A Review of a 1940 Critical
Appreciation of Kipling's Work.

by Alastair Wilson


I recently came across the following in a volume of The Naval Review, through which I was browsing. (I happen to be the Secretary-Treasurer, and temporary custodian of one of the very few complete runs of that periodical.) The Naval Review is the Royal Navy's professional magazine, and regards itself as a Journal of Record. It has been published since 1913.

It still contains many book reviews, mostly on maritime matters, strategic and otherwise, but has always been prepared to review books on other subjects, though in this 1940 volume, naval matters and war in general predominate.

I don't know who the author of the review was: he was an officer in the Royal Navy, and from the odd internal clue in his review, would have been born at the turn of the century. And he went on to write quite frequently in The Naval Review, over the pseudonym 'Sirius'. (In those days, most articles, correspondence and reviews in The Naval Review appeared over pseudonyms or initials: I can frequently identify sets of initials, but pseudonyms were jealously guarded, only the editor being aware of the identity of the writer.) In broad terms, he was almost certainly one of those men of action in whose company Kipling had particularly delighted in his younger days.

(Since writing the above, I have been able to identify the author as Lieutenant Commander (later Captain (retired)) Peter Bethell, Royal Navy, a Torpedo specialist (which in those days included all things electrical). He would have been born in about 1905, and so was about 35 years old when he wrote the review. A.W.

The book reviewed is "RUDYARD KIPLING - A Study in Literature and Political Ideas", by Edward Shanks (Macmillan, 1940 7s. 6d.!) In my ignorance, I have not come across this book, nor can I remember it being referred to in the Journal within the last ten years, possibly longer. I thought therefore that perhaps our membership would be interested in what one man thought of what was being written about Kipling in the years shortly after his death.

There do not seem to me to be any startling insights revealed either by the author of the book reviewed, nor by the reviewer: but that is because from T.S. Eliot onwards, there has been a steady stream of literary criticism of our man, some favourable, some less so, and we have benefited from it, and been conditioned by it.

On a personal level, I am interested to note that the reviewer admired the Pyecroft stories, considering that Kipling got the language absolutely right. I have always thought so myself, but only because I have read fairly widely in naval matters. The reviewer was close enough in time to, as it were, have known Pyecroft in the Navy, and so his view in that context is valuable. His order of merit of naval authors is interesting. I have read Drury, though I would doubt if many of our members have many of his books on their shelves. And it must be remembered that C.S. Forester had only just started on Hornblower at that date. For the benefit of younger non-naval members who may not be familiar with their works, Drury was a Royal Marine, a contemporary of Kipling (the last book I have by him was first published in 1935), who wrote of Private Pagett, Royal Marines, a somewhat inferior (in my view) Mulvaney: "Taffrail" was Captain Taprell Dorling, Royal Navy, who wrote from about 1910 to 1950, while "Bartimaeus" was another naval officer who had lost his sight [pen name of Lewis Ricci (1886-1967) - later Ritchie - Paymaster Captain Sir Lewis Ritchie, KCVO, CBE, Royal Navy] who wrote in the period 1905-1920.

So here is what 'Sirius' wrote in the summer of 1940.


"If this book were anything like as dull as its formidable sub-title suggests it would still require to be noticed here. Fortunately it is much more interesting that the bulk of literary criticism, which lightens the reviewer's task and makes it possible for him to recommend it cordially to members. The reason why Mr. Shanks' latest work demands attention in The Naval Review is that its subject, by what he wrote, exercised a far wider and more powerful influence on the minds of his countrymen than did any other author. That influence was particularly marked on what may be called the officer caste. A personal census which I made as a midshipman soon after the last war, during the course of "calling reliefs", etc., established that the incidence of framed copies of "If" in officers' cabins rivalled and even exceeded that of reproductions of Admiral Hopwood's admirable poems.

"Mr. Shanks states that Kipling is still widely read, and that there is no sign of any falling-off in his popularity. Probably Messrs. Macmillan would have vetoed any contrary statement, but I am far from sure that Mr. Shanks is right. I believe there has been dwindling, particularly among readers of the younger sort; still, I would lay odds against finding any British warship without at least three copies of the pocket edition on board. By the way, it is significant that, when the Nazis came to power, Kipling directed that the swastika on the cover should be dropped.

