Kipling and Dreams

(by Mary Hamer)

Dream and Hallucination as symptoms

Shortly after Christmas 1876, Georgie Burne-Jones, wife of the painter, caught her eleven-year-old nephew, Ruddy, at the bottom of her London garden, striking out with a stick at a tree. When she asked what he was doing, ‘I thought it might be Grandma but I had to hit it to make sure,’ he replied.

Georgie was alarmed by what she read as the signs of disturbance and she put investigations in train. As a result, Ruddy’s mother returned from India to reclaim him with his younger sister, Trix from ‘The House of Desolation’ as he would come to call it, in Southsea. They had been living there in the care of a foster-mother, Mrs. Holloway, a woman who turned out to be an unfortunate choice. A strict Evangelical, her piety was of the kind that takes pleasure in manipulating fear.

As a man of seventy, Kipling recalled Mrs. Holloway with bitterness, in his autobiography, Something of Myself: ‘I had never heard of Hell, so I was introduced to it in all its terrors’ he wrote. I will explore the damaging impact of this encounter more deeply in due course. Yet in his maturity as an artist, he was able to extract some benefit. Over time, writing sensational stories about dreams brought to the surface his own intimate knowledge of terror and guilt. This was gold dust to him as a writer.

As a child however, at a deep level he was left in a state of confusion and shock. His parents were not believers and had given him little or no religious instruction. In Bombay his encounters with religion had taken the form of joining his Catholic ayah at prayer by a wayside cross, or of glimpsing ‘the friendly gods’ in the small Hindu temples where he went with the bearer. Under normal conditions of development a child builds up a picture of the world drawn from the evidence of its own senses. Yet all Ruddy’s previously benign experience was now trumped by the news of a God of revelation, that is one he did not discover for himself but could only know by means of others’ teaching. More shocking still, this new God was one who might wish to punish him in everlasting fire. This was no small thing. Such an attack on all he thought that he understood put him at risk, psychologically speaking. Destroying his confidence in the world, it also undermined his trust in his own senses, threatening to rob him of the power of judgment.

Early exposure to extreme psychological danger stood him in good stead as an artist, though it undermined him in everyday life. It gave him access to profound levels in the human psyche, so that, when he drew on what he had learned, he was able to speak in a voice that resonated deeply with others.

It was usual for English children to be sent home from India to grow up and receive their education from about the age of six. Painful as this was for parents, it was generally thought too dangerous to keep children out in a climate where adults sickened and died. Anxieties about unsuitable knowledge that an English child, kept in closely guarded ignorance about sex, might pick up from the company of Indian servants, may also have been a consideration.

Tragically for Ruddy and Trix—and for their parents—the climate of feeling they met in Southsea, and the knowledge that was pressed on them there, caused psychological damage that would stay with them throughout their lives. Ruddy was rising six and Trix was just three, when their parents, Lockwood and Alice Kipling, deposited them with Mrs. Holloway while they themselves went back to India. Alice’s sister, Georgie, had offered to have the children with her but probably for reasons of family dynamics that we shall never understand, they did not choose to take this up.

The children, left without warning or explanation, only knew that they had been abandoned, ‘deserted’, as Trix would remember, many years later. Though Trix herself was gifted and she too became a writer, as a grown woman she suffered breakdowns and was never to overcome the harm she suffered as a child. Mrs. Holloway imposed a cloying intimacy on Trix, while she bullied Ruddy: his confusion and loss were compounded by her attempts to break his spirit. He portrayed this experience directly in a story, “Baa Baa, Black Sheep” ’ (1889). But it is the effects which come much later, when trauma experienced in childhood, or even in the womb, erupts into the present in the form of dreams, that he takes up and explores repeatedly as an artist.

Dream and Truth

Before moving on to consider Kipling’s dream stories in the order they were written, I’d like to go back to that scene in the garden, which his biographer, Andrew Lycett, reports. At that time Ruddy had been subject to Mrs. Holloway, and her campaign to break his spirit in the name of godliness, for more than five years. When Ruddy hit out at his grandmother, he probably thought he was seeing a ghost: his maternal grandmother, Hannah Macdonald, had died in the previous March.

Little love had been lost between them. Strongly critical of Rudyard’s behaviour as a two-year-old, Hannah dismissed him then as ‘that self-willed rebel’. She herself was a clergyman’s wife. On a visit to Southsea when he was rising seven, according to biographer Harry Ricketts, she aligned herself with Mrs. Holloway by subjecting him to a Sunday passed in ‘reading the Scriptures and repeating hymns’.

In after years, his Aunt Georgie would often ask Rudyard why he had never spoken of his unhappiness in Southsea or of the assaults made by Mrs. Holloway. Aside from the fear of reprisals, as a child he lacked the language to frame what he was going through; his distress remained buried and unnamed. But in that fantasy of his dead grandmother, so close in association to the figure of Mrs. Holloway and her teachings, his overtaxed mind projected an image in which his fear and anger were condensed.

When he did find words, in his twenties, to tell the story of those Southsea years in “Baa, Black Sheep”, the writing released those feelings to be examined. In certain of his subsequent dream stories from then on he gradually began to include the image of a pious mother in the background. Instead of associating these figures with the cruelties he had personally experienced, however, as an artist he indicated that they were dangerous for a different reason: their teachings misled their sons, disabling them by blinding them to the real world.

Dream and Trance as a way of knowing

As a famous writer, Rudyard Kipling’s curiosity, his appetite for accurate information, was notorious. When they saw his name on a passenger list ships’ crews groaned, for they foresaw the barrage of questions they’d be encountering throughout the voyage. But he was also a man of his time, when the public was alive with an excitement about unseen forces that scarcely distinguished between mesmerism and electricity, between the telegraph and radio waves or spiritualism. Though he was chary of the latter, Kipling too was fascinated by science, and the new technologies that allowed information to be transmitted at a distance.

He also came to ask about the form of knowledge that is not picked up from ordinary observation and experience, but arrives into the mind unbidden. In Kipling’s mature stories, dream and trance are not escapes from reality but conduits for a knowledge that would otherwise remain inaccessible. Yet who knows what powers that current or where it takes its source? The question had a special relevance for him as a writer. In “The Finest Story in the World” (1891) he wrote speculatively of ‘the half-memory falsely called imagination’. The weight that Kipling would lay in his stories on uncommon means of knowing and communication, their importance for him as a more convincing alternative to Christian explanations of the world, would increase over time, in parallel with his own experiences as an adult.

