[December 16th 2007]
Nothing could be more sweeping in scope than the title of this essay. Kipling was a public man and an intensely public writer; the phrase, 'Kipling and History', might cover the greater part of his work and life, and might be expected to include an assessment of his significance in the history of the British people and the British Empire. Nothing so comprehensive will be attempted here. The topic broached (itself big enough, in all conscience) is simply Kipling's approach, as a writer, to the past, and especially to the English past as presented in Puck of Pook's Hill and its sequel, Rewards and Fairies, and it is examined strictly through the eyes of a professional historian. My aim is solely to be ancillary to literary criticism of the kind to be found in, for example, Donald Mackenzie's essay, "Kipling and Northernness", in the June 2007 edition of the Kipling Journal. (1)
Kipling's achievement was intensely individual, yet we cannot properly understood it without accepting that it was also shaped by his times. In few eras has history been taken more seriously, by more intelligent people, than it was in Victorian Britain, whether we mean by 'history' the events of the past, the record of those events, the evolution of human societies, or the investigation and discussion of events, records and evolution by great historians. This preoccupation with history began with the Romantics, Walter Scott being in this respect much the most influential of them, but it was reinforced by countless other stimuli. It was a European-wide phenomenon, as such names as Marx, Hegel, Ranke, Tolstoy, Dumas and Tocqueville (among many others) sufficiently demonstrate, but for present purposes it will be enough to glance merely at the British background (although Kipling's deep acquaintance with France and French literature is not irrelevant). In Britain, then, historical consciousness was largely coloured by such factors as awareness that Britain (the Victorians always said `England') had become the greatest power in the world; and that the British Empire was the largest in history; and the belief that this greatness was both caused and validated by the evolution of British law, British freedom, and British Protestantism. The British were intensely nationalistic, and looked to history to vindicate their nationalism by providing suitable myths (King John signing Magna Carta at Runnymede, for instance; the House of Commons defying King Charles when he tried to arrest the Five Members; Queen Elizabeth rallying her troops at Tilbury). At the same time, antiquarianism was giving way to professional and scientific historical writing and investigation; and the great debate over evolution meant that some of the best minds of the age were beginning to look to history for help in investigations (such as that into the Industrial Revolution and its consequences) more searching than had ever been attempted before. In the late nineteenth century, when Kipling was young, history was one of the most exciting of all the arts and sciences.
It will be evident to all readers of the Puck books that this was the intellectual world in which Kipling worked, but it does not explain his inspired imaginative response, which was an essential part of his genius, almost as much as his instinct to convey his responses in memorable words and inventions. So successful was he in this undertaking that he compels his readers' imagination in their turn. His vision of the past, as he realized it on paper, still becomes ours as we read and surrender to his spell. It is an achievement which must be praised, even by envious academic historians. But his purposes were not theirs. When he turned to the past, in verse or in prose, he always made sure that he was adequately informed for the job: one might say, well-information which stimulated his writing, as when his settlement at Burwash, in the Sussex Weald, stimulated the Puck stories:
Just beyond the west fringe of our land, in a little valley running from Nowhere to Nothing-at-all, stood the long, overgrown slag-heap of a most ancient forge, supposed to have been worked by the Phoenicians and Romans and, since then, uninterruptedly till the middle of the eighteenth century. The bracken and rush-patches still hid stray pigs of iron, and if one scratched a few inches through the rabbit-shaven turf, one came on the narrow mule-tracks of peacock-hued furnace-slag laid down in Elizabeth's day. The ghost of a road climbed up out of this dead arena, and crossed our fields, where it was known as 'The Gunway,' and popularly connected with Armada times ...Then, it pleased our children to act for us, in the open, what they remembered of A Midsummer Night's Dream... And in a near pasture of the water-meadows lay out an old and unshifting Fairy Ring. You see how patiently the cards were stacked and dealt into my hands? (2)But Kipling never renounced the freedom of the artist. All his work is notable for what has often been called his knowingness - his hoard of recondite facts, eagerly collected, which he uses to give interest and conviction to his narratives. This is as true of Kim as of his Great War stories; of "McAndrew's Hymn" as of "Captains Courageous." Yet if the work in hand required him to take liberties with facts, he took them; and it is as pointless to complain of his frequent historical inaccuracy as it is to complain of the limitations of his depiction of India. The questions that need answering are always, 'what was he up to?' and 'what did he achieve?' - questions, in a phrase, about his purposes and his art. What follows amounts to a few suggestions about these important matters as they concern his treatment of history.
His characteristic way with the past is demonstrated in one of his early tales, "The Dream of Duncan Parrenness." (3) In it, young Parrenness (a name presumably adopted, or invented, because of its suggestion of 'barrenness') meets in a dream the spectre of his older self, the self he will become, to which he is forced to surrender his trust in men, his faith in women, his soul and his conscience: receiving in return only a dry piece of his daily bread. As a tale of the supernatural it is quite as effective as Henry James's 'The Jolly Corner' which it strongly resembles (4); it is also noteworthy because Kipling very carefully locates Parrennness in time. He is identified as a writer for the East India Company in the days of Warren Hastings (Governor-General of Bengal 1773-85) and Kipling uses the tale to sketch a thoroughly unflattering account of Calcutta at that time. He is challenging his Anglo-Indian contemporaries to ask themselves if they are any better than their forerunner, Duncan Parrenness, who went to India in the 18th century solely to make money, and gave as little to the country as he received. Parrenness is the very antithesis of the kind of disinterested zealous Indian Civil Sevice officer that Kipling so admired. The past is being used to make a strong political point about the Late Victorian present. This approach was to dominate most of Kipling's subsequent writing about history.
'Duncan Parrenness' is a one-off; Kipling did not again turn to a subject from the past for many years. He was too much caught up in the great tide of contemporary history which was sweeping the British Empire to the highest point of its splendour and prestige. But he was not one to be taken in by mere glitter, and Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897 filled him with apprehension, famously expressed in "Recessional":
Far-called, our navies melt away;"Recessional" is not exactly an historical poem, except in the sense that its great impact on publication made it a part of British history, but it is full of apprehensive historical awareness. It is not surprising that it was, apparently, in the same year that Kipling began to think of writing something about the Roman Empire and started reading Edward Gibbon's classic account of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (written between 1776 and 1788). (5) But it was not until 1904, when he was well-established at Burwash, that he seriously followed up the idea. At about that time his cousin Ambo Poynter, after hearing him talk of Roman stories, suggested that he write about 'an old Centurion of the Occupation telling his experiences to his children;' and he gave Kipling the name 'Parnesius'.
It may be significant that Ambo's father, Edward, was the painter of that famous work, 'Faithful Unto Death', which shows a heroic Roman sentinel in Pompeii stoically abiding his death at his post, as Vesuvius erupts. The rest, as we have heard, was suggested by the land, waters and place-names around Burwash. The eventual outcome was Puck Of Pook's Hill published in 1906, and Rewards And Fairies, published in 1910.
The first thing to remember and the last thing to forget when discussing Kipling's use of the past in the Puck books is that he is writing fantasy, not history. The point may hardly seem worth making of works in which Robin Goodfellow is the master of ceremonies, but it has been rather overlooked in discussions of Kipling's historical inaccuracies. The common sense of the matter must be reasserted. Kipling was not trying to help candidates pass exams (though the right sort of candidate could benefit hugely from his work, as from Shakespeare or Scott). He claimed, reasonably enough, that he was simply trying to give children a taste for the past, and for such readers as the young Rosemary Sutcliff, later a distinguished historical novelist, he succeeded (6). But he also did much more, and his method was poetic, not academic. It was also characteristic of his genius. Such late stories as "The Janeites" and "Fairy-Kist" are celebrations of particular writers and their influence on life, and influence on life, but the same might almost be said of Puck. The world of the fantasy is saturated in books. All phrase-making is inadequate, but it may nevertheless be asserted that Kipling's deepest aim was to make bookworms of his readers, young and old:
She is not any common earth,What is Gramarye? Above all, book-magic: grammar, Latin, literature; understanding, power, and delight. This is the standard which Kipling set himself; this, therefore, is the standard by which he must be appraised. How compelling is his necromancy?
