by Julian Moore


This paper is concerned with a single poem by Rudyard Kipling – “Gehazi”, written in 1913 and first formally published in his collection of verse, The Years Between, in 1919 [Methuen, London]. The poem, presented by Kipling without explanatory comment, has been virtually ignored by critics, and yet it carries a wealth of embedded cultural meanings, and is interesting from the point of view of the many strands of the dominant ideology of the years immediately preceding the first World War. In this paper I examine the poem in the context of its social and political background to show how its production was embedded within its contemporary political culture. I also analyse the way in which the text is inseparable from its non-literary cultural surroundings, both in terms of the poem’s content and, more particularly, the modes of its production.

The historical context

The publication date of April 1919 was not auspicious. The Great War had just finished, leaving much of Europe physically battered and psychologically traumatised. Britain had yet to come to terms with a generation of men and women returning from the war in various states of stress, as well as the emotional vacuum left by those who had died. Kipling himself had lost his son at Loos in 1915 and watched in horror as the England, whose national aspirations he had praised so loudly twenty years before, exploded into social and political chaos.

Contemporary critical responses

A new book of verse by Britain’s most popular poet could have expected to have been greeted with adulation bordering on hysteria. The Years Between, however, was met with critical objections that Kipling’s muse had finally failed him, and that a poet of an earlier age should not be imposing his obsolete politics on his reading public. The Spectator [3.5.1919, p. 563] noted ‘a lack of vitality’ in the collection, while T.S.Eliot, reviewing The The Years Between in The Athenaeum, remarked that:

…the arrival of a new book of his verse is not likely to stir the slightest ripple on the surface of our conversational intelligentsia’ who were far too busy self-consciously measuring out their lives in coffee spoons to notice.

[‘T.S.Eliot, ‘Kipling Redivivus’, Athenaeum, May 1919, p. 297, cited in A. Parry, The Poetry of Rudyard Kipling, Open University Press, London, 1992, p. 107. Eliot’s opinion changed over the next two decades: he became an avid member of the Kipling Society and wrote an introduction to a collection of Kipling’s verse in 1941.]

The Years Between

The collection was not at all the rowdy, colloquial verse that England had come to expect of Kipling. The Years Between contains forty five short poems, almost all of which were politically motivated by Kipling’s need to rally the reading public back to the causes that he espoused so fervently – those of misogyny, xenophobia, antisemitism, jingoism and the politics of the radical right. [Textual evidence of these traits can be found throughout the Kipling canon and have been noted by virtually all of his critics.] Some critics were convinced. Chevrillon, for instance, found The Years Between to be ‘the last great outcrop of the underlying granite, the profound moral basis of England’ [Chevrillon A., Three studies in English Literature, Heinemann, 1923, cited in the Kipling Journal 4/43]; but most agreed with Laski that the collection symbolised the ‘malignant grandiosity and…ambition’ of an age gone by. [Laski H., Daily Herald 30 Aug 1930, cited in the Kipling Journal 15/5.]

The background

The political forces that had shaped Kipling’s verses came from two main fronts: the European nationalistic sabre rattling that had forced its participants into the mud of France and Flanders, and the endless bickering of the Liberals and Tories in Westminster. All the poems in the collection are devoted to an aspect of one or the other of these two battlefields, literal and figurative, and all display Kipling’s indignation at the direction that England and its leaders had taken.

Gehazi and its political background

None of the poems is more typical of the poet’s condemnation of domestic politics than “Gehazi” which Lord Blake has called ‘one of the greatest of hate poems’ in the English language’. [Lord Blake cited in Seymour-Smith M., Rudyard Kipling, Macdonald, London, 1989, p.169.]

“Gehazi” comprises five short stanzas written in the tradition of the English ballad in which Kipling excelled. The title is taken from the name of a character from the Old Testament, the first of a number of examples of the textual cross-references that mark this particular work. Chapter five of the second book of Kings contains the story of the corrupt servant of Elisha, Gehazi, who took advantage of his privileged position to benefit financially and was condemned by his master to be a leper because of his conduct. The “Gehazi” of Kipling’s poem is Sir Rufus Isaacs, later to become Lord Reading, a corrupt Liberal politician who epitomised everything that Kipling despised about the members of Herbert Asquith’s Liberal government. “Gehazi” is a virulent condemnation of Isaacs, as vicious a personification as Sporus in Pope’s attack on Hervey. [Pope A., Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot.] But Isaacs was no ‘thing of asses milk’. He was one of the major figures in an Edwardian political scandal that appalled the British public because of its blatant use of high official office for personal gain. References in the British press to the scandal are numerous and, once again are examples of the inextricable way in which the poem is embedded within the intertextual matrix of British politics and popular culture.