But his aims were more modest when he was publishing his first stories.

Dreams created for sensation

At the start of his career the teenage journalist would lie awake at night in India, pondering what would ‘take’ with the market at home. He was mainly concerned with exploiting the dramas and extremities of life in the East, with a stylish touch of cynicism. “The Gate of the Hundred Sorrows” (Civil and Military Gazette, 26 September 1884) ventriloquised the drugged tones of a Eurasian addict come down to living in an opium den. The red and black dragons on the pillow that come to life and fight, like the Joss that ‘turns all sorts of queer colours late at night and stamps his feet and rolls his eyes’, are not mysteries but opium dreams of the kind the writer had experienced himself. They are offered as crowning details in a brilliant and disturbing tapestry.

When Kipling did turn to using regular dreams, ones not fuelled by drugs, it was at first as a literary device. This allowed him to present a dialogue between the younger and older selves of the speaker. “The Dream of Duncan Parrenness” (Civil and Military Gazette, December 1884) with its pastiche of eighteenth-century idiom, is another dazzling work of virtuosity on the part of a very young man. It lays claim to an even more explicit cynicism. Parrenness is a Writer—that is, an administrator for the East India Company— in eighteenth-century Calcutta. The dream teaches him that in order to achieve his ambition to be Governor he must give up his trust in both men and women and lose ‘the tender conscience of a boy’.

That story is dramatically appealing as a piece of imaginative writing, but the insights that its dream offers, with their striving for sophistication, are merely knowing. Neither is there any touch of the inscrutable, the resonance of hidden truths which makes important dreams compelling, in the dream which is reported in “The Last of the Stories” (1888). This time Kipling does present himself directly, the young writer now sure of a readership throughout India, as the dreamer. The Devil of Discontent takes him off to a sort of literary underworld peopled from novels, where he is greeted by the characters he created, and is brought to recognise how far his skill fell short.

In spite of this self-deprecation, it’s another piece of high-spirited display, with its Furnace of First Editions and other exuberant inventions. The story playfully yokes disparate heroes of popular fiction: a Zulu Impi, that is, an armed body or regiment of Zulus, headed by Rider Haggard’s creation, Allan Quatermain, ‘wheels and shouts in sham fight for the pleasure of Little Lord Fauntleroy’. Only the note of personal dissatisfaction and unease offers any clue to the more troubling dreams that he was already capable of imagining for readers.

The mind under stress, dream images of unwelcome knowledge

It was in composing “The Phantom Rickshaw” for Quartette, the Christmas supplement of the Civil and Military Gazette in 1885, that Kipling first felt himself moved by the force he was to call his Daemon. When it was in charge he learned: ‘do not try to think consciously. Drift, wait, and obey.’ This was also the first story to make a link between guilt and the images generated by the mind under stress. Dream and hallucination meet in the experience of Pansay, haunted by a vision of the woman he abandoned, as he last saw her, seated in a black and yellow rickshaw.

Earlier that year Kipling had learned for himself or been reminded of what it was to hallucinate without the benefit of any drug. In March 1885 he’d been sent as special correspondent to the Rawalpindi Durbar, his first serious assignment, from which he sent back a series of brilliant reports, overtaxing himself in the process. He completed his review of the marching troops. But when at last he tried to rest, exhausted by overwork yet hyperalert from too much sensation and too little sleep, he found himself watching a relentless vision of infinite pairs of legs marching past.

‘One of the few advantages that India has over England is a great Knowability,’ opens “The Phantom Rickshaw”. It’s only on rereading that the irony comes home. Readers are not given the option of simply taking “The Phantom Rickshaw” as a straight ghost story, gripping as the writer makes it. Instead they are encouraged to speculate from the first about the sources of Pansay’s waking visions and night-dreams. The practical Dr Heatherlegh’s diagnosis of overwork is advanced only to be challenged by the author’s more alluring and sinister theory ‘that there was a crack in Pansay’s head and a little bit of the Dark World came through’. However, ‘never trust the teller, trust the tale’, as D. H. Lawrence advised. The story itself nudges us towards less vague and more challenging interpretations. Almost to the end, Pansay is made to deny his own cruelty, even to attempt justification. When his mind brings back an image of the woman he has crushed and killed by his heartless behaviour, what he knows but does not want to know is brought home. The main actor in the tale is the unwelcome knowledge that Pansay attempts to leave behind but will never be able to escape.

In a final irony he believes that what haunts him is a spirit coming from outside himself. Today we might call those hauntings a projection, the condensed image of the guilt that Pansay would prefer not to confront. That is where the story gets its power. At this point in his career as a writer, Kipling appears to be manipulating fear for the entertainment of his readers, fear of unknown forces which lie the other side of the familiar world, and fear for the human mind, which is vulnerable to invasion.

Childhood terror in a dream of shipwreck

When Kipling takes up the notion of dream in “The Red Lamp (Civil and Military Gazette, July 1889) it is again as a device for presenting terror. At one level it’s a vivid, highly commercial little sketch, drawing on his new expertise in ships’ fittings, acquired during his recent voyage between Calcutta and San Francisco on the way back to England. It was a journey charged with more emotion from the past than he perhaps understood.

The story evokes nothing less than the threat of complete annihilation. During a hot night on shipboard, his narrator finds a space to sleep right in the bows of the ship, a setting chosen to make plausible his ensuing vision. The glare of a red lamp from another steamship warns him it is approaching on a collision course. He can’t understand why the alarm is not raised: he is alone in seeing the approaching danger. He watches, paralysed, as the vessels smash together, before being woken to find it was just a dream.

It’s scarcely a story at all, in spite of its concrete detail and elaborate description, since the key moment occurs when the narrator wakes to find it was all a dream. The horror evaporates. Yet the feeling which the dream vision communicates is remarkable in its helpless terror. It might make sense, noting the moment in his life when “The Red Lamp” was written, to link his choice of this particular image of horror with the violent impact on him as a child in Southsea when his inner world was overturned and all but destroyed.