The first figure to step out of Gramarye is Puck himself, heralded by the noise of a watermill at work 'which sounded like bare feet running on hard ground.' (7) As a literary achievement he is surely flawless: his epiphany to the children, Dan and Una, is entirely convincing, though not, apparently, to everyone's taste. There was a great vogue for demigods in Edwardian literature, as the works of E.M.Forster, Kenneth Grahame, James Barrie, Max Beerbohm (Zuleika Dobson) and Thomas Hardy (The Dynasts) all attest. Puck was apparently inspired by E. Nesbit's Phoenix and Psammead, magical and immortal creatures who intrude on the commonplace lives of modern middle-class children.* Kipling's sprite is the most convincing of the lot, largely because Shakespeare has done most of the work: we have met Puck before, and recognise him as soon as he appears out of the bushes. Questions of historical accuracy don't arise; the literary accuracy is pitch-perfect.
In 1907, a year after the publication of Puck, E.Nesbit brought out The House of Arden in which the white Mouldiwarp, "badge of Arden's house", takes three children into various past epochs. He strongly resembles Puck.
The same can't be said of the first story which Puck tells. "Weland's Sword" has great charm, but to a historian it is such a gallimaufry that one is tempted to suppose that Puck made up the whole thing. The informed adult mind (and Kipling did say that the tales were meant for grown-ups as well as children) (8) must be bothered by Kipling's high-handed invention, which seems to invite us to believe that the Anglo-Saxons were invading Britain (always called Old England) round about the time that Jesus was born, if not earlier, and brought a god called Weland the Smith with them. Kipling establishes Weland in the Burwash valley by a piece of false etymology (deriving modern Willingford from Wayland's Ford); his version of Weland (Volundr) is a travesty of the original, a grim figure in one of the grimmest legends of the North. In all this the liberty of the artist seems to have turned into licence: he is deliberately misleading about history. From Kipling's point of view the gallimaufry was necessary to establish the machinery of his tales, and some of their symbolism: the magic sword had to be forged and given to Hugh the Saxon, and the whole business is related with happy skill. It almost convinces, and anyway it is mere prologue: the book does not get really under way until the appearance in the of the first revenant called up by Puck, Sir Richard Dalyngridge.
The invention of Sir Richard, a Norman knight who, it is imagined, became Lord of the Manor of Burwash (though that name is nowhere used in the Puck books) after William the Conqueror's victory at Hastings, seems to have been inspired by another once-famous painting, Millais's "Sir Isumbras at the Ford" (which in turn was inspired by a mediaeval chivalric romance). So much would have been palpable to many of Puck's first readers. Kipling exerts all his literary art and power to paint the little river Dudwell, its meadows and waters and over-hanging trees, in the best pre-Raphaelite manner, and his description of Sir Richard and his horse advertises the identification, though Millais's Sir Isumbras wore plate-armour:
A huge grey horse, whose tail-hairs crinkled the glassy water, was drinking in the pool, and the ripples about his muzzle flashed like melted gold. On his back sat an old, white-haired man dressed in a loose glimmer gown of chain-mail. He was bare-headed, and a nut-shaped iron helmet hung at his saddle-bow. His reins were of red leather five or six inches deep, scalloped at the edges, and his high padded saddle with its red girths was held fore and aft by a red leather breastband and crupper. (9)Una spots the likeness to Sir Isumbras at once: Kipling, throughout the Puck books, was eager to acknowledge his debts. (Sir Richard's resemblance to Lewis Carroll's White Knight is presumably coincidental).
The children meet Sir Richard in a dreamlike summer afternoon, but the knight's tale is not dreamlike at all. Nor is it particularly historical, if by that we mean true to the probabilities. The story is set going by a string of coincidences , but the real difficulty, to a pedestrian scholar, is the unlikelihood that on the very morrow of Hastings the Conqueror would have allowed one of his knights and thirty men-at-arms to abscond from the march on London to establish themselves on a Sussex estate. Kipling probably realised this, but must have felt that it didn't matter: all he wanted was to show how, with decent behaviour on both sides, conquerors and conquered could come together to live as one people. 'I am not Norman, Sir Richard,' says his overlord, the great baron Gilbert De Aquila, 'nor Saxon, Sir Hugh. English am I' (10) Historical precision is here thrown to the winds.
To begin with De Aquila himself: the name has been Latinized (for what reason I do not know) but there actually was a Gilbert de L'Aigle (L'Aigle being a place in Normandy). It was his grandfather, not his father, who was killed at Hastings. He had a wife and several sons, one of whom, Richer, figures in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, where the account of his career precisely illustrates the sort of problem that led Kipling's Gilbert to cry (most improbably for a Norman baron) 'a pest - a pest on Normandy, for she will be our England's curse this many a long year!' (11) Richer rebelled against King Henry I, King Stephen and King Henry II in turn, was twice deprived of his lands in Sussex and had his castle in France burned down. He was a pious man, a great benefactor of monasteries, but on the whole seems to have been a steady disruptor of the public peace, in both England and France. No historian would have treated this information in Kipling's cavalier fashion: that of an imaginative writer, claiming the same liberty as would a composer of opera, a playwright, a painter, or a screenwriter for a movie. He was within his rights, but a historian cannot quite approve, for it is often from the small, inconvenient fact that the interesting discovery can be made; and wilful inaccuracy leads to trouble. The larger picture also contradicts Kipling's fiction. The Conqueror tried at first to rule with the co-operation of his new subjects, but after two years of plots and rebellion abandoned the attempt: by the year of his death the ruling class was almost exclusively Norman. Yet Kipling's fable need not be condemned by these details. He wanted to show that the Saxons and the Normans were destined to become one people, as they did; he crammed a process that took three generations into the span of the lifetime of Sir Richard (and Sir Hugh, and De Aquila), and taught the lesson in such a way that his readers would never forget it. He also wanted to show that the basis of the eventual English identity was respect for the custom of the country, the necessity to which all intruders, even Norman knights and barons, must adapt. It was a parable for imperialists: no doubt Kipling wanted to believe that the British in India and elsewhere behaved like Dalyngridge, at any rate at their best. It is the same message implied in "The Dream of Duncan Parrenness."
Next to this noble myth-making Kipling's inaccuracy about details can, and perhaps should be discounted; but a word or two more seems in place. Throughout the Puck books he refers to the battle of Hastings as the battle of "Santlache" (though he slips into using "Hastings" once or twice in "The Tree of Justice", the last of the Puck tales). This, it is safe to say, was a name never used by anybody else, in any century. E.A. Freeman, historian of the Norman Conquest (his great book was published in 1875), following Ordericus Vitalis, insisted on calling the battle "Senlac", for which he was severely and convincingly criticised by J.H.Round; (12) but even Freeman never called it "Santlache". However, he did mention "Santlaches" as one of several names for the south-eastern part of the town of Battle. It is easy to guess what happened. Kipling knew better than to use "Senlac", but he liked the idea of a French name for a French victory which would add a touch of distance, even mystery to what is, after all, the greatest cliche in English history ('Does that mean the battle of Hastings - Ten Sixty-Six?' Una whispered); (13) he liked to use what, according to Freeman, was a local name; as a fluent French speaker he may also have liked its simultaneous connotations of cowardice, health and sanctity; and he may have reflected that he was taking no more of a liberty with the facts than had the professional scholar, Freeman himself.
