This story was first published in the Contemporary Review of July 1891. It includes the poem "Song of the Galley-slaves", later collected in the Songs from Books section of the Sussex (vol xxxvii) and Burwash (vol xxiv) editions.
The story is collected in:
The narrator meets a young bank clerk, Charlie Mears, who longs to be a writer and seeks his advice. Charlie seems a commonplace and not particularly imaginative young man, but - partly written and partly in conversation - he produces strangely powerful accounts of sea voyages in the ancient world, by a Viking adventurer on a voyage to America, and by a Greek galley slave. He gives vivid details, including fragments of script which turn out to be corrupt Greek. The narrator becomes convinced that - rather than creating these stories - Charlie is remembering past lives, and that it is such recollections that feed the mysterious processes of creative 'imagination'. Another friend, a sophisticated Bengali, Grish Chunder, confirms that this must be the case, but warns that when Charlie falls in love the threads from the past will be broken.
This is exactly what happens. Charlie meets a young woman, expresses his love in banal conventional verses, and loses interest in his 'tales' of the past.
By July 1891, a year and half after his arrival in London, Kipling knew that the ‘new man’s bid’ for public favor, of which he had written to Mrs. Burton when Plain Tales from the Hills was in production three years before, had been successful. While The Light that Failed (first published in January 1891) had not been a critical success, it was not unpopular, and much else of his published work had been both. Hence, this story may be seen as part of the artistic exploration that took place during this interim period (as it became) between work at his two bases in India (Lahore where he had his apprenticeship as a writer and Allahabad where he was an experienced correspondent) and Vermont, where he was writing as an established literary star.
It seems reasonable to suppose that, because the story introduces the Bengali Grish Chunder, its notion of reincarnation comes from Hindu ideas which Kipling would have encountered at least in conversation with his father in Lahore. But the story also references Wordsworth’s “Immortality” Ode ('trailing clouds of glory do we come/From God, who is our home') and therefore, indirectly, sources like Plato’s "Phaedrus". So the concept is general rather than specific.
Charlie remembers two previous incarnations, one on a Greek galley and one on a Viking ship that sailed to America. Grish Chunder says that he, believing in reincarnation, is afraid to be kicked but not afraid to die, 'but you are afraid to die. If you were not, by God! you English would be all over the shop in an hour, upsetting the balances of power...' But the story does not propose a complex theology.
Carrington suggests that Charlie Mears’s hopeless fantasy of becoming a poet may be based on conversations Kipling had with Ambo Poynter in Embankment Chambers, who showed him his poetry and a five-act play. Kipling wrote to Mrs. Hill:
He estimates his poems not by the thing actually put down in black and white but by all the glorious inchoate fancies that flashed through his brain while his pen was in his hand... [Charles Carrington, page 188]Critical responses
The story has been both popular and admired by critics, though Carrington uses it to argue how much more 'richly polyphonic' is “Wireless” later on (Traffics and Discoveries 1904).
J M S Tompkins remarks on the story’s skill in giving the reader a:
...much stronger imaginative impression of the past from disjointed fragments than...a complete picture. The fragments glow with conviction because we are infected with excitement at a revelation so imminent and so completely unrealizable. (page 227).As an example of one strand of modern Kipling criticism, Zohreh Sullivan writes in the 1980s:
This is Kipling’s most “uncanny” story. Just as Freud has explained the uncanny by connecting it with the return of the repressed, with the idea of a double, with ‘regression to a time when the ego was not yet sharply differentiated form the external world and from other persons,’ so the structural doubling of storytellers compels the older narrator to relive his early fears and anxieties through the younger. . . . What Charlie is uncannily remembering is not merely previous incarnations but his own unconscious life: his life in the womb, his birth and latency.See also Mary Hamer's essay "Kipling and Dreams"
©Peter Havholm 2007 All rights reserved