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.

Gilmour's admirable book is written slightly too much on the defensive. He maintains that Kipling was not, as the smug moderns believe, a racist or an imperialist or a sadist or an anti-Semite or a repressed homosexual—and there is sound evidence, in his writing and in his life, to counter any such simplistic interpretations. But there is also much evidence, drawn from the same sources, to suggest that Kipling was all of the above. It is far preferable to approach this author, as Gilmour often does, as a man of permanent contradictions.

Kipling's most celebrated poem, which is also the proof of his durability as a poet who can above all else be recited, is "If—." The whole scheme is based on the reconciliation of opposites.

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

And (more significant for Kipling's own trajectory)

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch ...

In Kipling's lifetime this became the favorite poem of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of Spanish fascism, and of President Woodrow Wilson. It was apparently written in honor of Leander Starr Jameson, a British colonial pirate who led an aggressive raid into Boer territory, precipitating the horrible South African war by acting as a "deniable" provocateur for Cecil Rhodes. Gilmour comments dryly that the lines in commendation of fortitude and stoicism sat ill with "the man who blundered impatiently into the Transvaal, surrendered rather quickly when surrounded by armed Boers, and was led weeping into captivity." But perhaps those very lines, which illustrate T. S. Eliot's gallant distinction between "verse" and "poetry" (with Kipling just on the right side of the demarcation), were inscribed with these shortcomings in mind.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashbacks: "Spy vs. Spy" (March 20, 2001)
Robert Philip Hanssen, meet Aldrich Ames, Kim Philby, Greville Wynne, and Gordon Lonsdale. Atlantic articles from 1998, 1988, and 1966 consider the phenomenon of renegade intelligence agents.

Kipling's most successful and polished achievement in prose, Kim (1901), is also dependent on the idea of a double life. The boy is an orphan, raised to believe he is half-caste, and is "passing" for Indian. (His father was an Irish soldier and his mother, we learn, a white camp follower.) The whole action of the story hangs on dissimulation and duality. Some friends of mine once employed the epigraph to Chapter Eight as an epigraph to a study of Kim Philby, the most accomplished double agent of all time.

Something I owe to the soil that grew—
More to the life that fed—
But most to Allah Who gave me two
Separate sides to my head.

This is drawn from a Kipling poem titled "The Two-Sided Man." As if to underline its message, Kipling added,

I would go without shirts or shoes,
Friends, tobacco or bread
Sooner than for an instant lose
Either side of my head.

If one were to assemble a balance sheet of Kipling's own explicit contradictions, it would necessarily include his close relationship with the Bible and the hymnal, and his caustic anti-clericalism; his staunch Anglo nationalism, and his feeling that England itself was petty and parochial; his dislike of nonwhite peoples, and his belief that they were more honest and courageous; his love-hate relationship with the Irish; his contempt, and deep admiration, for the United States; his respect for the working class, and his detestation of the labor movement; his exaltation of the empire, and his conviction that its works were vain and transient.

A similar approach could be taken to the study of Kipling's psyche. From childhood he was both repelled and attracted by cruelty. He manifested an extreme fear and loathing of homosexuality—vulgarly regarded as telltale. (Gilmour flatly dismisses Martin Seymour-Smith's suggestion that Kipling was gay, but Angus Wilson was probably right in supposing him to have been in love with the young writer Wolcott Balestier, whose sudden and early death appeared to drive him to distraction. Those friends, including Henry James, who attended his bizarre, hasty wedding to Wolcott's mannish sister Caroline—where it might almost be said that the funeral baked meats for the brother did coldly furnish forth the marriage table—were somewhat at a loss to explain it any other way.) Ultimately, Kipling's two greatest literary and emotional attainments—the ability to evoke childhood and the capacity to ennoble imperialism—contradicted themselves too flatly and painfully, and culminated in the shattering sacrifice of his beloved son, John, on the Western Front in 1915. This was enough inner contradiction for several lifetimes.