Rufus Daniel Isaacs was almost exactly a contemporary of Kipling and came from a wealthy and talented Jewish family with a long tradition in legal circles. A parliamentarian since the heady days of Gladstone’s ministry, he had been knighted in 1910 and had been made Attorney-General in Asquith’s Liberal government following their electoral landslide in 1906. He was an apparently competent Cabinet member, but was hated by the Tory opposition whose anti-Semitism was never far from the surface since the recent Dreyfus affair in France which had been very close to the sensitivities of the traditional British ruling class. Lytton Strachey spoke for the conservative establishment when he referred to the Liberal government of the time as being ‘a sink of iniquity tinged with the worst kind of Hebraism’ [Strachey L., letter to Lady Buxton 5.8.1919, cited in Bentley M., The Liberal Mind 1914-1929, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1977 p. 82.]

It is important to understand the convolutions of the political background to “Gehazi” because without them the poem appears to be another of Kipling’s later obscure works, annoying critics and mystifying readers alike. It is necessary to begin with the slow and devious machinations of Empire that had busied the British Civil Service for a century, and to examine the factors that led to Kipling’s reactive outburst of indignation at corruption in high governmental places.

The Marconi scandal

The Sixth Imperial Conference was held in 1911 in London to discuss, inter alia, defence matters as they concerned the Empire as a network with Britain at its head. One of the chief proposals was to set up an ‘Imperial Wireless Chain’, using the new Marconi invention of radio, that would tie the Empire and Dominions together for defensive purposes against the possible threats of the growing military might of Germany, Japan and the USA. The contract for the setting up of the network was put out to tender and in March 1912, Herbert Samuel, the Postmaster General, accepted the tender of the British Marconi Company, subject to the contract being ratified by the parliament.
Shares in the Marconi Company soared and rivals began to question the propriety of the tender process. Because of the rumours abounding in the market that ministers had profited in share transactions, parliamentary ratification was postponed from August to October 1912. In the meantime, Cecil Chesterton, co-editor of the weekly Eye Witness, claimed that the Chancellor, Lloyd George, the Attorney-General Sir Rufus Isaacs, and Lord Murray, a recent Liberal Chief Whip, had all used their prior knowledge of the contract to profit from share transactions in Marconi and associated companies.

When the October date for the ratification by the Commons was due, the House appointed a select committee to investigate the widespread rumours of connivance and corruption amongst members of His Majesty’s Government. The committee was made up, as was usual, of a Liberal government majority and an opposition minority of Tories. The inquiry acquitted Samuel of any involvement, but found that Lloyd George, Isaacs and Lord Murray had all acquired shares in the American Marconi company, but only after the tender had been let. This latter rider was important as it effectively negated any accusations of direct connivance or insider trading in any wireless shares.

The Tory section of the inquiry committee insisted on adding a minority report to the general finding. This stated that the interest of the ministers had been ‘material though indirect’ and that the ministers had been ‘wanting in frankness’. Asquith’s own cabinet considered ‘their dealings to have been certainly indiscreet and very nearly improper. At the same time [they were] unwilling to record formal censure.’ [David E.,(ed), Inside Asquith’s Cabinet: from the diaries of Charles Hobhouse, John Murray, London, 1977 p. 139]

The parliamentary sitting that was to decide on the contract became a theatre for party bitterness and invective. A Tory amendment to the original motion to accept the Marconi tender was couched in a typically arrogant Bonar Law wording that would have made the resignation of the ministers concerned imperative, but this was defeated on party lines.

In February 1913, the French newspaper, Le Matin, openly accused Isaacs and Samuel of using their privileged knowledge to profit themselves. A libel action was brought and a retraction was published but not before Isaacs had been forced into admitting that he had acted on the recommendation of his brother Harry to purchase ten thousand shares in American Marconi. Some of these he had afterwards sold on to Lloyd George and to Lord Murray. Samuel himself commented at the time in a letter to Isaacs that it was ‘not a good thing for the Jewish community for the first two Jews who have ever entered a British Cabinet to be enmeshed in an affair of this kind’ [Samuel H., personal letter to Rufus Isaacs, 8.8.1912, cited in Hyde H., Lord Reading, Heinemann, London, 1967 p. 130], especially since Isaacs, as Attorney-General had sworn to:

‘…Take oath to judge the land
Unswayed by gift of money
Or privy bribe, more base,
Of knowledge which is profit
In any market-place.’