"The fact therefore remains that, whether we like it or not, Kipling is still influencing innumerable minds. Edward Shanks sets out to trace the origin and growth of that influence and to define it; moreover, being himself a critic and poet of considerable standing, he is able to show us the actual mechanism whereby Kipling made that influence felt. In much the same manner as an intelligent small boy delights in showing up an amateur conjuror, Mr. Shanks is able time and again to bowl out Kipling in the act of slipping powder into the jam. It has been so cunningly done that you and I never detected powder at all, though our digestions were the better for it.

"It should be said here and now that Mr. Shanks holds Kipling in high esteem as an artist; but that, although he gives a very lucid and objective account of Kipling's purpose and ideals, he does not commit himself as a supporter of those ideals. The present critic owns frankly to being an admirer of both aspects, and finds it remarkable that we should have had to wait four years for a summation of Kipling by a mature mind. The frontispiece of the book is an excellent etching of its subject; the most striking characteristics are the bushy black eyebrows and the deeply cleft chin - the latter usually denoting a good hater. The expression is wise and compassionate, indicating the infinite sagacity of the animal and its profound understanding. It is the face of a craftsman rather than an artist; one has seen many skilled joiners and smiths after this pattern.

"Although Kipling acknowledged his debt to Cormell Price, his headmaster at Westward Ho! , it is doubtful if his schooldays had much influence on his career or writings. At the age of seventeen he went out to India on the staff of the Allahabad "Pioneer", and Mr. Shanks emphasizes the importance of remembering that Kipling (like Dickens) spent his early years in the routine practice of journalism, observing that "all his work was in one sense reporting on a grand scale". I do not care whether it was or not, but what I find quite dumbfounding is the fact that Kipling spent seven adult years only in India. That such an amazing harvest was gathered in so short a time is remarkable enough, but that it should all have been transcribed with matchless economy and bravura is nothing short of magical.

"The public, smacking its lips over the foretaste of "Plain Tales from the Hills", showed ominous signs of being determined to Drink No Other. This alarmed the critics, who (to change the metaphor) dashed on to the field with stern blowings of whistles and outraged cries of "Off-side!". For Kipling had not only omitted to qualify as a literary lion by sitting about at Bloomsbury tea-parties or by sporting a green carnation, but he was also a Tory, and - what was really too ghastly - an imperialist. The reactions of the intelligentsia of that time to Kipling's early work are not now worth quoting, nor were they then listened to with much attention by the reading public; but they are worth recalling because they form the basis of a sniffily superior attitude still maintained by a number of persons too cultured for words, and by a larger number who like to be thought cultured.

"At the same time it has to be admitted that Kipling's manner of writing was hardly likely to endear him to his contemporaries. Here was this cocksure young man coming home with the gorgeous east in fee and the British Empire jingling like loose change in his pocket, and holding forth with a cynical brassy air of complete omniscience that must have been intensely irritating to established authors.

"The intermediate stage of Kipling's development, as it is given by Mr. Shanks, lasted from his departure from India until the outbreak of the Boer war. It contained three novels, failures all and well described as "patchwork quilts made from the oddments in the author's work-basket", a quantity of verse that varied greatly in quality and included the "Barrack-Room Ballads", and a steady output of incomparable short stories. Mr. Shanks reminds us that Kipling developed his best medium, the short story, to its enduring highest pitch very early in life; and cites "The Man Who Would be King" - which was written in the Indian years - as the story generally agreed to be the best of the whole bunch. (If I may remark that the story most frequently napped in my hearing has been "The Man Who Was.")

"As regards the verse, Mr. Shanks has much to say throughout the book. He observes with justice that Kipling wrote more poems of the kind that a Poet Laureate ought to write than any Laureate in fact wrote; together with a great mass of ramping, roaring stuff of the "Gunga Din" and "Rhyme of the Three Sealers" class, the like of which had never been seen before, which produced a host of imitators. But to suggest (as Mr. Shanks does) that nobody but Kipling remained equipped, after Tennyson's death, to write sonorous and epigrammatic verse, seems to reveal a rather limited acquaintance with the low-brow poets. The fact is that there were two prize cocks crowing in the `nineties. One chose to call from the tops of barrack buildings and suchlike, but occasionally got to the roof of the State Apartments, to the non-amusement of their principal occupant. The other rooster, at times to be observed standing on its head in what might perhaps be called a Gilbertian fashion, selected various sorts of perch but with a later preference for church towers of the most decorated Gothic kind. The five-and-twenty years preceding the last war were remarkable for the brave din of ballad and challenge that rang out overhead; and the lyre of English song, almost untouched since Swinburne had been walled up in "The Pines" by Watts-Dunton, began to reverberate to some tune when Joseph Rudyard Kipling and Gilbert Keith Chesterton got (as they say) at it. Some weedy harpists of impeccable technique but dull accomplishment complained that the lyre sounded rather too like a banjo, but the English public, whose artistic taste is in the realms of poetry alone not to be questioned, knew exactly what to make of that.