All the circumstances suggest that at the time of writing “The Red Lamp” in 1889, Kipling was emotionally exposed. He was between worlds, out on his travels having chosen to give up the security of his place in India in order to try his luck in London. That was the point of his trip for this man of twenty-three. Yet in effect he was repeating the move which had brought him, as a small child, from Bombay to Southsea. As if in preparation or self-defence, only a few months earlier, in writing the story “Baa Baa, Black Sheep” (The Week’s News, December 21 1888), he had taken himself back to the world of desolation in which he’d lived between five and eleven.

His sister, Trix, may have claimed, decades afterwards, that he exaggerated the misery of those years, but her experience was inevitably different as a younger child, a girl, who was specially favoured. Mrs Edmonia Hill, in whose Allahabad home Kipling was a paying guest at the time of writing “Baa Baa Black Sheep”, noted the ‘towering rage’ brought on in him by working on it.

He can scarcely have anticipated this violent upheaval. Describing straightforward unhappiness, if that had been all he had to deal with, might well have been therapeutic but Kipling had chosen to revisit a time in his early development when his perception of reality and his very being were under attack. It doesn’t seem too much to claim that by the time his Aunt Georgie set about rescuing him, he was showing signs of something close to psychosis. In taking himself back, finding words to make the past live again by the act of writing, he had raised demons: the dark faces, perhaps, of the welcome Daemon of his creativity. For in spite of all the turbulence, Kipling retained artistic control over his volatile material, as ‘Punch’, the name he chose for the small boy who stands for himself.

Hindustani was Kipling’s first language and it never left him. As a small child in Bombay he had to be reminded to speak English when he joined his parents in the drawing-room. As a grown man, when he chose to name his young hero ‘Punch’, it had the effect of playing on the Hindustani meaning of the word and of reinforcing his personal stake in the story. In English the name ‘Punch’ is a real oddity but in Hindustani the word ‘panch’ carries the meaning both of ‘five’, the age at which Kipling was deposited in Southsea, and ‘perplexity’.

It’s not possible to claim with certainty that this choice was fully conscious, though it is indisputable that in maturity Kipling delighted in planting clues to make his readers work. Taken together, ‘five’ and ‘perplexity’ identify mental confusion as the lasting damage imposed on the five-year-old Kipling and described in “Baa Baa Black Sheep” .

In “The Brushwood Boy” (1895), as a man of thirty, Kipling would come to explore the psychological consequences of this clash between what I would call true and false experience, when outside teaching seeks to displace what has been authentically registered by the self. But for the moment, in “The Red Lamp” Kipling simply generated an image of looming annihilation, in the ship bearing remorselessly down on his own vessel. In naming it as a mere dream, Kipling the writer was able to contain the terror he knew so well, reducing it to literary capital.
Childhood terror arrives in the present: the return of the repressed

“At the End of the Passage” (1890) represents Kipling’s first mature attempt to move beyond merely manipulating the fear he was so skilled at provoking in his readers. The story, dense and satisfying in its detail of the lonely lives of Englishmen employed in colonial service in India, is framed by the weekly get-togethers of four men. Isolated by the nature of their different professions they are struggling to support each other through the Hot Weather. At its heart stands the crisis of a man who can’t allow himself to sleep because he fears a particular dream. In this dream he is chased along corridors by a blind face that cries and can’t wipe its eyes. ‘If I’m caught, I die, I die,’ Hummil, the engineer, cries in horror.

It’s difficult to avoid noticing that the language Kipling chooses to describe Hummil’s panic specifically invokes both childhood experience and the threat of hell as punishment: ‘He stood at the doorway in the expression of his lost innocence. He had slipped back into terrified childhood’ the narrator tells us. ‘It has made every night hell to me; and yet I’m not conscious of having done anything wrong,’ Hummil at last confides to Spurstow, the doctor. One effect of this eruption of a child self into the life of the grown man is that Hummil begins to be confronted with the figure of himself. He meets his double, sitting at the table in front of him.Kipling works up the reader’s fascinated alarm with the greatest skill, drawing on an old superstition to assert that: ‘the simulacrum is in all respects real except that it cast no shadow’. When Hummil is found dead, ‘In the staring eyes was written terror beyond the expression of any pen’. The Indian servant’s explanation echoes Hummil’s own talk of being chased. At the same time it is cast in the language of “The Phantom Rickshaw”:

‘my master has descended into the Dark Places and there has been caught because he was not able to escape with sufficient speed.’

As a final frisson we are led to believe that with his camera the doctor has caught a specific image, one that is cunningly left unnamed, in the eyes of the dead man. The image is so terrifying that the doctor immediately destroys the film and even the camera.

This was thrilling and utterly saleable, though maybe also a kind of cop-out, in advancing a mysterious ‘Indian’ explanation of Hummil’s distress. Or was it a challenge to the reader to make sense of all the cues he was offering? Kipling was tracing the movements of the inner world through the images of his fiction, at a time when a language for naming that world and its processes was only starting to be developed in the west. Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams wasn’t published until 1900, while Freud was yet to connect the uncanny with the return of the repressed. He would also go on to link these with the appearance of a double and with regression to a time in the life of the individual when the ego was not yet sharply differentiated from the external world and from other persons. Freud arrived at these formulations, still not published when Kipling composed “At the End of the Passage”, in part by reflecting on works of fiction. It was by allowing his imagination to draw from his own inner depths that Kipling made such connections for himself.

There is no need for magical explanations, for ‘the Dark Places’ or for the unspeakable image in the eye. These very phrases take us straight back to the unconscious and the child before command of language. The cues suggest that Hummil, like Kipling, had experienced helpless distress as a child on being told that the world was other than it seemed to him. This has caught up with him, in the nightmare image of the blind face that cries and can’t wipe its eyes. Because these powerful feelings remain unrecognised as his own, they threaten to overwhelm him and to destroy his identity as a grown man. In the story Hummil actually dies.

Dreams which invite the reader’s interpretation: laying a trail

In comparing Hummil’s experience—and that of characters in other stories—with what had happened to Kipling as a child, it is not my intention to diminish Kipling’s highly crafted works to fragments of autobiography. Rather, I intend to suggest a source for his exceptional analytic insight. The states of psychological disturbance he identifies are not unique for they are caused by an experience that is widely shared. They reflect the impact on the sensitive developing mind of Christian teachings, particularly those regarding guilt and punishment.