Freeman's influence on Kipling went far beyond such incidental eccentricities:
'Freeman believed in the basic continuity of English history,' says Frank Barlow, 'and that the Norman conquest was good for England ; it was a fire which did not destroy, but only purified. 'Old England', said Freeman, 'came forth with her ancient laws formed into shapes better suited to changed times, and with a new body of fellow-workers...'This was exactly what Kipling was getting at in three of the five Dalyngridge stories - "Young Men at the Manor", "Old Men at Pevensey", "The Treasure and the Law" - and also, eventually, in the verses "England's on the anvil" in the School History:
There shall be one people - it shall serve one Lord -Can Kipling really have believed that part of William's work was to give England one speech? It is a debatable thesis,but Barlow's verdict should be noted: 'This view of English history ...is undoubtedly tenable as a panorama, and still finds exponents." (14)
The second of the Dalyngridge stories, chronologically, "The Knights of the Joyous Venture", stands somewhat apart from the others. In Puck of Pook's Hill as a whole Kipling was trying to suggest the character of ancient, mediaeval and early modern history as it impinged on Burwash. So he may have felt that he had to say something about the Danes (or Norsemen, or Vikings - the terms seem to have been interchangeable) who, whatever their piratical misdeeds, became part of the English people. If so, he is to be commended for his ingenuity: he plunges Sir Richard and Sir Hugh into a Viking expedition down the west coast of Africa in quest of gold. This gives the Norsemen full credit for their courage and seamanship (qualities which were to recur in the English story) but evades the need to say anything about their bloodthirsty raiding propensity, which terrorized the coasts of northern Europe for more than three centuries. These Vikings are traders. The device also implies the excellent point that Norse voyaging did not cease after the battle of Hastings. But such considerations were probably, at best, secondary to Kipling, if he thought of them at all. As is demonstrated by his earlier tale, "The Finest Story In The World" (15), he had long been fascinated by the Vinland sagas and by Longfellow's handling of the material. In the nineteenth century Longfellow was as popular as Kipling was to become in the twentieth, but his popularity is now much less comprehensible. He seems a plodder, both in imagination and as a versifier. But his influence is as palpable, and as frankly acknowledged, in the "Joyous Ventrure," as it is in "The Finest Story." He is the link between the children's exploring games (they call their canoe "The Long Serpent" , from "King Olaf's Saga", and read "Othere" to Sir Richard) and the knights' voyage south. The quest for gold leads to a fight with gorillas on the banks of the river Volta, gorillas frankly borrowed from another nearly-forgotten author, R.M. Ballantyne. The only respectable historical source which Kipting may have used is "The Seafarer", the Old English poem which seems to lie behind the wonderful "Harp-Song of the Dane Women", perhaps the best poem in "Puck", and one of those most accurately evocative of a past:
What is a woman that you forsake her,If Kipling really was drawing on "Seafarer" it suggests an extra historical depth to his tale, for the first Angles and Saxons were in their time piratical seafarers like the Vikings, and perhaps the "Harp Song" hints at this. And so, perhaps, does the name given to the Viking skipper, "Witta", which is an English rather than a Norse name, and suggests its bearer's cunning and sea-skill.
The last Dalyngridge story in "Puck" (the last of all ends Rewards and Fairies) tells of the fate of Sir Richard's African gold. "The Treasure and the Law" always struck the author, he says, as "too heavy for its frame." (16) He may have meant several things by this (his habit of discussing his work in pictorial metaphors is not always enlightening) but among them he surely intended the judgement that "The Treasure" was too large and sombre a theme for the light-hearted world of Puck and the children.
The tale introduces Magna Carta as the culmination of the process that Kipling saw flowing from 1066 onwards by which Normans and Saxons, barons and commoners, kings and people, came together under law. ['Weland gave the Sword! The Sword gave the Treasure, and the Treasure gave the Law. It's as natural as an oak growing,' is how Puck puts it.] By a fine stroke of the historical imagination the coming of the Great Charter is linked with the persecution of the Jews under King John: a Jew helps to write the Charter and, by denying John the treasure, coerces him into accepting it. In this way Kipling makes the point that the story of the Jews was part of the story of Britain.
He was wise, but he was not wise enough to overcome his anti-semitism. When he wrote of Kadmiel, the hero of "The Treasure and the Law", he exercised what Rosemary Sutcliff was to call one of his greatest gifts, 'his extraordinary power of getting under the skin of man or beast, time or place or situation; he entered fully into Kadmiel's point of view (that of a lifelong victim of persecution), gave him perhaps the fullest idiolect of any of the characters in the Puck books, and through Kadmiel's mouth makes a trenchant case against the violent, ignorant, bigoted English of King John's time (he was to perform a similar feat a couple of years later, writing of a Jewish family in "The House Surgeon.") (17)
But with the other side of his head Kipling seems early to have picked up a set of cheap and ugly notions about Jews that he never had the sense to discard. In the late nineteenth century it was widely believed in Europe and the United States that "the Jews" through their command of high finance exercised an occult influence, even control, over states and nations. Traditional hatred of the village money-lender (a job which had been forced on Jews rather than sought by them) began to masquerade as modern economic analysis. Kipling subscribed to this nonsense, as "The Song of the Fifth River," the poem which he attached to "The Treasure and the Law," as well as the story itself, demonstrates. Still more inexcusably, he exploited one of the oldest popular libels by having Kadmiel actually poison a well. Admittedly, the poison is not lethal and Kadmiel's cause is good, but that hardly justifies Kipling.
Worst of all, when in his story he shows Jews gathering behind locked doors in Spain to settle the fate of the world ('...peace or war decided, not once, but many times, by the fall of a coin spun between a Jew from Bury and a Jewess from Alexandria') (18) he lets his otherwise excellent illustrator, H.R. Millar — who was also E.Nesbit's illustrator — illustrate it with a sinister drawing (left) of fur-robed, hook-nosed plotters which would not have been out of place in a Nazi propaganda sheet. (For this reason, if not for those which he gives, Angus Wilson's demand that the Millar illustrations be replaced seems sound) (19) Nor does Kipling improve matters by making Kadmiel and his associate Elias mouthpieces for his deep suspicion and dislike of modern democracy: "The people are tenfold more cruel than Kings." (20) Quotations from Magna Carta ("To none will we sell, refuse or deny right or justice"), or a vivid vision of Kadmiel as like 'a Moses in the picture-bible' hardly make up for such tendentiousness (21)
We may doubt that the story caused much harm, but it is even more unlikely that it did any good. It disfigures Puck of Pook's Hill. Its only historical value is that it illustrates the muddle and obstinacy of the anti-semitic mentality.