"Those were, I think, the days. Sometimes the two would, as it were, swop hats; and Kipling would treat us to hymns while Chesterton leapt into the saddle and galloped away to a quite unforgettable flare of trumpets such as:

'The long line breaks and the guns go under,
The lords and the lackeys ride the plain;
I draw deep breaths of the dawn and thunder
And the whole of my heart grows young again.'


"And at other times they would scrap, as good cocks should, and we were diverted by things like this:

'Cut down, our navies melt away;
From ode and war song fades the fire,
We are a jolly sight today
Too near to Sidon and to Tyre
To make it sound so very nice
To offer ancient sacrifice.'


"I don't think there is much to choose between the two, but there is small doubt that Kipling is the better known and liked. I am flattered to find that Mr. Shanks accords to Kipling's poem "Boots" the same high ranking that I have always thought it deserved, describing it as 'A feat of technical virtuosity which even Kipling, virtuoso as he was in the handling of rhythms, never surpassed . . . . The full effect depends on the subtle variation in monotony which make monotony only more overwhelming.'

"A feature of Kipling's verse that is not adequately brought out by Mr. Shanks is the extreme unevenness of some parts of it; I do not wish to become tedious about this and will merely remark that the poem 'Merrow Down' in the 'Just So Stories' is a notable example. The temptation to write at length on Kipling's poetry is not easy to resist, and I may be delivered from it by remarking that the inclusive edition, published in 1927, runs to more than 700 large pages of verse; some of which is quite deathless and much of which is supremely quotable. A single example taken from "The Bell Buoy" (1894) must serve to demonstrate the accuracy of technical detail and the economy of phrase that distinguishes nearly all Kipling's work:

'At the careless end of night
I thrill to the nearing screw;
I turn in the clearing light
And I call to the drowsy crew;
And the mud boils foul and blue
As the blind bow backs away.
Will they give me their thanks if they clear the banks ?
(Shoal! `Ware shoal!) Not they!'


"A good deal of quiet fun may be extracted from browsing in this inclusive edition of Kipling's verse and observing the juxtaposition of certain poems. As an instance, it may be noted that "Russia to the Pacifists" (1918) stands next to "The Truce of the Bear" (1898), the latter containing the pregnant line, 'There is no truce with Adam-zad, the Bear that looks like a Man."

"The problem of why Kipling never became Poet Laureate is one that exercises Mr. Shanks to some extent. He rejects the commonly held theory that the publication of "The Widow at Windsor" had anything to do with this (though hinting that an exuberant song extolling "Loot" may have had) and thinks it most probable that Kipling's own insistence upon freedom to criticize any government in power contains the explanation. Myself I believe it to lie in the simple fact that, on Tennyson's death, Lord Salisbury conferred the Laureateship on Alfred Austin because (as he said) "I don't think anyone else applied for the post." You cannot have two Poets Laureate at once, and in this case it turned out that one was more than enough.

"The best and most important thing in the book is the part enunciating Kipling's ethical attitude and teaching. Mr. Shanks denies that Kipling was ever an active member of the Unionist or any other party, though as to this there is evidence to the contrary in E.C. Bentley's recent autobiography. Kipling believed in good government, and was absolutely certain that such was never to be found under a democracy or any collection of elected politicians who "could not dig and dared not rob". The fact that certain men were born to led and rule was good enough for him, and all he asked was that they should be allowed to get on with the job; leaving it to others to discover a system whereby the right men should be selected for command. Nevertheless, although an authoritarian who would never escape the sinister label "Fascist" if he were alive today, Kipling had great respect for custom and precedent, and was certainly not an exponent of racial superiority or dictatorship. (I have often wondered what he thought of Cromwell and why he never wrote anything about him.) He believed in the British Empire and its mission with the firm sincerity of one with whom patriotism is not merely an abstraction; later critics (mostly of the younger sort), who complain that he shouted too loudly about this, forget that at the time he wrote it was not fashionable in literary circles to be a patriot.