Kipling has planted clues to the source of Hummil’s original distress: a piety that offers a misleading picture of the world, one passed on by mothers. Remembering how the narrator spoke of him as a frightened child, while Hummil himself spoke of the torments of hell, the reader picks up a resonance with a scene that the writer had carefully laid out close to the story’s opening.

The bored men, having abandoned their game, are knocking aimlessly about Hummil’s bungalow, when one of them, Mottram, strumming on the piano, glides into the Evening Hymn. Hummil, like the others sweating in one hundred and one degrees of heat, and on edge, as he explains from lack of sleep, responds with a bitter speeded up chant of the words.: “It ought to go to “The Grasshopper’s Polka”, he remarks. Linking the hymn with a popular piece of dance music for piano in this way is an index of Hummil’s disturbance, for it approaches deliberate blasphemy.

Glory to thee, my God, this night
For all the blessings of the light.’

That shows we really feel our blessings. How does it go on?—

If in the night I sleepless lie,
My soul with sacred thoughts supply;
May no ill dreams disturb my rest—‘

Quicker, Mottram!—‘

Or powers of darkness me molest’”


The words of the hymn are totally at odds with the reality of the here and now: instead of ‘the blessings of the light’ the day is clouded by ‘the gloom of a November day in London’. More critically, Hummil’s jangled tone indicates that he is angrily aware of betrayal. The trust in protection from the powers of darkness that is implied by the hymn has proved empty. Hummil’s nights are haunted.

For the others, however, the hymn-tune provokes idealised fantasies of home, in contrast with the alien world in which they actually find themselves.:

“Summer evenings in the country, stained-glass window, light going out, and you and she jamming your heads together over one hymnbook”, said Mottram.’

But are these truly the ‘sacred recollections’ that Lowndes claims, or are they to be read as wishful thinking? They appear to be finely judged on the writer’s part, in order to wake scepticism in the reader. When Spurstow the doctor chimes in: ‘“Also mothers. I can just recollect my mother singing me to sleep with that when I was a little chap,” we are told that ‘darkness had fallen on the room’ and ‘they could hear Hummil squirming in his chair’. Something disembodied, neither the narrator nor the characters but the narrative itself, appears to record that assent or endorsement of these pieties are being withheld.

And yet none of the men can quite give up the consolation offered by the religion of their childhood. Lowndes offers to ride off in search of a chaplain to conduct the funeral ’to give poor Hummil a better chance’. The doctor may answer ‘Bosh’ but he utters the word ‘as he framed his lips to the tremendous words of the burial service.’ The writer has moved his readers towards something more troubled and troubling than the easy cynicism of earlier dream stories trading in sensation.

Reincaranation, dream and writing

Trance and reverie, waking states in which the everyday forms of perception give place, are linked with dream in
“The Finest Story in the World” (1891). Charlie Mears, a bank clerk who yearns to be a writer, is the subject of its study rather than its hero. Endowed with an immensely detailed knowledge of life as a galley slave and as a northern pirate, he doesn’t appear to question where that knowledge comes from. Nor can he write it: on the page his work is leaden. His speaking voice alone is able to carry the story. It’s when he’s sleepy, about to go to bed or gazing spellbound into the fire that he gains access to it. But when he is utterly vulnerable, asleep, that’s the moment whe when thenightmare’ in which he experiences his own death sweeps over him.

Writing in the first person, Kipling inserts himself in the story, as a young man in London, a figure very close to his actual position at that time. Emphasising his own identity as a writer, Charlie’s mentor and interlocutor, allows him to raise questions about inspiration and originality, before providing an answer designed to thrill Kipling’s own readers with assertions concerning reincarnation. Those assertions may also be designed to calm Kipling himself. He had learned that as a writer he was at times taken over by a power beyond his conscious control, his ‘Daemon’ as he named it, which brought those intuitions of guilt and death he developed in writing “The Phantom Rickshaw”. He needed some framework for understanding what was happening to him. It may have been a relief to arrive at the formulation of a ‘half-memory falsely called imagination.’

The power of what Charlie recounts, his fragments of narrative and of description, remain striking. Yet the story itself is so distorted by the writer’s personal need to establish an explanation for those bursts of inspired talk, that it is dragged down. A Hindu acquaintance, Grish Chunder, is unconvincingly introduced, with discussions meant to demonstrate that the East, with its faith in reincarnation, can accommodate Charlie and his tales. Chunder can explain it all and how it will end: “Charlie will remember a little and a little less and he will call it dreams” .

More disturbing, to today’s readers at least, is the assertion that Charlie’s gift will evaporate once he comes to feel that he’s in love with a woman, as though something pristine in him will be killed off, and with it access to what is truly known. It’s awkward, a place where the pattern of Kipling’s own fantasies— or is it his buried memories? — come poking through. The reader senses strain, too, in the repeated assertion that some writing, some knowledge, is forbidden by ‘The Lords of Life and Death’: the narrator says he would like to write the story of Charlie’s former lives but feels that he must not do so. One reason, he claims, is that readers would say that he made it up out of other men’s books. But the intimation of veto is stronger and more diffused than that: the intuition of a past death, and the sense of a knowledge that is forbidden, weave together, closing the way.

To the end of his life Kipling remained uneasy about being so porous, so open to knowledge he could not account for, and uncomfortable with his sometimes uncanny power of intuition. In Something of Myself, which was in late draft at the time of his death, he describes two such occasions which left him baffled.

In 1913, when he was lying out watching manoeuvres near Aldershot, the weather conditions put him in mind of South Africa and the Boer War. In imagination he felt the pressure of all the British dead from that war, seeing them forming and flickering before him in the heat. (Readers may see a link with his story “The Army of a Dream” (1904), but Kipling himself failed to make that connection.) His notion came to obsess him. In the end, however, he drew back from writing it up for publication because he didn’t want to attract discussion of his ‘psychical experience’. ‘And I am in no way psychic’, he stoutly if unconvincingly declared. He believed that his sister Trix’s psychical experiments had contributed to her breakdowns.