The central chapters of Puck of Pook's Hill are devoted to the tale of Parnesius the centurion, the figure with whom the idea of the book began. They seem by all accounts to be the most popular portion among readers. Rosemary Sutcliff has been quoted already, and in his biography of Kipling Charles Carrington remarks:
In the whole range of Rudyard Kipling's work, no pieces have been more effective in moulding the thought of a generation than the three stories of the centurions defending Hadrian's Wall during the decline of the Roman Empire ...The story of the centurion's task is told as a panegyric of duty and service which press their claims all the more urgently when leaders fail to lead and statesmen study only their own careers.This verdict can hardly be bettered. The power of the centurions' story cannot be denied, but it is almost pure romance. Parnesius and Pertinax are historically incredible, like the Three Musketeers, and just as fascinating. Their inauthenticity bothers no-one. It is hardly worth demonstrating this proposition at length, and everyone will make allowances for all the archaeological discoveries made in the century since Kipling wrote: there were many things that he could not know. Sometimes he guessed correctly: recent scholarship has established that, contrary to what was long thought, Roman control of the Wall was re-established after the fall of Magnus Maximus, and was perhaps not lost during his reign. (23)
But it must be plainly stated that Kipling's picture of Roman Britain in the late fourth century is misleading where it isn't inaccurate, and should never be accepted as factual in detail without independent corroboration. For instance, Kipling has much to say about the Germanic immigrants and invaders who eventually settled thickly in the east and south of Britain and founded the realm of England. They are a much-debated historical topic, and Kipling is not to blame for simplifying it by presenting the newcomers simply as barbarian invaders, when in fact many of them may have been mercenaries in the service of Rome. But his characters invariably refer to the intruders as "The Winged Hats", in allusion to the headgear that he bestows on them. This is simply absurd: Romans and Picts knew the difference between hats and helmets, and so do English children. And even "Winged Helmets" would have been erroneous: it was nineteenth century painters and stage designers who gave the Anglo-Saxons (and, for that matter, the Goths, the Franks and the Vikings) winged helmets: the barbarians of history never knew such things. The Romans referred to all their Northern seafaring enemies as, simply, "Saxons" - the People of the Knife. It would have been in better taste for Kipling to do the same - but knives are not nearly so picturesque as winged helmets. He also describes the Winged Hats as coming in fleets of "raven-winged" ships to land in what is now Scotland. He is wrong on two counts: none of the ships of the North was rigged with sails until c.600, and the thrust of the Saxon attack was usually directed at Gaul and Kent, as the story of Hengest and Horsa implies. The thrilling tale of the Saxons' assault on Hadrian's Wall is therefore unlikely to the point of impossibility (the Picts and the Scots were the enemies there).
Similar objections could be made to Kipling's presentation of a dozen other matters, but they would be equally beside the point. For Kipling was creating a myth, and as Carrington says, "A myth-maker has the right to arrange his material." (24) Here, more than anywhere else in Puck of Pook's Hill, we can see what he meant when he said, as eventually he did (though I cannot remember where) that everything he wrote between the Second Boer War and 1914 was intended to strengthen the British Empire. Ever since the Diamond Jubilee he had been haunted by the knowledge that empires and their glory are transient, and that Britain might already be following Rome, as in the poem which serves as the Prelude to Puck of Pook's Hill:
Cities and thrones and powersEver since "Recessional" he had been afraid that the British might bring about the fall of their empire through the degeneration of their character and society:
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,It had (he believed) happened to Rome. And everything which occurred in the decade between "Recessional " and the publication of Puck of Pook's Hill - Britain's less-than-impressive conduct of the war in South Africa, for instance, or the installation of a Liberal government, which happened while he was actually writing Puck of Pook's Hill, confirmed him in his fears. More, he was becoming increasingly apprehensive of the threat from imperial Germany, a threat to which most of his countrymen seemed blind. Ever more stridently he strove to warn them. The Parnesius tales were part of his campaign of admonishment:
'Kipling claimed he did not intend to write parables, 'but when situations are so ludicrously, or terribly, parallel ...what can one do?' ' (26)But perhaps the parallels were not quite what he thought. They may have been between interpretations, not events. Kipling was devoted to Gibbon, but in "Parnesius" he was putting to work, for the sake of the British Empire, an un-Gibbonian, universally accepted nineteenth-century myth, that the Fall of Rome could be explained entirely by the moral degeneracy of the Romans.
Given these concerns, it isn't surprising that once more literature, not history, is in the ascendant. "A Centurion of the Thirtieth" opens with an invocation of Macaulay's Horatius, who kept the bridge "in the brave days of old." Horatius himself is not mentioned in the quotations from the lay which bears his name, (27) but all Kipling's likely readers in 1906 would have recognised them and their source, and some of them might later have reflected on the aptness of the allusion, for Parnesius and Pertinax kept the Wall. (Kipling could easily have written a new Lay of Ancient Rome on the subject). Heroic legend is an excellent instrument for instilling patriotic virtue. But Kipling's art may have sabotaged his message. Romans, like Jews, were a subject that he could only approach imaginatively, and the results could be disconcerting. Young readers might be inspired by the example of Parnesius, and no doubt many of them noticed Kipling's carefullydetailed parallels between the Roman and the British empires (British schools at that period were full of imperial propaganda). But they may have been perplexed by, for example, the portrayal of Maximus, the military commander in Britain who, according to Kipling, emptied Britain of soldiers so that he could follow his destiny (28) and make himself Emperor, with the inevitable result, as he was warned by the father of Parnesius, that the Picts and the Winged Hats attempted an invasion which nearly succeeded. Parnesius and Pertinax are devoted to Maximus, admire him all but blindly, and serve him to his death and beyond; but many a young reader (or old ones, for that matter) must have wondered if Maximus deserved their devotion, and was not in fact the architect of all their troubles. Kipling was well aware of the contradiction, and indeed underlined it; but it rather destroys his moral. He could not help sympathising with the Napoleonic grandeur of Maximus, but is forced to raise the question, was the cause of Rome and Maximus really a good one? The issue was made more difficult by what seems to be a contemporary reference, made in "A Pict Song." The Picts figure prominently in the stories, particularly through their leader Allo. As portrayed, they bear little resemblance to the Picts of history (Parnesius invariably refers to them as the "Little People", rather as an Indian Army officer might refer to the Gonds or the Bhils; Eut there is no evidence that they were any smaller than their Romano-British oppressors) but in "A Pict Song" they speak eloquently for all colonised peoples, and especially for the Irish, whom Kipling almost certainly had in mind:
No indeed! We are not strongHe also included "A British-Roman Song (A.D. 406)", which can be read as implying that Parnesius was deluded. Borrowing his form from Horatius Flaccus (the poem may be reckoned the first of his many pastiches of Horace) Kipling celebrates the greatness of "the very Rome", and proclaims it:
Soon to send forth again a brood,But the date attached to the poem deliberately gives the game away. The prayer was to be denied. 406 (fifteen hundred years exactly before the publication of "Puck") was followed by 410, when the city of Rome was sacked by Alaric the Goth and the Emperor Honorius found himself unable to help the beleaguered British-Romans, now naked to their enemies because another ambitious general (Constantine III) had again emptied the island of troops in another ultimately unsuccessful attempt to seize the purple. "A British-Roman Song" can, indeed must, be read as Kipling's appeal to the islanders of his own day to be true to their past and to their imperial mission; but it is hardly hopeful. In his zeal to drive home the virtues of duty and service, and to warn his contemporaries, Kipling has conceded too much for the good of his case. His more careful readers might well conclude from his presentation that imperialism was intrinsically oppressive, selfish and incompetent, and become Little Englanders. Nor would they have been reassured had they read Kipling's then-unpublished poem, "The Coin Speaks" (the coin in question being of a very late Roman Imperial minting):
Many years my thin white faceThe upshot of these considerations is a paradox: in spite of many errors in detail, and in spite of his purpose to celebrate imperial virtues, Kipling, by the sheer force of his imagination, almost Shavian in its power to present both sides of the question, achieves a memorably powerful and convincing account of the fall of the Roman Empire, of virtue's failure; an account which in this way resembles and complements his optimistic account of the founding of the kingdom of England in the Dalyngridge stories. A historian must pay homage to his achievement.