One learns from Gilmour that Kipling's first Indian stories, Plain Tales From the Hills (1888), were considered subversive in their day. E. M. Forster's Passage to India still lay in the future, with its even more unsparing depictions of racial and sexual hypocrisy, but Lord Curzon, the viceroy and governor-general of India, felt obliged to soothe Queen Victoria by countering "the unfair and rather malevolent impressions that have gone abroad and have received some colour from the too cynical stories of Rudyard Kipling." It is important to note also that part of Kipling's animus against the Christian missionaries in India arose from his indignation at their destructive puritanism. Anglican clerics and pious generals forbade legalized prostitution for British soldiers, which led inevitably to a heroic rise in the incidence of venereal disease; Kipling later wrote that he wished he "might have six hundred priests—Bishops of the Establishment for choice—to handle for six months precisely as the soldiers of my youth were handled." Kim, it is fairly obvious from the opening passages of the story, has done some discreet pimping in Lahore in his time. The facts of life and the sexual motive are not hidden from our gaze as we follow him along the Grand Trunk Road (Forster regarded this as the best writing any Englishman had done on India), where Kim and his lama later meet a Church of England clergyman who looks out "with the triple-ringed uninterest of the creed that lumps nine-tenths of the world under the title of 'heathen'."

Kipling, it could be argued, did not like it when other people patronized Indians. But that did not inhibit him from patronizing them himself. His distaste for Hinduism in particular—like most British occupiers, he preferred Muslims—overstepped the bounds of his ostensible objection to forced marriage and became vitriolic. He drew many an unkind picture of the ways in which educated Indians tried to ape British customs. And, though he reserved to himself the right to praise Indians as equals ("Gunga Din" is the best-known example), he was always a ferocious and intemperate foe of any talk of self-government, let alone independence. To his ineffaceable shame, he even applauded General Dyer's massacre of unarmed demonstrators in the city of Amritsar in 1919, though one must remember that he had become unhinged by World War I. Gilmour is quite right to argue that the phrase "lesser breeds without the Law," in "Recessional," is not a racial reference but an allusion to the pagan arrogance of powers like Germany. He is equally correct in saying that there is no bow to apartheid in the lines about "East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet"—lines that actually celebrate mutual respect. However, it is impossible to maintain that the essence of "The White Man's Burden" is not a belief in the concept of race-childhood, and therefore in the supposed corollary of racial tutelage, even if this stern condescension did mandate a self-sacrificing commitment and a responsibility on the part of the "white man."

A comparable ambivalence is to be found when we see Kipling writing about his countrymen. In one breath the British or the English are the descendants of Saxon and Dane and Norman, and the heirs to a new Rome. In another they are an effete breed given overmuch to mindless games ("the flannelled fools at the wicket or the muddied oafs at the goals") and too lazy to do much more than draw their dividends. In Stalky & Co. (1899) the boys mock and jeer at a Tory politician—"an impeccable Conservative"—who comes to orate and to find recruits. The speaker presumes that many of them desire no more than the heady experience of "leading their men against the bullets of England's foes." The sour view of his youthful audience is that he is simply a "Jelly-bellied Flag-flapper." Yet Kipling himself was a fierce partisan of conscription, a frequent speaker at rallies for recruitment, a zealot for Baden-Powell's Boy Scout ethos, and a rabble-rouser for the most flag-flapping faction in British history, the Ulster Orange loyalists. It's a testimony to his art that he could put the opposite case with equal flair, but Gilmour is dead wrong in trying to acquit him of the charge of chauvinism.

Yet where Kipling excelled—and where he most deserves praise and respect—was in enjoining the British to avoid the very hubris that he had helped to inspire in them. His "Recessional" is only the best-known and most hauntingly written of many such second thoughts.

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

There is also "The Lesson," a poem designed to rub in the experience of defeat in Africa, and (though it is abysmal as poetry) "Fuzzy-Wuzzy," a tribute to the fighting qualities of the Sudanese. "Arithmetic on the Frontier" is a memorable, sardonic warning against imperial overstretch in Afghanistan. Even in some of his verses from World War I—his most gung-ho and overwrought period—Kipling tried to hedge himself and his cause and to avoid overweening arrogance. Though he much esteemed his friend Cecil Rhodes, he was cautious about echoing Rhodes's grandiose fantasies of annexation and expansion. (In two short stories, though, he depicts a scheme to repopulate Kashmir with English and Eurasian settlers—a reverie that now makes one reflect.) It is also notable that he had a lifelong distrust of Winston Churchill, despite their many points of rhetorical and political agreement about India, Ireland, and Germany. Here again it may be that when listening to another alarmist patriot, Kipling had the grace and integrity to suspect his own motives and effects as well as the other's. This capacity, as he might himself have put it, is not given to all men.