That disclaimer was closely followed in his memoir with an account of an exactly prophetic dream, quite prosaic but perfectly exact in its detail, which came to him in 1922. Six weeks before the ceremony took place, the dream precisely anticipated his experience in Westminster Abbey when he was present for the dedication by the Prince of Wales of a memorial to the dead of the Great War. For Kipling, it was an unsought example of forbidden knowledge: he had ‘passed beyond the bounds of ordinance … But how, and why, had I been shown an unreleased roll of my life-film?’, he asked.
Charlie’s memories—if they do belong to him—or his visions, are involuntary, like his creator’s, and appear to give a clue to the workings of the world, workings specifically not recognised under Christianity. Grish Chunder, the Hindu, is brought in to dramatise the existence of a different culture and to make its reading of the world actively present in the tale.

A vision of natural forces and pagan gods

“The Bridge-Builders” (1893) takes this a step further. Findlayson, the English engineer, whose fine calculations and dedicated toil have succeeded in throwing a bridge across the mighty Ganges, is exposed under the influence of opium to a completely different vision of the powers that move the universe. The flickering dragons of “The Gate of the Hundred Sorrows” have given way to something infinitely more challenging. The beasts that Findlayson and his overseer, Peroo, overhear in divine conference as they lie in an opium dream, and the figure of Krishna that comes to stand among those beasts, are deities of the Hindu pantheon.

These may be a bolder indication of the scale of the dreams Kipling himself had experienced as a young man in the years before he left India. But by the time he wrote “The Bridge-Builders” he was the father of a young family, living in Brattleboro. Why this vision now, and why one based on the traditions of Hinduism, when he always claimed to get on better with Muslims? It appears that the inner reconfiguration, the expansion which followed on becoming a father, opened a new channel for his imagination, releasing some of his own earliest experience.

As a child in Bombay he once lived in a vivid world of ‘threshold magic [and] wayside spells’ where elephants and camels, water buffalo and cows moved along the streets, not to mention the vultures that wheeled above the nearby Towers of Silence: animals lived close alongside humans, as even today, they do to some extent in urban India. Animals also made the heroes and villains in the stories he heard from his ayah and the other servants. Bearing this in mind, it’s no surprise that the creative burst prompted by the birth of his first child Josephine, in 1892, took the form of the animal stories which would make up The Jungle Book.

Kipling revelled in the flexibility of outlook his early identification with India gave him. He called it having ‘two sides to his head’. In ‘The Bridge-Builders’ it is as though he allows himself as a writer to succumb to the power of the pagan, pre-Christian, vision and to present it side by side with the workaday view of the practical white man. The world of the Indian labourers, ‘the humming village of five thousand workmen’, is absolutely present in the tale, along with the anxieties and calculations of the engineers, in the face of an oncoming flood, a pairing that is thrown into relief when Findlayson and Peroo are isolated together under the stress of the storm.

Does the writer believe literally in the story of Hindu apparitions that he’s telling? Has he believed in earlier ones? Psychologically, if not rationally, yes. Otherwise none of them could command the power they do. One way of putting it is to say that just as animals and humans remain close in India, the conscious and the unconscious are not so firmly separated there as they are in Europe. For his western-educated readers, then and now, this story offers a charge of something primal that’s been lacking in their diet, alongside the satisfyingly minute description of labour, and the fight to save a bridge in a time of flood.

“The Gate of the Hundred Sorrows” offered no challenge to conventional wisdom, but this later opium dream constitutes both a statement and a challenge, or at the very least a ‘what if?’. What if there are other powers in the universe that may take different forms, which Krishna and his story bring into focus? Kipling was seeking to find a language for his maturing independent vision, one that would frame that vision, and accommodate it within a story concerning human experience and human response to the living world.

The dreams experienced in “The Brushwood Boy”, however, present readers with a different kind of juxtaposition, one that challenges them to use their intelligence. In the daytime world, the hero, Georgie Cottar, achieves apparent perfection as a public school boy and later as an officer in the Indian army. He is single and perfect: literally, a virgin. Yet we have been shown him from the age of three subjected to dreams which indicate a buried life of conflict and confusion. As a tiny child he wakes screaming in fear of the figure of a policeman, the symbol, we come to suspect, of the law which rules the daytime life he must take up as a man.

Though he appears to have conformed completely to this law, the chaotic adventures of his dreams indicate a life that is bubbling beneath, unexpressed and unresolved in daylight. He confronts extremities of danger in these, indicating a threat to his inner life that has to be confronted over and over, rather like the demands which are shaping his life on the outside. One dream takes him into ‘a sixth quarter of the globe’. For all its dangers, this appears to be the very landscape of desire. Kipling’s only recorded childhood dream seems to refer to a sighting of some such world beyond the map of imposed order, his lost paradise rediscovered, perhaps. His travel letter “The Journey Out” (Brazilian Sketches, 1927) suggests such a link with the past when it remarks:

…Once in a child’s dream, I wandered into a Fifth Quarter of the world, and found everything different from all previous knowledge; as only children or old folk desire it to be.’

(italics mine)

Yet Georgie Cottar survives amidst these dangers, a survival closely linked to the image of a little girl, a young woman whose presence— or memory—keeps him safe. (Recalling how a young woman spelled the death of insight to Charlie Mears in “The Finest Story in the World”, we can see how far Kipling has travelled here.)

Georgie’s family home in England is described in idealising terms, in tune with those used of his career as man and boy. Readers have taken this as evidence of Kipling’s naiveté—as the very notes to the story on this website complain— but I would argue that all this idealisation is a conscious move, made in mockery, meaning to contrast it with the truth to be found in the risk and struggle of the instinctual world of dream. It was only after I came to see this that I could make sense of ‘Ha ha, said the duck laughing’, a dream phrase that is repeated in the story. Like the song Kipling incorporates within the tale, lamenting the return from the City of Sleep under orders from Policeman Day, it snags on the reader’s awareness, and calls out considered response from greater depth.

It is when the grown-up Georgie and Miriam, a real-life young woman, meet in the world of daylight and are collecting a real-life duck that his mother has ordered for dinner, that they confront the fact that she is familiar with the landscape of his dreams and has shared in his struggles there, matching detail for detail, impulse for impulse with him.