Two more tales from "Puck of Pook's Hill" remain to be considered, "Hal o'the Draft" and "Dymchurch Flit." They have a strong claim to be rated the best stories in the book. Kipling himself seems to have thought so: in Something of Myself he recounts with pride how his father relished "Hal o'the Draft" sufficiently to insert the description of Hal's 'little ivory knife, carved in the semblance of a fish'; and how of "Dymchurch Flit" 'with which I was always unashamedly content, he asked: 'Where did you get that lighting from?' (32)
In these tales Kipling's conception of the Puck books reaches full expression. "Hal," as a story, is slight enough, chiefly concerned to poke fun at artistic self-importance; it may even be read as a self-satire:
Prophets have honour all over the Earth,The background of great deeds (what the followers of Fernand Braudel dismiss as "I'histoire événementielle") is remote, and, such as it is, was found by Kipling in Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, which prints the ballad of the Scottish pirate Sir Andrew Barton, a work stigmatised by the Oxford Dictionary of Natopnal Biography as 'combining violence, chivalry and inaccuracy in varying degrees.' (34) A brilliant conceit links both Barton and Sebastian Cabot (seaman of Bristol, cartographer, and son of the discoverer of Newfoundland) to smuggling ironmasters in Sussex, and though set in the reign of Henry VII the story gives rise to one of Kipling's most delightful poems, "A Smuggler's Song":
Five and twenty ponies,This leaps straight into the eighteenth century. All this is riches enough, but the great purpose and achievement of "Hal o'the Draft" is to bring the society of the Dudwell valley fully to life for the first time. The opening chapters of Puck of Pook's Hill had made a beginning, particularly in the descriptions of the river and the meadows beside it; building on that Kipling now brings in the church, "St Barnabas" (St. Bartholomew in actuality), the farms, the orchards and, above all, the people, especially the rascally ironmaster John Collins, whose name Kipling had found on a tomb in St. Bartholomew's: Orate p. Annema Jhone Coline (the inscription itself was to be used in Rewards and Fairies) (35) This is history of a new kind. It merges imperceptibly with human geography, and leaves another ineradicable impression, of how the Weald lived and worked in the fifteenth century:
The valley was as full o' forges and fineries as a May shaw of cuckoos. All gone to grass now!Kipling also manages to convey his own views on the nature of art, and what was the place of artists and craftsmen (he makes no distinction between them) in the last years before the Reformation, when Catholic England was still vigorous:
Half Oxford was building new colleges or beautifying the old, and she had called to her aid the master-craftsmen of all Christendie - kings in their trade and honoured by Kings. (36)It is good nourishing historical fare, and looks forward to the method that Kipling was to use consistently in Rewards and Fairies.
So does "Dymchurch Flit", but in several ways the purely historical achievement of that tale is even finer, which at first sight is strange since the story is blatantly fictional, except for those who believe in fairies. In it Kipling continues to build up his picture of Burwash, centring it on the figure of Hobden, the hedger and poacher. His ancestors have figured slightly in the earlier tales (there is a Hob o' the Dean in "Weland's Sword" and Ralph Hobden of the Forge in "Hal o' the Draft") and his friendship with the children has been solidly established, but now he takes centre stage, working in the oast-house during the hopping season. To him enters Tom Shoesmith, 'a grey-whiskered, brown-faced giant with clear blue eyes' (37), (an old friend whom Hobden had correctly supposed to be dead: he is the latest revenant, but he is also Puck in disguise. For the children's benefit he tells the story of the fairies' farewell, when they fled England because of the hatreds and cruelties bred by the Reformation: 'Good-will among Flesh an' Blood is meat an' drink to `em, an' ill-will is poison.' (38) (Kipling makes his own fairy-story, but uses the traditional elements so skilfully that it is impossible not to accept it as a genuine folk-tale. It is as far as possible from 'l'histoire événementielle', and Indeed, at first glance, from any sort of history whatever, but like a jagged rock beneath the surface of a bay there lies under the fairy-tale a subtle historical vision of one of the greatest breaches and discontinuities in the island story:
'Queen Bess’s father' (actually Edward VI or his ministers, RK is simplifying again) 'he used the parish churches something shameful. Justabout tore the gizzards out of I dunnamany. Some folk in England they held with ’en; but some they saw it different, an’ it eended in ’em takin’ sides an’ burnin’ each other no bounds, accordin’ which side was top, time bein’. (That was what terrified the 'Pharisees', or fairies.) 'They couldn’t abide cruel Canterbury Bells ringin’ to Bulverhithe for more pore men an’ women to be burnded, nor the King’s proud messenger ridin’ through the land givin’ orders to tear down the Images.' (39)So they thronged into Romney Marsh, and eventually, with the help of the Widow Whitgift and her two sons, escaped to France. It is a moving tale, and implies a severe verdict on religious fabaticism, but its deepest meaning lies elsewhere, No readers of Eamon Duffy's remarkable study, The Stripping of the Altars (40) can fail to have learned how profoundly late mediaeval English Christianity was taken up with the cult of the dead. The living, to shorten their sufferings in Purgatory, made charitable provision in their wills for schools, hospitals and alms-houses; for prayers and ceremonies to save their souls; they faithfully executed the behests of their predecessors and in return hoped that the dead, particularly the sainted ones, would watch over them. Atl aspects of religious life were shaped by this cult; it was truly a world where the dead and the living co-existed and communicated; a world where death was implicitly believed to be a mere step from one form of existence to another. All this was shattered for ever by the Reformation. Kipling's Pharisees, then, may rightly be understood as an exact and powerful metaphor for the dead who were being driven out of the churches and out of the country. Eamon Duffy's work makes the point inescapable; but it was Kipling's genius which intuitively discovered it, perhaps by reflecting on what Bishop Corbet (1582-1635) meant when he wrote "The Fairies' Farewell" ('Farewell Rewards and Fairies...') which, like Sir Andrew Barton, Kipling may first have discovered in the Reliques:
By which we note the fairiesIn "Dymchurch Flit" Kipling does far more than stimulate a love of the past: he is conveying the nature of the great Tudor convulsion, and delicately provokes sensitive readers to reflect on the price of revolution and the nature of human society.
It is not clear whether Kipling from the first intended, or hoped, to write two volumes of Puck stories. (41) But by the end of "Puck of Pook's Hill" his invention was in full flood, making a sequel inevitable, though the storyteller says that he was of two minds about the project: were the new tales in his head authentic, or caused by "induction" - by which he meant, l suppose, that they might not have been suggestcd by the land and history of Sussex, but merely by the scheme of the first volume. It would have been all too easy to turn the Puck device into a formula (rather as Sherlock grew formulaic. Fortunately nothing of the kind happened. The stories in Reward and Fairies are as authentic as those in "Puck": they too realise an original vision.
But it is a vision of a quite different kind. "Rewards" is much more like a conventional collection of short stories than is "Puck". Various threads connect the tales it contains with each other and with the earlier book, for example, as Kipling points out, the central moment of each one comes when the main character acts upon a necessity, crying out "What else could I have done?" (42)
But Puck of Pook's Hill has a musical, one might even say, a symphonic quality: themes are stated, and develop, and recur, and intermingle; those who like may play with the idea that it has three movements, the Norman Conquest, the fall of Rome, and the church in Tudor England. Perhaps this quality is the reason why the last story in "Rewards", the last Puck story of all, "The Tree of Justice" is so welcome to the reader, for it brongs back Sir Richard Dalyngridgeand the Norman theme. And all the themes are historical.