At this point the British press, owned almost exclusively by Tory supporters, created:

‘a smokescreen of rumour and press innuendo [that] disturbed the public with suggestions of serious corruption’ .

[Ensor R., England 1870-1914, OUP, Oxford, 1936 p. 458]

Although Isaacs was officially acquitted of actual corruption, the whole affair rebounded upon Asquith whose poor judgement was further in evidence when he confirmed Isaacs as Lord Chief Justice at the end of 1913,

‘…So reverent to behold,
In scarlet and in ermines
And chain of England’s gold.’

Kipling’s reaction

It was this latter act that so incensed Kipling, ‘a telling critic of decadent sloth’ [Judd D., Lord Reading, Weidenfeld, London, 1982, p.111], to search for a literary equivalent with which to accuse Isaacs. “Gehazi” was written as an indignant reaction to the appointment, and circulated among Kipling’s many friends of the Radical Right and the Co-Efficients, reifying their common stand on the subversive influence of international Jewry and on the inappropriateness of Isaac’s promotion. In this surreptitious private distribution of his poem, Kipling was using an informal mode of literary production in an attempt to subvert the government. It is interesting to compare this with his usual method of political pronouncement on any event that seemed to him worthy of comment. Normally he would dash off his opinions in verse and send them to one of the newspapers, often the ultra-conservative Morning Post, with instructions that the verse be published as soon as possible. Kipling’s standing as a literary figure meant that his work was accepted without question, usually accompanied by lengthy editorial comment supporting his views.

Like the general public, Kipling saw Isaacs as a venal official whose crimes had been whitewashed by his political friends. His appointment to the highest judicial office in the land was seen as yet another indefensibly cynical exercise in political pragmatism by Asquith who remained ‘poised on equivocations’ [Ensor R., op. cit., p. 454], and exacerbated the Tory feelings of anti-Semitism that had been relatively dormant.

As if the appointment to the highest judicial office in the land was not enough after the upheavals of the Marconi scandal, a short time later Isaacs used his position to collude with a fellow judge to exonerate a Liberal cabinet minister embroiled in a libel suit brought against him in the aftermath of the original Marconi contract letting. Kipling made the point ironically:

‘Take order now, Gehazi,
That no man talk aside
In secret with his judges
The while his case is tried.
Lest he should show them reason
To keep a matter hid,
And subtly lead the questions
Away from what he did.’

The Chief Justice, in the eyes of Kipling, the Tories and the general public, had gone too far in what appeared to be blatant judicial collusion and, more importantly, had been seen to go too far. The ‘mirror of uprightness’ had become ‘a leper white as snow’, whose crimes had become:

‘The boils that shine and burrow,
The sores that slough and bleed’

Further scandals

The boils and sores would not go away for Asquith, Isaacs, or for Kipling. Yet another financial scandal involving yet another Jewish Liberal member of Parliament was whitewashed by Asquith, and Isaacs was hanging on the coat-tails of David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer who, for Kipling, epitomised all that was evil and vainglorious about economic and social reform in general [Kipling’s “City of Brass” was a blast of rage against Lloyd George’s budget of 1909 that threatened the economic foundations of the traditional British ruling class], and the Liberals in particular:

‘…From following after Namaan
To tell him all is well,
Whereby my zeal hath made me
A Judge in Israel.’