The reader can take it that their lives of instinct and fantasy have all along been intimately shared, for the distasteful presence of a Sick Thing haunts Georgie’s dreams, while Miriam’s waking life has been up till now tied to an invalid mother—by inference one who doesn’t support or enjoy a vitality like her daughter’s. As an artist Kipling has arrived at the point where he can use dream to mount a critique of the secular sacred, the ideal of masculinity and the mothers who perpetuate that tradition. His first readers could scarcely be expected to accept such a move made openly. By taking them into the world of dreams, he quietens everyday patterns of thought, speaking in images whose force is picked up at a deep level.

Sixteen years would pass before he wrote another profound dream story. In the interval Kipling suffered an extended dream himself, in 1899 when he was delirious with pneumonia. On his recovery, in line with his interest in the mind and its workings, the play between memory and imagination, instinct and image, he dictated an account of this dream to a stenographer. For today’s reader that document makes painful reading, laying bare his agonised feelings of exposure and of being falsely accused, his fear of separation from his wife, Carrie.

Remembering the scandal of May 1896, when Kipling took his brother-in-law Beatty Balestier to court after Beatty threatened to kill him, we can make sense of these anxieties. In spite of all his fame and distinction as a writer, Kipling was publicly humiliated when he broke down under cross-examination, a collapse that was widely reported in the press.

At the end of his life what Kipling chose to remark, reviewing the dream in Something of Myself, was the way delirium brought to the surface factual information that he supposed had been long forgotten. In Lahore, as a young reporter on the Civil and Military Gazette, he’d been obliged to translate the war diaries of a Russian general from French. In New York, fifteen years later, the names of every camp noted in those diaries loomed up written just above the horizon of his dream.

Dream politicised

A year or two on, circumstances moved him to exploit dream as a device in a way that he hadn’t done for years. Kipling’s eldest child, his daughter Josephine, was ill at the same time as her father: he recovered only to find she was dead. Kipling proceeded to take out some of his grief and rage in an inordinate commitment to the Boer War, which broke out in October, that same year.

It’s a background which may account for the very strange piece, ‘“The Army of a Dream” ’, (Morning Post June 15, 16, 17 and 18, 1904). Under a thin veil of fiction, this presents an argument that boys should be subjected to military training from childhood, a notion that may have more in common with renewed feelings of helplessness in the writer, awoken by this fresh experience of loss, than it does with a realistic plan for England in 1904.

It’s also a regression in terms of its form: like “The Dream of Duncan Parrenness” and “The Last of the Stories”, it is told by a first person narrator who then wakes to find it was all a dream. A savage sting, however, closes “The Army of a Dream”. The narrator recalls that the men with whom he has apparently been in conversation all died in the Boer War: the wounds and disease which killed them are individually described.

For his benefit the dream characters had been describing a new system of national defence. Under this, from the age of eight little boys are involved in training for military service, a programme that will continue through their maturity. All members of society are incorporated in this effort. The right to vote and to social acceptance are dependent on agreeing to take part.

This wilful attempt to pass off political argument under the guise of fiction bears testimony to the temporary disturbance of his judgment. Realising the story wasn’t working, he put it aside and came back to it later. Begun in 1900, on the way out to South Africa, within months of his daughter’s death, it wasn’t published until 1904. By 1905 he was admitting it was a failure with readers: ‘I got a good deal of gali (bad language) for it’, he wrote to a correspondent.

Why did he persevere with it? It appears he was flooded by conflicting feelings in the aftermath of this new and unbearable loss. It brought back, as does all later bereavement, the earliest and most acute experience of loss. With that came the helplessness he had known as a child removed from the world of India and from those he loved, while as a grown man, he knew the rage and shame of a father who had failed to protect his child. These could all be channelled, now he was the most influential and famous writer in the English language, into a demand for organised protection. This took the form of a demand for a capable army. The fact that his plan involved children—boys were to be trained up in military service from the age of six, about the age he’d been approaching when he was taken from India—might have given him pause. Readers did not take to the idea. But at this time of bereavement he could not be expected to observe himself or to be open to the promptings of intuition and insight. He was overwhelmed.

Dreams of healing

What is nervous prostration, as the doctors used to call it? When the imagination becomes disordered, is memory implicated somehow? Kipling would bring these different questions together as he went on. In “The Finest Story in the World” Kipling had linked imagination with a special form of memory. “In the Same Boat” (1911) tells a not always convincing story of the friendship between two suffering ‘nerve-patients’ who find healing through mutual support. Conroy, the gentleman, and the Lancashire heiress Miss Henschil are each subject to terrifying repeated nightmares, and both have become addicted to the drug they started taking in order to sleep without dreams. Her cynical doctor believes the dreams are made-up, an excuse for her drug habit. Conroy’s physician however, who is his colleague, more imaginative and humane, suggests bringing the parties together. Each receives advance warning of the advent of their special nightmare, so it can be arranged that they will share an overnight train journey on an appropriate date and may be able to help each other.

It’s immediately clear from this summary how much manoeuvring Kipling had to do in order to construct a scenario in which a young man and a young woman could plausibly be brought together at a pre-arranged moment in order to spend a night in each other’s company without scandal and without his tale dwindling into a love-story. A striking feature of the narrative, in fact, is the insistence on both sides that they have no sexual feeling for each other at all: Kipling wants to show them as comrades, rather as Georgie and the girl in “The Brushwood Boy” had been in their life of dream. He probably knew that the romantic ending of that story was less than compelling, even if the market demanded it.

So it is almost as brother and sister that Conroy and Miss Henschil are shown. As brother and sister too they become close, and supported by that intimacy are able keep each other from the drug, and from the isolating horror of their individual nightmares. Conroy feels:

‘His one hope, he knew, was not to lose the eyes that clung to his because there was an Evil abroad which would possess him if he looked aside by a hair-breadth,’

The material, with its accounts of drug-dependency and paralysing dread, its hints of other-worldly horror, allows him scope for a tense account of spiritual torment, offering thrills that might hold on to readers who were by now beginning to drop away. But behind or underneath this surface is a more sober intention, to trace the source of the individual nightmares to the mothers that bore the two sufferers. Something close to the cross-generational haunting that psychologists speak of today is depicted here. Miss Henschil’s travelling companion and nurse comes up with the explanation, in a somewhat awkward move into which the writer is forced in order to make his point: the mildewed faces that Miss Henschil sees are an image or imprint of the leprous faces that frightened her mother when she was pregnant. Because there then turns out to be a comparable explanation for the images in Conroy’s nightmare, in the shock experienced by his pregnant mother, the story suggests that the transmission of terror from mother to child is not an aberration. It may be more common than we know.