Rewards and Fairies quite lacks this quality except where its stories are deliberate sequels to some in "Puck". "The Wrong Thing" is a sequel to "Hal of the Draft", "Simple Simon" to "Dymchurch Flit," (In "Simple Simon" Protestants fleeing from persecution in Flanders are carried to safety in England by the young Francis Drake; the appearance in the tale of a Whitgift, a wise woman, makes the link with that of the fairies' flight in the opposite direction unmissable). On the whole, where "Puck" was historical, "Rewards", it may be suggested is biographical. The historian, contemplating the book, sees not issues but incidents, life-stories out of which Kipling squeezes the last drops of vivid characterisation, drama and significance, but which, while illustrating the history of England, do not explicitly illumine it. The only theme seems to be the rise of the British Empire, and even that is not insisted upon: there is nothing much for historians to argue about. For the most part all they can do is praise Kipling's sustained portrayal of Sussex society through the centuries, and, if so disposed, itemise still more factual blunders (Kipling was to boast that he had done so much preparatory research, in order to get things right, that "my old Chief would have been almost pleased with me," but his confidence was misplaced) (43) In one respect, however, "Rewards" is thoroughly original, and and acieves something that perhaps only Walter Scott of all British writers, could match.
If the academic practice of the past fifty years has taught us nothing else it has at least left no doubt that all topics are proper for historical study. This is triumphantly demonstrated by Rewards and Fairies, for there, more even than in "Puck", Kipling advertises his love of the English language and English literature, and imparts his love historically. Not for him the cowardice of making his revenant characters talk in modern idiom. Parnesius in "Puck" had been an exception to this rule,but in "Rewards" there is none. Even St Wilfrid, scholar and gentleman, does not talk quite like a modern prelate, and at one moment breaks into Yorkshire dialect. Kipling gives each century its own idiom, and manages to be both convincing and comprehensible, His procedures can be glimpsed in "Marklake Witches". The heoine of this touching story, Philadelphia, is dying of tuberculosis, though she does not know it (and nor does the listening Una). Her pathos is reinforced by the reader's perception that here, as in "They" and "Merrow Down", Kipling was giving expression to his tormenting sorrow for the death of his daughter Josephine , which had happened less than ten years previously. There is nothing maudlin about her; she is a spirited creature, and tells her tale in a lively, comic tone; but one evening she performs on the harp to a select audience which includes Sir Arthur Wellesley. Kipling takes pains to give her a suitable song, written in the insipid and artificial style of the day (the year is that of Trafalgar) which, nevertheless, will make everyone cry, including his readers:
I have given my heart to a flower, Though f know it is fading away, Though I know it will live but an hour And leave me to mourn its decay! Ye desolate whirlwinds that rave, I charge you be good to my dear! She is all - she is all that I have, And the time of our parting is near! (44)Kipling wrote about these verses to an admirer soon after "Rewards" was published:
Shenstone has somewhere or other, about the end I think, of a long and drearyish ode four lines of pure tears. Thus:Kipling, he tells us, had "glorious fun" when writing "Rewards" (46) and it was partly a matter of putting the English language through its paces, and conveying to the ignorant a realisation of what it was, what it could do and what it had done through the centuries. This is perhaps clearest in "A Doctor of Medicine", which tells how Nicholas Culpeper, the seventeenth-century astrologer physician, ended an outbreak of plague at Burwash during the Civil War. Kipling had loved Culpeper's writings for years. He did not believe in the astrology, but he was fascinated by Culpeper's botany and his language, and the tale and its accompanying verses gave his fascination its head. Kipling catches the man's diction perfectly. His Culpeper characterizes himself with every word he utters, whether he is addressing Dan and Una as if they were a public meeting ('And now, good people, give me leave to be particular in this case') or correcting himself when he carelessly refers to "the King" (being a supporter of the Parliament, he should have said 'the man Charles Stuart) or proclaimirg that his hypothesis has been vindicated by 'divine astrology and humble search into the veritable causes of things - at the proper time - the sons of wisdom may combat even the pague', or just coughing pompously 'Ahem!', as a trick to catch the ear of the vulgar crowd. The utterance of Kipling's Culpeper takes us into a lost mental world as completely as any learned, laborious historian could do in the twenty-first century. (47)
Nor does Kipling stop there. Culpeper is perhaps his greatest linguistic triumph, but he also gives Elizabeth ("Gloriana") convincing personal utterance, and his Talleyrand, with his allusions to Candide and Dr Pangloss and "the noble Huron" talks plausibly like an eighteenth-century aristo, though as a piece of historical characterisation he is a failure: Talleyrand of the bland and frozen face (what a poker-player he would have made!) was not the man to lose his temper with such a gipsy lad as Pharaoh Lee and threaten to kill him, nor would he have compared himself favourably on the point of gratitude with Napoleon, still less to the man's face, at least not if he wanted to be taken seriously. (48)
On the other hand, Duff Cooper, Talleyrand's best-known British biographer, approves the plot of "A Priest In Spite Of Himself." Talleyrand, exiled in Philadelphia (Duff Cooper might also have mentioned that Kipling's sketch of the emigre society in that city, and of the Moravian community to which Pharaoh Lee is attached, is masterly) is anxious to return to Paris and to ease his passage home with American state secrets, if he can discover any. Cooper says of Kipling's story:
... while there is no reason to suppose that the episode that he imagines ever took place, the story itself probably contains the true answer to the question whether Talleyrand was working for the French government or not. Fiction is often an aid to history, and the penetrating eye of genius can discern much that remains elusive to the patient researches of the historian. (49)Still more impressive than this feat are the poems which Kipling crams into his book (twentytwo sets of verses as compared to fifteen in "Puck"). Verse came to him easily, perhaps more easily than prose, and may have been a relief to him after the strict discipline to which he subjected his daemon in writing the "Puck" tales. The poems enlarge, or even burst, the bounds setup by the prose ("A Truthful Song") carries us as far as twentieth-century London, with its reference to 'building flats near the Marble Arch'. The verses on Queen Elizabeth ("The Looking-Glass") and Napoleon ("A Saint Helena Lullaby") drive home Kipling's sense of the significance of these figures.
"If—" is the most popular poem (if poem it can be called) in the English language. Its success seems to have startled, and not entirely pleased, its maker (50). He wrote it in honour of Leander Starr Jameson, and in "Rewards" attached it to George Washington: it seems inappropriate to both of them, though the third verse may contain an allusion to Jameson's addiction to gambling, as well as to his notorious Raid:
If you can make one heap of all your winningsRather more successful as a contribution to historical understanding is a second smugglers' song ("Poor Honest Men") which not only shows that Kipling, the lover of the unregenerate, never quite reformed, but gives a remarkably full account of the trade that was forbidden only so that the state could raise revenue - a point central to the politics of the eighteenth century, being one of the causes of the American Revolution. This is true historical education.
It must also be pointed out that in Rewards and Fairies, even more than in Puck of Pook's Hill, Kipling is exploring and reporting on Sussex as, in his youth, he had explored and reported on India. He enriched his map with each tale. He stretched his reach geographically - by the end he has taken his readers from the North Downs to the sea, from Romney Marsh to Selsey Bill; he demonstrated the great arc of continuity from the age of the Saxon settlement to the early twentieth century. [This definition deliberately excludes "The Knife and the Naked Chalk", which seems to me the one real failure in the Puck books, whether regarded historically or artistically - except for the beautiful description of the South Downs with which it opens.]
Hobden is the central figure, but it is remarkable how many other trades and occupations are displayed in the Puck books: shepherds, sailors, ironmasters, masons, smugglers, hop-pickers, poachers, millers, wood-carters, gamekeepers, gardeners, parsons, bricklayers, millwrights, shipwrights and Mr Springett, a builder, contractor and sanitary engineer who, even more than Hobden, acts as a firm link between the modern world and what went before.