A book to study in tandem with Gilmour's would be George Dangerfield's small masterpiece The Strange Death of Liberal England (1935). In the first fourteen years of the twentieth century British politics was almost completely remade by the three forces of organized labor, Irish nationalism, and female suffrage. This triumvirate, representing a potential new majority as well as a new democratic ethos, was checked and thrown back by the cataclysmic and catastrophic outbreak of a continental war. (It still gives me a tremor to recall that although the vote on Irish Home Rule passed Parliament in 1914, it was not enacted, owing to World War I.) The figure of Rudyard Kipling could be taken as the emblematic reactionary of this period, and Dangerfield deployed him as such on at least one occasion. Though, by still another paradox, Kipling himself was partly the product of liberal England. He was related on his mother's side to the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones, and his aunt Georgiana Burne-Jones had rescued him from the appalling cruelty of the boardinghouse described in "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep," his fictionalized memoir of childhood misery and deprivation. Kipling's contempt for the aesthetes and socialists who had cared for him in extremity was sometimes expressed in an exaggerated distaste for the William Morris types and the "arty" in general. But he also loathed and despised the coal miners and railwaymen who were, as he saw it, undermining orderly society. This banal prejudice did not "hurt him into poetry," as Auden memorably said that Ireland had done for Yeats. But the Irish question stirred Kipling to produce some of the worst political verse ever written. It also moved him to support a shameful Tory mutiny against parliamentary rule. His speeches and poems from this period are hysterical in their anti-Catholicism and their invocation of blood and conspiracy. This is from "Ulster," published in April of 1912, as the Orange militias were arming and drilling to defy the vote that would have gone against them.

We know the wars prepared
On every peaceful home,
We know the hells declared
For such as serve not Rome—

This was a direct negation of the core of "Recessional": if there was one colony where the British had every need to be modest about their conduct (and also every reason to be so), it was surely Ireland.

Yet when Kipling needed a romantic or daredevil or charmingly courageous character in fiction or ballad, he almost unfailingly selected an Irishman (or at any rate an Irish name). This stock-in-trade stuff—either the Hibernian broth of a boy or the shifty, priest-ridden thug—is to be condemned, if only as a cliché, or perhaps better say two clichés. The tension between the two became acute for Kipling himself when his only son was denied a commission in the army in 1914—he had inherited his father's extremely poor eyesight—but managed with paternal string-pulling to find a risky place with the Irish Guards. After the boy's death Kipling forced himself to write the official history of the regiment, as a form of atonement. He knew an irony, or a contradiction, when it bit hard enough.

Deeply hostile to the extension of the franchise, he composed one of his better efforts—"The Female of the Species"—as a sort of teasing satire. (Some say it was written as a reply to the female suffrage movement.) Like many quasi-misogynists, Kipling took refuge in the idea of woman as stern, pure, majestic, and decisive: "more deadly than the male." It was this innate, lethal superiority, he insisted, that debarred women from the higher counsels of state, where detachment, reason, and compromise were required. So it's somehow unsurprising that when war came, he was especially fond of citing rape victims in Belgium as the prime reason why English boys should flock to the colors and refuse all talk of peace.

The paradox underlying all of Kipling's work, whether it be his letters, his poetry, or his stories, is a horror of democracy combined with an exaltation of the common man. He always ostensibly preferred the grunt or the ranker to the officer, the humble colonial servant to the viceroy, the stoker and the sailor to the admiral. His songs about engineers and artificers—of which "McAndrew's Hymn" is a sterling example—show, moreover, a real appreciation of modernity and innovation, and may explain why he attracted the attention of the Nobel committee when, as critics sniffed, Swinburne, Meredith, and Hardy were still alive, and a "blacksmith" should not have been preferred to a "goldsmith." Probably no compliment could have delighted him more. Yet in his heart he disliked industrialism and the mass civilization that it brought in its smoky train.

This paradox extended to his odd encounter with America—alternately hailed as young, brash, and experimental, and excoriated as vulgar, cynical, and acquisitive. It can't be said that Kipling was the first Englishman to register this contrast, or to fail to reconcile it, but his oscillations were unusually volatile. In different moods he could compose a poem accusing the rebels of 1776 of stabbing the motherland in the back and a paean to the magnificence of Teddy Roosevelt. He affected to adore Mark Twain, and then wrote a virtual manifesto for Twain's least favorite cause, the Spanish-American War of 1898 (that was "The White Man's Burden": an eloquent plea for the colonization of the Philippines). Hoping, like Cecil Rhodes, for the reclamation of America as a part of Anglo-Saxondom, he helped to administer the famous scholarships. But in a later poem, "The Question," he more or less accused the United States of betraying civilization by following Wilsonian principles.