Unclaimed knowledge, that generates nightmares, paralysis and the need to escape, links the topic of “In the Same Boat” with “At the End of the Passage”. In the former, however, once the images in the dreams have been identified and named, located moreover as fears passed on from mother to child, both patients find themselves cured and finally released. As Freud was the first to admit, artists were representing the workings of the inner life, including the return of the repressed, long before he himself got round to naming them.

Dream manipulated

I’ve argued that an agenda rather than artistic concerns drove the composition of “The Army of a Dream” (1904), when Kipling’s personal anxieties were channelled into a strident appeal for boys to be trained up in a programme of defence. Not surprisingly, the tale fails to convince as fiction: the fact that he is making a political argument rather than telling a story stands out. There is also a transparently political element in ‘”Swept and Garnished” (The Century Magazine, January 1915). It has been described as an act of reprisal for the atrocities committed by German forces that invaded Belgium in August 1914. Their policy of ‘Schrecklichkeit’ or ‘frightfulness’ seems to have something in common with the policy of ‘shock and awe’ devised by President Bush in our own day.

Published in the early months of the First World War, the story tells of the dreams or hallucinations which visit Frau Ebermann, a well-to-do elderly German woman, suffering from influenza. Her comfortable apartment, in its scrupulous order, appears to be invaded by a troop of young children: a brilliant image of the incursion of unwelcome knowledge. In spite of all her smug defences she is finally compelled to recognise the suffering caused to children by the actions of German troops. She is left unhinged, herself a figure of dread.

Cutting off the right arms of little boys, so they could never serve their country as soldiers, was among the atrocities the Germans were credited with at the time: Kipling draws on this image, to create a final note of horror. It is achieved, however, with maximum artistic skill and control. The reader is not confronted with the empty sleeve, or the wound. Instead, another child urges Frau Ebermann to look. ‘Frau Ebermann looked and saw’, the narrator reports. Next thing, the little children ‘undisturbed by her loud cries’ bid her ‘Au revoir’, a farewell that carries the implicit threat of a return, as all knowledge that is disavowed and repressed must do. Her maid finds this perfectionist housewife babbling, the lace cover from the radiator in her hand, as she cleans imaginary blood from the floor.

The title, ‘Swept and Garnished”, is a quotation from Luke 11,25.

‘And when he cometh, he findeth it swept and garnished’.

Frau Ebermann is pious: in her fevered train of thought she moves from reflecting thater loud cries’ ‘if it pleased the dear God to take her to Himself … He should find all her belongings fit to meet His eye’, to repeating the phrase of the title ‘swept and garnished’. In its original context these words are uttered by Jesus as a warning, that evil spirits are not easily got rid of but return in force to their former place, finding it ready prepared for them, ‘swept and garnished’.

Frau Eberman’s flat too is ‘swept and garnished’, shown as a model of housekeeping: she may have distanced the reality of what her country’s soldiers have done, but like the evil spirit, it comes back, bringing its companions. The ambiguous light this casts on the troop of little children works against any hint of sentimentality.

The artistry of this story is even more striking when we observe that a personal element of reprisal is involved, and how skilfully it is contained. The image of the pious Christian woman who is indifferent to children’s sufferings and at least to some extent responsible for them, is one that takes us back to the world of Southsea, and Mrs Holloway’s sadistic teachings on the subject of Hell. This story leaves her representative figure babbling, mentally destroyed.

In “The Army of a Dream” there was an embarrassing mismatch between the projection of Kipling’s private feeling, and the public arena of the Boer War he attempted to map it onto. There is none of that incongruity here. International atrocity in the world of the present offered Kipling an image that could absorb his ancient rage and at the same time allow it to be given developed form in a work of art. ‘Think of your own worst experience and find a metaphor for it’ would-be film-makers are advised if they want to reach an audience at depth. “Swept and Garnished” is recognised for its power, unlike the shambling “Army of a Dream”.

I’d suggest that in writing this story, Kipling found a metaphor that could carry the charge generated by his own experience as a child. The elements of violent conflict, mutilation and madness, which are dispersed between the background of war and among different characters in the narrative, reflect what he once endured in his own person. It’s a measure of his art that, rather than inveighing against the mental cruelty he was subjected to, instead he makes the story turn on the smug denial of atrocity against children.
Play as healing: putting an end to dreams

“The Tender Achilles” (1929) presents a group of senior doctors and the cabal a number of them had formed years before. They manipulate the systems of their profession outrageously, in the process of restoring the mental equilibrium of a colleague. This man, C. R. Wilkett, to whom they refer familiarly as ‘Wilkie’, had been attacked by overwhelming feelings of guilt following his experience in the Great War. He accused himself of ‘murdering’ all the patients he had failed to save when he was working as a military surgeon at the Front.

Wilkett’s characteristic ‘imagination’, as his colleagues name it, rendered him vulnerable, yet it also made him invaluable as a research bacteriologist, and he was wanted back at the hospital when the war was over. After Wilkett was found cowering at home with his mother, subject to dreams and hallucinations, his colleagues devisea scheme to get him fit again and back to work. This plan involvesmaking a deliberate misdiagnosis followed by an unnecessary operation.

Telling Wilkett that a wound in his heel has become tubercular rouses him to resume his professional confidence in disputing this view. When his colleagues ‘discover’, following the operation they insisted on, that there had been ‘a mistake in the samples’ that is a mix-up with the slides, Wilkett feels that his superior judgment is confirmed. Senior doctors proceed to manipulate his fury at what Wilkett perceives as the incompetence of others, finally suggesting that if he’d still been at his post in the lab’ the mix-up couldn’t have occurred. With that he apologises, is relieved of his symptoms and returns to work.