"Kipling's inmost convictions about life and the way it should be lived were often veiled in allegories, such as The Way, The Road, The Wall, The Birthright, The Heritage, The Long Trail; all emphasizing the importance of continuity and custom and the theme of loyalty and service. It is doubtful whether he found it necessary to equate these qualities with any particular religious belief; his later works at least express a large tolerance as to this, though with a growing personal predilection for the tenets of freemasonry. In this connection Mr. Shanks points interestingly to Kipling's often expressed admiration for the Roman military creed of Mithraism.

"I have often found it encouraging to remind myself that Kipling hardly ever found it necessary to express his convictions in the terms of a game. His books are refreshingly free from the "straight bat" type of idiom, and his biting remark about "flannelled fools at the wicket and muddied oafs at the goal" is still of wide application. Let Mr. Shanks be heard for a moment on this:

'In one of the Stalky stories, the Head 'ruins' the First Fifteen by claiming four of its members for extra-tuition. The remedy adopted for this disaster is rather extraordinary. 'Let's promote all the Second Fifteen,' says the Head of Games, 'and make Big Side play up.' How the whole of the Second Fifteen could be promoted into four vacancies is more than I can pretend to understand, and I incline to believe that Kipling not only had no idea of what he meant but also did not much care whether what he said meant anything - a carelessness which was very unlike him.'

"I think the only special thing in Kipling's outlook on the world that Mr. Shanks has missed is his very obvious affection for the French, supported by a depth of insight into the Gallic soul that is rare among British authors.

"Mr. Shanks defines the 'golden age' of Kipling's work as the period lying between the close of the Boer war and the outbreak of that of 1914-18. It also happened that his recovery from the embittered mood of disappointment caused him by the handling of affairs in South Africa coincided with his settling at Burwash and his discovery of England. While this period produced "Kim", I agree with Mr. Shanks that it is most notable for those two remarkable books, "Puck of Pook's Hill" and "Rewards and Fairies" . Although I read both these books annually I never understood how remarkable they were until I found the key in Kipling's autobiography, where he explains how he "worked the material in three or four overlaid tints and textures, which might or might not reveal themselves according to the shifting light of sex, youth and experience." In other words, these stories convey different meanings to children and adults, and additional lessons to the same person every time he reads them. So far as I know, this exceptionally difficult trick has only been successfully brought (as they say) off by one other author, Lewis Carroll. Both these books were distinguished by illustrations of extreme merit; it is a matter of regret that the nip-cheese publishers of today do not see fit to employ black-and-white artists of the calibre of H.R. Millar and C.E. Brock.

"It is now time for me to contribute my one and only mite to the known facts about Kipling's works: and lest it should seem intolerably trivial I will remind members that these works have been studied deeply and at length by numerous devotees, not least by the Kipling Society formed during his lifetime.

"In one of the stories of the Puck series, Sir Richard Dalyngridge and his friend Hugh are seized by Norse pirates who are making an expedition to the coast of West Africa to obtain gold. Sir Richard's narrative contains a number of graphic descriptions of the sights they saw on the voyage; the interesting point is that several are filched word for word from a book called 'Captain Robert's Voyages' published in the early eighteenth century. When Mr. Shanks remarks that Kipling at his best was never wholly original, I do not think that this was quite what he had in mind.

"The golden age also produced the magnificent set of adventures enjoyed by Petty Officer Emanuel Pyecroft, frequently in company with Lieutenant Moorshed and the author, quite often undertaken 'ong automobile', and usually concluding with the participants in a 'malleable' condition. Mr. Shanks does not mention these at all. In my view they are easily the best stories woven around the Navy that have ever been written; and while I am airing my views I may as well add that I make Colonel Drury a very good second, C.S. Forester third, and Captain Marryatt fourth - "Taffrail" and "Bartimeus" also ran. The remarkable feature of the Pyecroft series has always seemed to me to be the absolute verisimilitude of the conversation, whose tiniest details are quite impeccable. Kipling's consciousness of this is engagingly shown by a remark he puts into the mouth of Pyecroft, who says on one occasion (referring to Kipling) - "I know he's littery by the way 'e tries to talk Navy-talk." It is fairly certain that no other lay author of any period would have dared to turn round and laugh in our faces like that, and it would be interesting to know how Kipling acquired this singular sureness of touch.