Gilmour is obviously right to stress the "Roman" element in Kipling. He believed that the barbarians were always mustering on the frontier, and that order and good government could be maintained only by a stoic, disciplined, self-conscious, and self-sacrificing minority. This was both a saving solution for the outlying provinces of the empire and an insurance against sloth and corruption and decay at home. One of his most celebrated lines inquires, "What should they know of England who only England know?" Thus Kipling's most agonizing paradox was his gnawing fear that the cost of empire would prove too great for the complacent and selfish English, and that they would throw away what they had won. (In a further fold of contradiction, he also disliked the bloodlust of both the London press and the stay-at-home patriots: a contempt amply, and equally, expressed in The Light That Failed.) He always represented the empire as a drain and a sacrifice. The idea that it could make a profit, or was an economic system at all, never really engaged his interest. What caught and held his attention was the figure of the lone white district officer, holding the line against flood and cholera and rescuing resentful "natives" who would never be grateful. One such civil servant, John Holden in "Without Benefit of Clergy," becomes involved with a Muslim woman and reflects, "The drawbacks of a double life are manifold." In one of the finer poems, "The Roman Centurion's Song," a recalled officer begs to be allowed to "stay on" as the legions withdraw, and help continue to civilize the British Empire.

Kipling was true to this stern ideal in his way. He knew that his beloved son was essentially unfit for military service, but he felt it would be indecent to hold him out of the ranks when other boys were going. But the long-awaited conflict with Germany, and young John's consequent death, nearly abolished his sense of balance and proportion, and therefore of fruitful contradiction. The notorious short story "Mary Postgate," in which a shriveled spinster experiences an orgasmic charge after deliberately refusing help to a wounded German airman, is entirely lacking in the chiaroscuro of the Indian tales; it shows us Kipling giving utter vent to the distraught, repressed, and sadistic side of his nature.

When I was a schoolboy in England, the old bound volumes of Kipling in the library had gilt swastikas embossed on their covers. The symbol's "hooks" were left-handed, as opposed to the right-handed ones of the Nazi hakenkreuz, but for a boy growing up after 1945 the shock of encountering the emblem at all was a memorable one. I later learned that in the mid-1930s Kipling had caused this "signature" to be removed from all his future editions. Having initially sympathized with some of the early European fascist movements, he wanted to express his repudiation of Hitlerism (or "the Hun," as he would perhaps have preferred to say), and wanted no part in tainting the ancient Indian rune by association. In its origin it is a Hindu and Jainas symbol for light, and well worth rescuing.

To return to where I began: Kipling was not long gone when Auden wrote his farewell to Yeats, the closing staves of which begin, "Earth, receive an honored guest: William Yeats is laid to rest." In "The Charm" Kipling had written, "Take of English earth as much / As either hand may rightly clutch." This near repetition of meter was possibly a compliment of a kind, however subconscious. After closing Gilmour, I picked up Kim and re-read it in one session, marveling again at how fine it is. Bengali babus are mocked gently in what we might now call a "stereotypical" way, but the English are painted from the viewpoint of the conquered, and the joke is very often at their expense. The intimacies of racism are well understood: when Colonel Creighton tells Kim to beware of white boys "who despise the black men," Kim reflects that this hatred is most vile when expressed by half-castes. And then I came across this everyday police problem in the Great Game: "It was a wry-necked matter of unauthorised and incendiary correspondence between a person who claimed to be the ultimate authority in all matters of the Mohammedan religion throughout the world, and a younger member of a royal house who had been brought to book for kidnapping women within British territory."

It's all there: the image of the jihad megalomaniac combined with that of a spoiled and sulky princeling (plus Kipling's perhaps deliberate use of the disrespectful term "Mohammedan"). It gave me a vertiginous feeling to be reading this at a moment when British soldiers, self-consciously shouldering an Anglo-American burden, were back on the Afghan side of the forbidding Khyber Pass—this time neither as conscripts nor as conquerors.

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