Several earlier stories feature v doctors treating patients whose symptoms included nightmares; with “In The Same Boat” a slightly maverick doctor arrives at a way in which such haunted patients could help each other. In this latest and most highly crafted of his dream stories, “The Tender Achilles”, Kipling takes this insight further. He also finds a new technique for emphasising the context of experience which has given rise to his protagonist’s dreams. In this story the authoritative voice of doctors carry the story and direct our perceptions. With their diagnosis for a guide, we read back through the dream to the earlier damage which it represents. Getting readers to follow the logic of that diagnosis, and to accept it with its powerfully subversive implication, is in large measure the purpose of the story.

Kipling lays his ground carefully, using memories voiced by the other doctors, to equip readers, so that they appreciate why Wilkett’s hallucinations take the form of ‘perspectives of heads—gunshot wounds—seen from above and a little behind, as they’d lie on the tables’ and why at night Wilkett had ‘orderlies whispering to him to wake up and give some poor beggar a chance to live.’ They match precisely with what he had seen and been through.

His colleagues are quite clear about the preconditions for Wilkett’s’s breakdown, his dreams and hallucinations. They are in no doubt that he was more use in the laboratory. The sights that met him in the Clearing Station, the demand for split-second decisions rather than considered professional judgments, and the need to accept that those decisions were sometimes wrong, were too much for his ‘research temperament’, under further stress from lack of sleep. Other doctors were able to find ways of coping. Unlike Wilkett, they were realists, ‘able to recognise the facts of life and [their] own limitations.’

Kipling doesn’t, however, allow readers to take Wilkett’s ‘research temperament’, his dangerous imagination, as a given. According to his friends, Wilkett insisted on going to the Front because his head was already inhabited by unrealistic ideals, and he mistakenly considered it his duty— ‘all part of the imaginative equipment’ as they wryly point out. Keede was disturbed by Wilkett’s inappropriate sense of guilt when they met soon after the war. His pocketbook was crammed with notes ‘to prove’ that in falling short as a surgeon and in dedication he had effectively murdered many men.

Keede’s impatience with the language of religion in which this guilt was expressed—“he was eternally damned’ of course’—invites readers to share his sceptical perspective. Describing how Wilkett applied the words of the New Testament to himself:
“To whom much has been given, from the same much shall be required”, Keede exclaims: “That annoyed me”, and goes on to ask: “Who was he to know how much had been given to the other fellow?”.

Later Keede seeks Wilkett out at home. His report offers a clue to the influences that shaped Wilkett’s peculiar temperament and disposition. They equip Wilkett to work as a research scientist, where absolute accuracy is required, but they also render him unable to tolerate any falling short in himself or others. In Wilkett’s mother, Keede meets a frightened woman who ‘kidnapped’ her sick son in order to hide him away from public view. Even with Keede, a doctor, she heads off all discussion of her son’s breakdown. Wilkett is obliged to play up to her, not for the first time, it is clear:
“She said he was all right, and he swore he was”, Keede reports.
“Great thing—mother-love, aint it?”’ Keede says sardonically, reporting that all she could do was talk about the pretty walks in the neighbourhood while her son was hearing shouts of ‘Murder’. Keede’s words are a tacit reminder of another mother, and of an old story that still lives on today in the phrase ‘Achilles tendon’

Thetis, the divine mother of Achilles attempted to make him immortal like herself, when he was a baby, by dipping him in the river Styx. But the heel by which she held him remained vulnerable. The folly of her attempt to make him more than human was brought home when he was killed by a wound in that heel.

It looks as though Kipling, who loved to layer his mature stories with meaning, is drawing a parallel between Achilles and Wilkett when he gives Wilkett a wound near his heel. Wilkett also suffers, like Achillles, from a mother’s attempt to make him more than human. His religious upbringing, which is demonstrated in his use of New Testament language to express his pathological sense of guilt, has left him unable to accept his own ordinary human weakness, just as his mother can’t allow herself to acknowledge her son’s distress. Those shouts of ‘Murder’ that he hears accuse her too.

Yet for all the gravity of Wilkett’s symptoms, those voices, the nightmares of being woken up and called on to operate, the campaign to save ‘Wilkie’ is presented almost as a jape carried out by schoolfellows. Writing in Something of Myself of his visits as a boy to his Aunt Georgie, Kipling described the sound of ‘deep-voiced men laughing together over dinner’ as ‘the loveliest sound in the world’. It may have offered a counterpoint to his experience of domination by an ill-tempered woman, an assurance that a different kind of power existed.

As an artist he chooses to present “The Tender Achilles”—which recounts a conversation following a reunion dinner—by means of such laughing voices, reminiscences exchanged in relaxed conversation. A confident masculinity at play, decently mindful of its own limitations, is presented both as the main actor in the story and as the agent of healing.

It’s undeniable that for many of us it makes uncomfortable reading, the way that in these dream stories Kipling repeatedly links mothers and the attitudes—including religious teaching—that they inculcate, with mental disturbance in their children. Yet at the same time he raises questions about the wholesome part in a man’s mental life that an erotic relationship with a woman might play. There is a tiny hint of such a relationship, in “The Tender Achilles”, when Keede is helped in his quest for Wilkett by finding “a woman who had kept her eye on Wilkett’s whereabouts—mother or no mother” . The story ends with a glance towards this woman, who remains nameless: an independent spirit like the male doctors, she was prepared to join them in setting aside the laws of her profession: she was the one who faked the slides. Wilkett however, remains unaware of her devotion. The story closes with his colleagues lamenting this blindness.

I’m not the first to argue that Kipling’s power as an imaginative writer was directly linked with the suffering of his early years. As in the case of Homer’s wounded hero Philoctetes, whose cries of pain prompted the Greeks’ vain attempt to abandon him while at the same time making off with his tremendous bow, the psychological wound sustained by Kipling as a child is inseparable from those insights concerning inner damage which give critical force to his mature work on dreams.

Kipling himself was impatient of ‘Freudistic’ interpretations because they ignore the active intelligence of the artist, his stance as an adult in the world of his day. He insisted that the writer’s achievement as an artist should be the focus of critical effort, rather than making readings of his life. Remembering this, we might apply to Kipling, writer of dream stories, the praise that he once offered Mark Twain. When he was a child, Kipling’s aunt saw him strike out in self-defence: let us agree that as a grown man and an artist, Rudyard Kipling:

… fought his age and surroundings (where he didn’t like ’em) up to the limit of his weapons which were many and sharp.


©Mary Hamer 2010 All rights reserved