"The naval poems are not remarkable or distinguished, perhaps the best being "The Destroyers" (1898). Mention may also be made of "The Ballad of the Clampherdown" - the ship that:

'. . . kept her hatches close,
To save the bleached marine."


which is one of those rich sets of verses that no one else could possibly have written, but of the kind that is unsparingly condemned by the literati.

"Kipling seems always very sure in his use of dialect; it should not be forgotten that the "Barrack Room Ballads" were the first poems written in cockney and that they form a notable landmark in this sense. The dialect used in the Mulvaney-Learoyd-Ortheris saga is not - I have been told by Yorkshiremen and micks - in all things impeccable; but it reads as though it were. I can perhaps bring out this point better by recalling that one of Kipling's foibles was the transcription of English as she is spoke by foreigners. Here he took amazing liberties, translating the English into what he supposed was German or Portuguese and then, as it were, re-translating into broken English. As an example, a naturalist hunting for snakes in South America finds a rare coral-snake, stated by Yates in the standard work to be harmless. It bites the naturalist, who dies (according to Kipling's German narrator) - "I am genumben in der clavicle, and Yates he haf lied in brint". Now no German would have used these words, but the point is that we feel he did and ought to have used them; and that is this is not true, then so much the worse for the truth.

"A faculty peculiar to Kipling was that of finding infinite delight in machinery, the classic examples being "With the Night Mail" and the description of the repairs to a ship's main engines in the "Devil and the Deep Sea". This unrestrained admiration for craftsmanship of any sort was all of a piece with his love of a good job well done by persons entirely competent to do it - obsairve Mr. McAndrew in his hymn:

"But - average fifteen hunder souls safe-borne fra' port to port- I am o' service to my kind. Ye wadna blame the thought?"It is of passing interest to note that the one "gigantic technical bloomer" which Kipling in his autobiography admitted lay somewhere in his (shall we say) works, has so far as anyone knows defied discovery.

"A far less likeable trait is revealed by the persistence throughout the short stories of the theme of revenge, which may be said to occur with regular frequency throughout the earlier books and becomes a positive obsession towards the end. As far as I can understand Mr. Shanks' explanation, it is that Kipling said to himself - "Old A. played a very dirty trick on my friend B., so I'll write a story about an imaginary A. who tries the same game and gets properly paid out." It will be seen that this cannot hurt the real A., but that as an example of wish-fulfilment it does not argue a forgiving nature in the author. At the outbreak of the last war, Kipling gave an unpleasant shock to all the better-notters and Queensberry-rulers and fifth-columnists of the day by announcing bluntly that "The Hun is at the gate", and I am fairly certain that he was the first writer to revive this mediaeval name for Teutonic barbarians. As the war went on, his dislike of Germans swelled into what can only be termed a bitter hatred; the story of Miss Mary Postgate calmly stoking a bonfire while a crashed German airman dies in agony a few yards away is not one to read at night.

"The post-war stories reveal little or no decline in craftsmanship, the curious tale of "The Wish House" and an extremely powerful yarn called "The Eye of Allah" being among the best Kipling ever wrote. In both these stories malignant disease is introduced with that deft trick of apparent accidental unveiling which Kipling so often used to horrify his readers. The two are brought together with quite devastating effect in the completely horrible story "Dayspring Mishandled" appearing in the last collection, which Mr. Shanks examines at some length.

"It is a relief to turn from these to the later poems, among which "The Centaurs" may be cited as an example of versification in a difficult metre from which even Robert Bridges would have shied; and to a few stories in a French setting which showed once again that remarkable because rare gift of understanding France. I do not think anyone can read the account of the Miracle of Saint Jubanus without improving his knowledge of the French people.

"When a literary critic of the standing of Edward Shanks spends three years on a book, it is liable to be good. I am under no illusions as to the relative merits of a notice which has been knocked (as we men of letters have it) off in three weeks. In 1936 it was said when King George V and Rudyard Kipling died within a few days of one another- 'The King is gone, and he has taken his trumpeter with him.' I like to think that all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.