Although Isaacs was seen by at least one historian as: ‘a jurist of great reputation with a cool head and a long view’ [Spear P.,

A History of India

, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1965 p.192], and was later appointed to be Viceroy of India [as Viceroy, Isaacs held the dubious honour of being the first British administrator to imprison Gandhi, and of disrupting the fragile Hindu/Moslem accord of 1916.], the scandals concerning his share transactions and his presumed judicial collusion followed him until the end of his parliamentary career. As Lord Reading, Liberal party hack, he has become a minor footnote in the political context of the first third of this century; while as “Gehazi” he has been immortalised by a furious Kipling in what Seymour-Smith, one of Kipling’s most recent biographers, has assessed as ‘one of the last poems written in Great Britain to speak for a scandalised common people’. [Seymour-Smith M., Rudyard Kipling, Macdonald, London, 1989 p.169

Kipling’s role

Kipling cannot have been unaware of the effect that his verses would have regardless of their mode of distribution. He had seen how his “Absent-Minded Beggar” had successfully caught in words the militaristic passions of the British public at the outset of the Boer War, and how his France had influenced feelings of friendship towards a traditional rival. As a major literary figure who had been lionised for his overtly jingoistic opinions, every verse that he published was regarded as a chapter of gospel by those who were still caught up in the heady rhythms and catchphrases of his work. His reading public, on the other hand, were almost certainly unaware of the embedded nature of his political verse; of the way that it subsumed Hansard, the anti-Semitic hysteria of Belloc et al, biblical allusions, judicial transcripts of contemporary cases, the letters and diaries of political figures of the time, and a wealth of press pronouncements on related topics.

It is also interesting to note here that both the content of “Gehazi” and the actual fact of its production are subversive and impositional at the same time. The content of the verses is subversive in that Kipling attempted, quite deliberately, to attack a ruling of the current government and, if possible, to discredit that body. The initial limited distribution of the verses to a like-minded Tory clique was also a politically subversive act in that it was intended for the subject, Isaacs, the Lord Chief Justice of England, to become an object of political contempt and personal ridicule.

On the other hand, anti-Semitism was so much a part of the British ruling ideology that “Gehazi” can be seen as supporting the imposition of the traditional values of a landowner class that although not in government, still held the majority of real power in Britain. Unfortunately for Kipling and the Radical Right, their own ideology was being subverted in turn by a popular press that saw more profit in reporting the ghastly realities of the Great War and its aftermath than in mouthing the nostalgic rhetoric of a Conservative opposition.

Seymour-Smith is of the opinion that “Gehazi” is not an anti-semitic text of the kind, for instance, that Belloc and Maxse were producing at the time. He maintains that the Old Testament setting of the verse is not overt racism but is an attempt to put Isaacs’ corruption into a generally known literary context and so, perhaps, make its message more legitimate . He maintains that ‘the crook appointed to give justice to all is exposed as the social leper his ambition makes him to be’.

However, the very fact of exposure in verse does not explain the hysterical vehemence of the spite in “Gehazi”. It is likely that Kipling was venting his rage not just at Isaacs’ appointment but at all Liberals and their party machine. In April 1914 he spoke at a public meeting at Tunbridge Wells, at which he condemned the Liberals as ‘common swindlers’ whose only aim was to ‘continue in an enjoyment of their own salaries’. His censure was a function of his extreme conservative values: values that deprecated the death of his muscular imperial creed in the Liberal foreign policies, and that despised their Home Rule platform as being a modern form of maiestas [Treason by subversion under the Roman Empire. To speak slightingly of the machinery or aims of empire was punishable by death]. It was this perceived diminution of the might and majesty of the British Empire that Kipling called ‘the menace of moral lassitude’ [Kipling R., ‘A Thesis’ in A Book of Words, Freeport Press, New York, 1928 p.188], and resented so vociferously.

Kipling saw the Liberals in general, and Isaacs in particular, as idle and immoral wastrels, as ‘Sons of Mary’ in contrast to the self-effacing and ever-toiling ‘Sons of Martha’ who served in the outposts of the Empire, or were lost in the trenches in France. The Radical Right group, of which Kipling was an active member, despised any form of political pragmatism because it negated the duty to serve the nation and the Empire in the way that Kipling himself had immortalised in his Indian canon. The creed of unselfish service was a descendant function of the British public school ethic, of an almost monastic desire to take the experience of cold showers and morning prayers out to the new dominions and the edges of the scarlet map of the Empire. The circumvention of one’s duty was unthinkable and, what was worse, it was not British.

Critical reponses

In contrast to the political storm over the informal initial distribution of “Gehazi”, its inclusion in the formal publication of The Years Between passed without comment. The poem was ignored by the book’s reviewers, most of whom were too busy slating Kipling’s revisionist social opinions to note the implications of what was, in effect, a manifesto of the political right. “Gehazi”, along with “The City of Brass” were screams of conservative protest in the Liberal wilderness but were disregarded, perhaps, because of their perceived irrelevance to a society that was busy reanimating a war-torn population.

