On Mr Rudyard Kipling

  by G. K. Chesterton


This is an extract from the essay ‘On Mr. Rudyard Kipling and Making the World Small’, in Heretics (1905), pp. 38-53. Roger Lancelyn Green, who edited the essay for his 1971 collection of Kipling criticism,  notes ‘The beginning of the essay is too general and the end wanders again: this extract gives all that Chesterton has to say about Kipling.’

. . . The first and fairest thing to say about Rudyard Kipling is that he
has borne a brilliant part in recovering the lost provinces of poetry.
He has not been frightened by that brutal materialistic air which clings
only to words; he has pierced through to the romantic, imaginative
matter of the things themselves. He has perceived the significance and
philosophy of steam and of slang. Steam may be, if you like, a dirty
by-product of science. Slang may be, if you like, a dirty by-product of
language. But at least he has been among the few who saw the divine
parentage of these things, and knew that where there is smoke there is
fire—that is, that wherever there is the foulest of things, there also is
the purest. Above all, he has had something to say, a definite view of
things to utter, and that always means that a man is fearless and faces
everything. For the moment we have a view of the universe, we possess

Now, the message of Rudyard Kipling, that upon which he has
really concentrated, is the only thing worth worrying about in him
or in any other man. He has often written bad poetry, like Words-
worth. He has often said silly things, like Plato. He has often given way
to mere political hysteria, like Gladstone. But no one can reasonably
doubt that he means steadily and sincerely to say something, and the
only serious question is, what is that which he has tried to say? Per-
haps the best way of stating this fairly will be to begin with that ele-
ment which has been most insisted by himself and by his opponents—

I mean his interest in militarism. But when we are seeking for the real
merits of a man it is unwise to go to his enemies, and much more
foolish to go to himself.

Now, Mr. Kipling is certainly wrong in his worship of militarism,
hut his opponents arc, generally speaking, quite as wrong as he. The
evil of militarism, is not that it shows certain men to be fierce and
haughty and excessively warlike. The evil of militarism is that it shows
most men to be tame and timid and excessively peaceable. The pro-
fessional soldier gains more and more power as the general courage of a
community declines. Thus the Pretorian guard became more and more
important in Rome as Rome became more and more luxurious and
feeble. The military man gains the civil power in proportion as the
civilian loses the military virtues. And as it was in ancient Rome so it is
in contemporary Europe. There never was a time when nations were
more militarist. There never was a time when men were less brave.
All ages and all epics have sung of arms and the man; but we have
effected simultaneously the deterioration of the man and the fantastic
perfection of the arms. Militarism demonstrated the decadence of
Rome, and it demonstrates the decadence of Prussia.
And unconsciously Mr. Kipling has proved this, and proved it
admirably. For in so far as his work is earnestly understood the military
trade does not by any means emerge as the most important or attrac-
tive. He has not written so well about soldiers as he has about railway
men or bridge builders, or even journalists. The fact is that what
attracts Mr. Kipling to militarism is not the idea of courage, but the
idea of discipline. There was far more courage to the square mile in the
Middle Ages, when no king had a standing army, but every man had
a bow or sword. But the fascination of the standing army upon Mr.
Kipling is not courage, which scarcely interests him, but discipline,
which is, when all is said and done, his primary theme. The modern
army is not a miracle of courage; it has not enough opportunities,
owing to the cowardice of everybody else. But it is really a miracle
of organization, and that is the truly Kiplingite ideal. Kipling’s subject
is not that valour which properly belongs to war, but that inter-
dependence and efficiency which belongs quite as much to engineers,
or sailors, or mules, or railway engines. And thus it is that when he
writes of engineers, or sailors, or mules, or steam-engines, he writes
at his best. The real poetry, the ‘true-romance’ which Mr. Kipling has
taught, is the romance of the division of labour and the discipline of
all the trades. He sings the arts of peace much more accurately than the arts of war.

And his main contention is vital and valuable. Everything
is military in the sense that everything depends upon obedience. There
is no perfectly epicurean corner; there is no perfectly irresponsible
place. Everywhere men have made the way for us with sweat and
submission. We may fling ourselves into a hammock in a fit of divine
carelessness. But we are glad that the net-maker did not make the
hammock in a fit of divine carelessness. We may jump upon a child’s
rocking-horse for a joke. But we are glad that the carpenter did not
leave the legs of it unglued for a joke. So far from having merely
preached that a soldier cleaning his side-arm is to be adored because he
is military, Kipling at his best and clearest has preached that the baker
baking loaves and the tailor cutting coats is as military as anybody.
Being devoted to this multitudinous vision of duty, Mr. Kipling
is naturally a cosmopolitan. He happens to find his examples in the
British Empire, but almost any other empire would do as well, or,
indeed, any other highly civilized country. That which he admires in
the British Army he would find even more apparent in the German
Army; that which he desires in the British police he would find
flourishing in the French police. The ideal of discipline is not the whole
of life, but it is spread over the whole of the world. And the worship
of it tends to confirm in Mr. Kipling a certain note of worldly wisdom,
of the experience of the wanderer, which is one of the genuine charms
of his best work.

