I once spent a year reading Rudyard Kipling. On an all-too-rare trip to a bookshop, I found his Complete Verse, heavy as a brick. I then spent every Saturday, before breakfast, on the sofa absorbing his poems, as my cats looked on bemused.
Kipling. Does his very name send accusing epithets thudding like bricks, into your brain – jingoist, war-monger, Imperialist? I am too young to have learned ‘If’ at school and call it my favourite poem (although I think “the unforgiving minute” is a skewering phrase for all of us who waste our hours). I wouldn’t defend the Empire, but it would have been difficult to be so detached in Kipling’s own day.
Not so dutiful
But if you think of Kipling only as the dutiful defender of an Imperial status quo, you will be startled by the harshly satirical portraits in his energetic early poems. The murderously adulterous spouse, the ingratiating official on double pay – these are figures who can still be found today, from the Cotswolds to China.
Queen Victoria was for a time deeply unpopular and the period between her death and the first shots of the First World War was, arguably, the time when Britain came closest to revolution. Kipling was alert to this disjuncture. To the Indian ploughman in ‘What the People Said’, the “White Queen” (Victoria) counts less than the “sun-dried clod”.
Poets, thieves by necessity, can still be enriched by Kipling’s technical largesse, from long reeled-out lines to a three-beat dance: “the beat of a horse’s feet”. Kipling did not always dance to the beat of English drums.
Kipling is poetry’s Dickens, an outsider and journalist with an unrivalled ear for sound and speech. Like Dickens he had an unhappy childhood. To the young Kipling, after years of abandonment in a brutal foster-home, England represented “a dark land”. And like Dickens, Kipling could take those closest to him into terrible darkness. He insisted that John, his poorly sighted son, was sent to the Front, where he vanished in 1915.
But the work is wiser than the writer (or there is no hope for any of us). In the last analysis, Kipling is my hero, not because of his politics or personality but because of six scorching lines, one of his ‘Epitaphs of the War. 1914-18’. The momentary distraction of his old-fashioned diction burns off, like a raindrop in sun, in the heat of Kipling’s anger:
A Dead Statesman
I could not dig: I dared not rob:
Therefore I lied to please the mob.
Now all my lies are proved untrue
And I must face the men I slew.
What tale shall serve me here among
Mine angry and defrauded young?
I first read these lines during the Vietnam war, to which Harold Wilson refused to send British troops. When I re-read them on my sofa, the men listed by the kitchen radio were British soldiers in Iraq (dead civilians remain uncounted). Now they are being lost in campaigns in Afghanistan, whose ambushes were foretold, in 1885, in ‘Arithmetic on the Frontier’: “A canter down some dark defile [...] / The Crammer’s boast, the Squadron’s pride / Shot like a rabbit in a ride!”
This is not what those who announce troop deployment wish us to hear. It is not propaganda for Empires or Crusades, past or present. We still hear lies. Who shall retune our ears? Try Kipling.
Alison Brackenbury’s latest collection is Singing in the Dark (Carcanet). New poems can be read at www.alisonbrackenbury.co.uk
This article is published in Poetry News Spring 2011. To read other articles like it and enjoy the many other benefits of Poetry Society membership, join now. Remember it's cheaper to join online!
“I recommend ‘The Story of Uriah’, ‘Arithmetic on the Frontier’, ‘The Way through the Woods’, and ‘A Dead Statesman’. I recently heard ‘Danny Deever’ set to music; it is a tremendous poem...”
– Alison Brackenbury
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The Kipling Society offers regular lectures on the writer’s life and legacy. For full details of events, visit: www.kipling.org.uk