In the light of Kipling’s political attack on a noted public figure, it is strange that none of Kipling’s later commentators give more than a passing nod to “Gehazi” and its vicious sentiments. Anne Parry, the most recently published of the Kipling critics [Parry A., op. cit.], does not refer to it at all, while one of his biographers, Seymour-Smith, calls it a ‘savage satire’ [Seymour-Smith M., op. cit., p. 168], in which ‘the indignation, not righteous but merely right, generates its own values.’ [ibid. p. 169].
This opinion seems to ignore the political basis of the poem, regarding it as being a summary judgement on personal behaviour with which Kipling does not agree, rather than a tirade that summed up Kipling’s own personal and political frustrations with a government committed to social reform of the old order with which he so closely identified. It is this most common interpretation, perhaps, that has led to a general misunderstanding of the cultural importance of the literary production of “Gehazi”. Critics seem to have ignored the subtextual ideological content of the verse which is certainly as important as the personal attack on Isaacs. In contrast, Brock, an ardent supporter of Kipling’s work, has said of his publications between 1910 and 1920 that ‘his political ineptitude remains startling’ [Brock M., ‘Outside his art’, in the Kipling Journal, March 1988, p.23]. Although Brock is referring to pronouncements about Irish Home Rule and the question of German spies in England, about which Kipling was paranoid, the comment is certainly applicable to his conservative views about Jews, Liberals and social reform.

Another biographer, Lord Birkenhead, makes no reference at all to Isaacs, to “Gehazi”, or to the judicial appointment that spawned the controversial verses. This omission may have occurred because Lord Birkenhead was the son of F.E.Smith, a noted Tory minister of the time who would certainly have been one of the recipients of the private circulation of “Gehazi”, and who would also have been party to the anti-Semitic witch-hunting that the Tories employed both in and out of Parliament. [Birkenhead, Lord, Rudyard Kipling, Weidenfeld, London, 1978, p. 258.]

Even the definitive biography of Isaacs, written by his son in 1942 [Reading, Marquess of, Rufus Isaacs, Hutchinson, London, 1942], contains no reference to any controversy surrounding the appointment of his father as Lord Chief Justice, much less to Kipling or “Gehazi”. This deliberate omission seems to indicate a family embarrassment about the whole affair – perhaps for the same reason that made Isaacs himself decide not to sue Kipling for libel on the publication of The Years Between in 1919.

Kipling himself, in his less than candid autobiography, Something of Myself, mentions nothing of the politics with which he was so overtly involved in the first twenty years of the century. This cannot be because his espousement of rightist politics was unimportant to him, since he maintained his political connections until his death twenty years after he had written “Gehazi”. It may be that anti-Semitism had become, by 1936, less of a Rightist shibboleth because of the actions of the Fascist governments of Germany and Italy in the 1930s. It may be that the whole period of the war had become a time to forget because of Kipling’s own bitter experiences of the death of his son. Whatever the reason, an important political text has been ignored by its creator and misinterpreted by critics. Although ‘poetry is condemned as “political” when we disagree with the politics’ [Eliot T.S., ‘Introduction’ in A Choice of Kipling’s Verse, London, Faber, 1941, p.7], it is impossible in the case of Kipling’s “Gehazi” to separate the politics from the poetry, whether or not the reader agrees with the sentiments of the text, sentiments that Orwell has dismissed as ‘ethically disgusting’. Kipling has tied together so many strands of his own social milieu in one piece of vituperation that the actual production of the work and its subsequent modes of distribution becomes more culturally significant than the work itself.

Some conclusions

“Gehazi” is a good example of the way in which a text can be seen not just to reflect its originating culture by being constituted by it, but also to contribute to it in a recursive way by effecting change within the culture itself. If we can regard a text as being an articulation of context, then “Gehazi” picks up the threads of one particular contextual social discourse that was vicious, racist, and overwhelmingly concerned with the structures of power at the time. By refashioning and refocussing the ideological intent of the right, Kipling was responsible, in no small way, for the political collapse of a democratically elected Liberal government shortly after the first publication of the poem.

“Gehazi” crystallises the power of verse into action. It took a poet not to save the world, as Aristophanes would have liked, but to make it cringe with distaste, and then violently change. Few poets can claim the authority to engender such social disruption.

[J M]

©Julian Moore 2006 All rights reserved