The rapport between him and Hal o' the Draft, as Hal tells the absurd story of how he came to be knighted by Henry VII, is beautifully suggested. (51) The deliberate moral of this approach is twofold: craftsmen and labourers are the real heroes, the real builders of Sussex; and England exists both in space and time, and cannot be understood historically without taking both into account. It would surely be impossible for a sensitive or intelligent reader of Rewards and Fairies not to develop a sense of social history.
Kipling never claimed to be doing more than introducing his child-readers to the English past (what he thought he was doing for his adult readers is a much more complex question), but his method - combining dynamic tales with what may perhaps be termed, in today's jargon, "thick description", was all his own.
Eventually the series turned itself off just as Kim had done' (52) The last of the stories, "TheTree of Justice," reiterates an old theme: Norman and Saxon together honour King Harold, he having somehow survived the battle of Hastings and spent forty years as a half-witted wanderer from shrine to English shrine. He is now under the protection of Rahere, King Henry jester, a memorably-conceived character based, very loosely, on the founder of St Bartholomew's Hospital. In a set of related verses Kipling uses him to convey his view of depressive illness. (53) He himself had suffered from a bad attack in 1908:
Suddenly, his days before him and behind him seemed to standThis poem was not published until 1926, in Debits and Credits. where it is attached to "The Wish House", to which, in its celebration of love, it certainly belongs. However that may be, it demonstrates that the figures and themes of the past which Kipling had conjured up in the Puck books never lost their hold on his imagination, and even when the Puck books were finished might occasionally drive him into verse (another example is " A Departure", which reverts to the Winged Hats and was published in " Land and Sea Tales). The point was most plainly demonstrated when Rewards and Fairies was barely finished. Kipling had got to know a professional historian, C.R.L. Fletcher of Oxford, whom he found all too sympathetic. Fletcher was both a deep-dyed reactionary and a writer with a bold imagination. He was bringing out a four-volume "Introductory History of England" which Kipling liked, not least because for it Fletcher invented a Sussex village called Tubney, which he used to illustrate the impact of events and social change on ordinary English people. It was perhaps an idea suggested by "Puck", but if so Kipling did not mind. He wrote to Fletcher:
I make haste to offer you my most grateful thanks. When I think of the historical baled hay (in Epochs of 40 pages) that was fed to me in my youth I feel like asking for the heads of all my schoolmasters. (55)He agreed to look over the proofs of volume 4, especially the chapter on India (56) Thus encouraged , Fletcher suggested that Kipling compose some verses to enliven an infant history of England which he was also writing. Kipling leapt at the idea, and produced seventeen poems. A School History of England, by C.R.L. Fletcher and Rudyard Kipling, was published in 1911. Except financially (the book sold in large numbers for years) it was an almost entire failure. Whereas the Puck books had been generally welcomed and praised, and are still admired, the "History," on publication, was generally abused . The Manchester Guardian, the great Liberal paper, said it was "as nearly worthless as a book can be." (57) It has been largely ignored by critics and biographers . The fault was chiefly Fletcher's. The text which he produced (with some help from Kipling) had the double fault of being grossly opinionated and of writing down to its readers. Fletcher is overbearing, and his work cannot compare for charm with Mrs Marshall's roughly contemporaneous Our Island Story (though it is factually much more reliable). Kipling must share the blame: he read and approved Fletcher's draft and was unshaken by the attacks on the book. (58). Its only interest nowadays (except as a cultural symptom of its times) lies in his verses, which are on a plane far above Fletcher's prose.
If few of the poems equal, and none surpasses, those in the Puck books, they are never les than competent, and show that the historical impulse was still exuberant in Kipling. There is a new note of satire, as exemplified in the lines on James I:
He was the author of his line -He carried his talent for period pastiche to new heights in the lines on "Brown Bess":
In the days of lace-ruffles, perukes and brocade"After the War" - an elegy on the War of American Independence - seems, in its quiet pathos, to suggest that Kipling's attitude to history was still evolving:
The snow lies thick on Valley ForgeThe tone seems akin to that of many of the poems which, in a few years more, soldiers from the trenches would be giving to the world. And the last verse reminds us (as does "Philadelphia" and "Brother Square-Toes" in Rewards and Fairies) how much Kipling's writing about eighteenth century America gained from his personal knowledge of the country
Golden-rod by the pasture wallBut then much in Kipling's earlier work - we may think of the Cold Lairs in the Mowgli stories - proves his lifelong sense of the evanescence of human glory, and the futility of much human striving. Even after the "History" Kipling had not quite done with his vision of the English past. In 1913 or thereabouts he wrote a poem, "The Land", which is a final celebration of Hobden ('Whoever pays the taxes, ol' Mus' Hobden owns the land') (59) But for the most part he turned to other sorts of work. His children had grown up, or at least had left childhood behind them; their father no longer needed to concern himself with elementary education. Politics reclaimed him (indeed, had never been entirely absent, as the "Puck" books demonstrate) : he was becoming obsessed with the Irish question and with the looming prospect of war with Germany. The Puck series remained an achievement to be proud of, as everything he says about it in Something of Myself attests: the only doubt about it which he ever entertained arose when a friend, years later, suggested that it had helped the begetting of:
"the Higher Cannibalism" in biography, By which I understood him to mean the exhumation of scarcely cold notorieties, defenceless females for choice, and tricking them out with sprightly inferences and 'sex'-deductions to suit the mood of the market. (60)Kipling felt innocent of the charge, but it is easy enough to see what the friend meant. Lytton Strachey in Eminent Victorians, which Kipling thought was "downright wicked in its heart" (61), selected four English worthies and used them to convey a vision of an age, which is at the same time (very unlike "Puck") a searching critique of it. The book inspired a shoal of satirical biographies. The technique has a superficial resemblance to "Puck" (Strachey himself playing the sprite's part), but ironically wonderful though it would be if Strachey had learned from Kipling, the notion is extremely unlikely.
Kipling may have thought he had done with history, but history had not done with him. The Great War broke out in 1914, and as everyone knows young John Kipling immediately volunteered, and after some difficulties, occasioned by his poor eyesight, received a commission in the Irish Guards. He was killed at the battle of Loos in September, 1915. It was a blow from which Kipling never really recovered, but he was not a man to let himself be defeated by any grief. As a tribute to John, and to his comrades, and to the cause for which they died, he agreed to write a history of the Irish Guards in the war, a laborious and distressing task which occupied him for the best part of six years. It appeared in 1923 and was his one work of straight history.
Not that he claimed the designation of historian. The title page of the work reads: "The Irish Guards in the Great War, edited and compiled from their diaries and papers by Rudyard Kipling..." In his admirable introduction he refers to himself in the third person as, simply, "the compiler of these records." (62) But this modesty must not mislead posterity. If nothing else of his writings survived, "The Irish Guards" would demonstrate his literary powers in the complete success with which he carried out his design, and in the high intelligence evident in the design itself. Edmund Blunden, poet and veteran of the trenches, while commending the "decision and skill" of the writing, was to accuse Kipling of not understanding "the pandemonium and nerve-strain of war," of being unconvincing about "the multitudinous enigma of war atmosphere," (63) but Kipling had anticipated the criticism in his discussion of what his sources told, and could not tell.