The great gap in his mind is what may be roughly called the lack of
patriotism—that is to say, he lacks altogether the faculty of attaching
himself to any cause or community finally and tragically; for all
finality must be tragic. He admires England, but he does not love her;
for we admire things with reasons, but love them without reasons.
He admires England because she is strong, not because she is English.
There is no harshness in saying this, for, to do him justice, he avows
it with his usual picturesque candour. In a very interesting poem, he
says that—

If England was what England seemss

—that is, weak and inefficient; if England were not what (as he believes)
she is—that is, powerful and practical—

How quick wed chuck ’er\ But she ain’t!

He admits, that is, that his devotion is the result of a criticism, and this is
quite enough to put it in another category altogether from the patriotism

of the Boers, whom he hounded down in South Africa. In speaking
of the really patriotic peoples, such as the Irish, he has some difficulty
in keeping a shrill irritation out of his language. The frame of mind
which he really describes with beauty and nobility is the frame of
mind of the cosmopolitan man who has seen men and cities.

For to admire and for to see,
For to be’old this world so wide.

He is a perfect master of that light melancholy with which a man looks
back on having been the citizen of many communities, of that light
melancholy with which a man looks back on having been the lover of
many women. He is the philanderer of the nations. But a man may
have learnt much about women in flirtations, and still be ignorant of
first love; a man may have known as many lands as Ulysses, and still
be ignorant of patriotism.

Mr. Rudyard Kipling has asked in a celebrated epigram what they
can know of England who know England only. It is a far deeper and
sharper question to ask: ‘What can they know of England who know
only the world?’ for the world does not include England any more than
it includes the Church. The moment we care for anything deeply, the
world—that is, all the other miscellaneous interests—becomes our
enemy. Christians showed it when they talked of keeping one’s self
‘unspotted from the world’; but lovers talk of it just as much when they
talk of the ‘world well lost’. Astronomically speaking, I understand
that England is situated on the world; similarly, I suppose that the
Church was a part of the world, and even the lovers inhabitants of that
orb. But they all felt a certain truth—the truth that the moment you
love anything the world becomes your foe. Thus Mr. Kipling does
certainly know the world; he is a man of the world, with all the
narrowness that belongs to those imprisoned in that planet. He knows
England as an intelligent English gentleman knows Venice. He has
been to England a great many times; he has stopped there for long
visits. But he does not belong to it, or to any place; and the proof of it
is this, that he thinks of England as a place. The moment we are rooted
in a place the place vanishes. We live like a tree with the whole strength
of the universe.

The globe-trotter lives in a smaller world than the peasant. He is al-
ways breathing an air of locality. London is a place, to be compared to
Chicago; Chicago is a place, to be compared to Timbuctoo.

But Timbuctoo is not a place, since there, at least, live men who regard it as the
universe, and breathe, not an air of locality, but the winds of the world.
The man in the saloon steamer has seen all the races of men, and he is
thinking of the things that divide men—diet, dress, decorum, rings in
the nose as in Africa, or in the ears as in Europe, blue paint among the
ancients, or red paint among the modern Britons. The man in the
cabbage field has seen nothing at all; but he is thinking of the things
that unite men—hunger and babies, and the beauty of women, and
the promise or menace of the sky. Mr. Kipling, with all his merits, is
the globe-trotter; he has not the patience to become part of anything.
So great and genuine a man is not to be accused of a merely cynical
cosmopolitanism; still, his cosmopolitanism is his weakness. That weak-
ness is splendidly expressed in one of his finest poems, ‘The Sestina of
the Tramp Royal’, in which a man declares that he can endure anything
in the way of hunger or horror, but not permanent presence in one
place. In this there is certainly danger. The more dead and dry and dusty
a thing is the more it travels about; dust is like this and the thistledown
and the High Commissioner in South Africa. Fertile things are somewhat
heavier, like the heavy fruit trees on the pregnant mud of the Nile. In
the heated idleness of youth we were all rather inclined to quarrel
with the implication of that proverb which says that a rolling stone
gathers no moss. We were inclined to ask: ‘Who wants to gather moss,
except silly old ladies?’ But for all that we begin to perceive that the
proverb is right. The rolling stone rolls echoing from rock to rock;
but the rolling stone is dead. The moss is silent because the moss is
alive . . .