and every other tone of Mr. Kipling's verse is that of actual life seen by the imagination intensely and comprehensively, and seen by it always, in all conditions and under all forms, as a moral experience, with the inevitable consequences resulting from the good or evil use of it.

The gift of imagination, with which as a quality Mr. Kipling is endowed as few men have ever been, has quickened and deepened his sympathies with men of every class and race, and given him free entrance to their hearts. He "draws the thing as he sees it for the God of things as they are;"and the thing as he sees it is the relation of experience and conduct, while the rule of life which he deduces from it is that of "Law, Duty, Order and Restraint, Obedience, Discipline." He does not enforce this rule as a preacher from the pulpit, but, as Shakespeare teaches it, by the simple exhibition of life in its multiplicity and apparent confusion.

"What is a poet?" asks Wordsworth, and he answers his question: "He is a man speaking to men, ... carrying everywhere with him relationship and love.... He binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society." And this vast empire of society includes the mean and the vulgar no less than the noble and the refined; Tommy Atkins and Bill 'Awkins as well as McAndrew and True Thomas. The recklessness, the coarseness, the brutality of Tommy Atkins, the spirit of the heast in man, all appear in the Barrack-Room Ballads, but not less his courage, his fidelity, his sense of duty, his obscure but deep-seated sentiment. The gist of all these Ballads is the display of the traits of human nature which makes this semi-savage "most remarkable like you." Yet it will not be only the fastidious and the super-refined reader who will find that some of the ballads might well be spared. There is more than one in this last volume which offends the taste by coarseness insufficiently redeemed by humor or by suggestion of virtue obscured by vulgarity, diminishes the charm of the book as a whole, and interferes with the commendation of it which might otherwise be hearty and unqualified. And yet, in condemning these few pieces, and in regretting their association with nobler work, I am reminded of a sentence in the Apologie of Poetrie of Sir John Harington, printed in the year 1591, which runs as follows: "But this I say, and I think I say truly: that there are many good lessons to be learned out of these poems, many good uses to be had of them, and that therefore they are not, nor ought not to be, despised by the wiser sort, but so to be studied and employed as was intended by the writer and deviser thereof, which is to soften and polish the hard and rough disposition of men, and make them capable of virtue and good discipline."

But enough of blame and of excuse. From the reek of the barrack-room we come out with delight to the open air and to the fresh breezes of the sea. For the sea has touched Mr. Kipling's imagination with its magic and its mystery, and never are his sympathies keener than with the men who go down upon it, and with the vast relations of human life to the waters that encircle the earth. Here too is manifest his love of England, the mistress of the sea. The ocean is the highway of her sons, and the paths of the ocean which they travel from one end of the earth to the other are paths from one region to another of her imperial dominion.

The passion for the sea, the mastery of its terrors, the confident but distrustful familiarity with it of the English seaman, have never had such expression as Mr. Kipling has given to them. From his splendid pean of The English Flag, —

"What is the flag of England, winds of the world declare,"

to The Song of the English, —

"We have fed our sea for a thousand years,
       And she calls us, still unfed,
Though there 's never a wave of all her waves
       But marks our English dead," —

his imagination dwells with vivifying emotion on the heroic combats—now victories, now defeats—of his race with the winds and the waves from which they draw their strength. All that belongs to the story of man upon the sea — the line-of-battle ship, the merchantman, the tramp steamer, the derelict, the little cargo-boats, the lighthouse, the bell-buoy — has its part in his verse of human experience. And so vivid are his appreciations of the poetic significance of even the most modern and practical of the conditions and aspects of sea life that in McAndrew's Hymn, a poem of surpassing excellence alike in conception and in execution, Mr. Kipling has sung the song of the marine steam-engine and all its machinery, from furnacebars to screw, in such wise as to convert their clanging beats and throbs into a sublime symphony in accord with the singing of the morning stars. He has thus fulfilled a fine prophecy of Wordsworth's, that when the time should come, if it should ever come, when the discoveries and applications of science shall become "familiarized to men, and shall be ready to put on, as it were, a form of flesh and blood, the Poet will lend his divine spirit to aid the transfiguration, and will welcome the Being thus produced as a dear and genuine inmate of the household of man."

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.