'...the only wonder to the compiler of these records has been that any sure fact whatever should be retrieved out of the whirlpools of war' and, as to atmosphere, 'one of the marvels of that marvellous time'(he is talking of the first year of the war) 'was the silence of those concerned on everything that might too much distress their friends at home.' He knew that a mere civilian could never do justice to the soldiers' experience, and how defective the surviving documents were: 'the men of' '14 and '15, and what meagre records of their day were safe to keep, have long been lost'; and of the Irish Guards' total experience:'nor can any pen re-create that world's brilliance, squalor, unreason and heaped boredom.' (64)
Kipling faced the historian's eternal problem, and like all honest historians came to accept its constraints and do the best he could. The result was a book which only those interested in Kipling or the Great War can find readable, but for those so interested (not a small number)it is absorbing and moving.
Particularly impressive is the way in which Kipling keeps both his political and his personal concerns under control. As to politics and the conduct of the war he had strong views, but did his utmost to leave them out, or to make such statements as could not be avoided as moderate as possible. For instance:
The compiler of these records ...has been scrupulous to avoid debatable issues of bad staff-work or faulty generalship. These were not lacking in the War, but the broad sense of justice in all who suffered from them, recognizing that all were equally amateurs, saved the depression of repeated failures from turning into demoralization. (65)This was not the Kipling of the pre-war polemics, and the book is all the better for it. One point which he did not discuss, because he took it for granted, but which nevertheless permeated every page, was that the war had to be fought and that the Allied cause was just. It is perhaps the most instructive of all points for modern readers, brainwashed as so many have been into an unearned and sentimental belief that the war was nothing but a pointless Hell, created by jingoistic politicians and incompetent commanders. Kipling's sober chronicle of one part of the vast struggle leaves such readers with no excuse for evading the real complexities of the tragedy.
As to Kipling's personal tragedy, the loss of John, he is equally or more reticent, mentioning only that '2nd Lieutenant Kipling was wounded and missing' at Loos, and listing him in an appendix among the officers missing in the whole war (John's body was not found during his father's lifetime, and has not perhaps been found even yet). (66) But it is not hard to sense Kipling's love reaching out to know and understand his son's life in the regiment, or to detect what memories lie behind the characterization of the letters home already quoted, and in the description of home-leave:
...where, under cover of a whirl of `entertainment', they and their kin wearied themselves to forget and escape a little from that life, on the brink of the next world, whose guns they could hear summoning in the silences between their talk. (67)That was as near as Kipling came to openly putting his own feelings into his book, but they are the unacknowledged ground-bass of all its music.
He veiled his politics and his emotions; he also did his utmost to discipline his style. He was surprisingly successful: "The Irish Guards" is narrated in plain, unemphatic, almost colourless language. Blunden thought that he was not successful enough, but today it is interesting to observe Kipling's sense of the canons that would soon be laid down by Ernest Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms (68) indeed, in the introduction he partially anticipates Hemingway:
...in a life where Death ruled every hour, nothing was trivial, and bald references to villages, billets, camps, fatigues and sports, as well as hints of tales that can never now fully be told, carry each their separate significance to each survivor, intimate and incommunicable as family jests. (69)But he could not quite repress his daemon. The men of the regiment were mainly Irish (though much less so at the war's end than at its beginning) and Kipling's attitude to Irish nationalism might have been expected to create difficulties for him, especially as the years when he was writing his history were those of the Irish revolution and civil war; but his contact with them seems to have swept all such considerations aside. He did not change his views (he would not have been Kipling if he had), but he chose to forget them, as it were; and his reward was a renewal of some of his earliest magic. Mulvaney came back, last of Gramarye's revenants. Listening to the vivid talk of the survivors Kapling realised that their remarks could supply a splendid running comment on events, a sort of chorus for the drama; he quoted them plentifully, for instance on reactions to the armistice:
'Ye would come on a man an' ask him for what ye wanted or where you was to go, and the Frenchman, he'd say, 'Oui! Oui! Gare finnee,' an' smile an' rub his hands an' push off. The Englishman - some dam' back-area Clerk or ticket-collector that had been playin' ping-pong at Boulogne since '14, he'd smile the same way an 'Tis over! 'tis over!' he'd say, clean forgettin' everythin' that he hadn't done wrong-end-up. But we was all like that together- silly, foolish, an' goin' about grinnin'. ( (70)The poet and chronicler of the Old Army thus returned as one of the memorialists of the New, and no doubt Mulvaney's ghost saluted.
Kipling's last books of stories contain only three which are set in the historical past. (71) "The Eye of Allah" has been much admired, and is beautifully told, but it is a sin against history all the same. The message is that in an age of obscurantism (hora novissima, tempora pessima) it may be necessary to suppress advances in knowledge - in this instance, the discovery of the microscope - in order not to make the times even worse. The theme is profound: who has not wondered how many of the myriad technological inventions of the twentieth century were truly safe, truly beneficial? - but Kipling's choice of period and setting for his discussion seems to reflect his dislike of the Catholic Church more than anything else. We can date the action of the tale quite precisely: it must occur between 1261 and 1264, and it is far from clear that at that moment of burgeoning universities, the springtime of scholasticism (symbolised in the story by the figure of Roger Bacon) and the rediscovery of Aristotle, the microscope would have been either contentious or dangerous. Kipling does not try to argue the point: we are required to accept the judgement of his Abbot Stephen, and that is not good enough. For once the question of historical truth is central: without it the story is nothing. Beside this great flaw the invention of a thirteenth-century monastery where the abbot openly kept a concubine, though vastly implausible, seems relatively insignificant.
The other two stories concern St. Paul, but unfortunately do not bring that remarkable man to life. Since he was the first Christian known to us, indubitably, by his own words and letters, it is easy to see why Kipling decided to present him entirely from the outside, through other men's eyes; even he, the master of pastiche, might quail at writing a monologue, as for Gloriana, for the author of Second Corinthians; but the attempt to show Paul by glimpses does not succeed either. "The Church that was at Antioch" centres on Valens, a nice young man strikingly like Parnesius down to his adherence to Mithraism; nothing new there, and even the representation of Antioch under Rome seems reminiscent of Lahore under the British, as depicted in "On the City Wall". The message is the same as it was in that story, and in "Gallio's Song" in Actions and Reactions:
Whether ye rise for the sake of a creed,The theme had long been dear to Kipling; it is tempting to guess that he returned to it after deciding that "Gallio's Song" had not exhausted it; both story and song rested on the old identification of Roman imperialism with British; the writing is as skilful as ever; but nothing new is said about either.
"The Manner of Men" has more to offer. It is an elaboration of the tale of St. Paul's shipwreck on Malta, and although Paul himself still seems unrealised - hardly more than a bit-player in his own drama -the account of sea-trading on the Mediterranean in his time is wonderfully vigorous, detailed and convincing. Here, for the last time, Kipling draws us into the daily life of the past, and in his letters to Sir Percy Bates we can see a little of how he went to work:
Your notion of wheat in the ear as cargo is fascinating but I won't venture on it till I know a heap more. Clay amphorae are obviously impossible. Tell me what you can about bagged wheat (100 lb bags) and hides. Spain produced both... (73)Where the approach to history was concerned, Kipling was perhaps more of an antiquarian than anything else - except an imaginative writer.
Overall, it will be seen that Kipling revelled in history, used it for his own moral and political purposes, and brought it to life for his own time. For that very reason, his vision cannot carry full conviction to a later age, and in the end, perhaps, tells us more about Edwardian Britain than any other period. In this it is of a piece with all his other work, and historians of Edwardian Britain will always find it invaluable. But all historians will agree that, whatever its flaws, Kipling's treatment of history will always be worth reading, since it is not only brilliantly executed, but is inspired, in the last analysis, by a disinterested love of the past for its own sake; and that is the root of the matter.
©Hugh Brogan 2007 All rights reserved