The Holy War

(by Julian Moore)



Kipling’s verse, “The Holy War”, was first published in the Christmas 1917 edition of the Land and Water Magazine [6.12.1917], accompanied by a Sullivan cartoon that personified the characters of the poem in contemporary political terms. Apparently a homage to John Bunyan’s late seventeenth-century exercise in psychomachia, The Holy War [J. Bunyan, The Holy War (1682), OUP, Oxford, 1980], Kipling’s offering is actually another of his foreshadowings of political despondency that typify the contents of The Years Between collection.

This paper will discuss the relationship between the two texts, and the extent to which Kipling used a well-known tract of spiritual literature as a basis for his own secular purposes and as a vehicle for a manifesto of extreme political conservatism. It will also examine the contemporary issues raised by Kipling in support of his intertextual use of a literary parallel.

As poets and as public figures, John Bunyan and Rudyard Kipling had much in common. They were both popular in that their works were read by a broad spectrum of society – at least those, in Bunyan’s case, who were literate in the century after 1682. Many authorities [see, for instance, Kettle, Daiches, Allen] claim that Bunyan was the most widely read of the authors of the time – a readership enlarged presumably by the move towards the widespread religious dissent of the late seventeenth century. Although his Pilgrim’s Progress was the most popular of his religious allegories, its sequel, The Holy War, also has much to recommend it. It is a strong narrative, its dialogue is natural and its treatment of the mechanics of physical and psychological warfare is realistic. Of all Bunyan’s works, it is the one that supports Gillie’s claim that Bunyan was ‘a great proto-novelist’ [C Gillie, Movements in English Literature 1900-1940, London, C.U.P., 1975, p.67].

At a time of national turmoil in a war-torn Britain, it is not surprising that Kipling would have turned to his poetic antecedents for inspiration, for courage, and, perhaps, for solace after the death of his son. He may have been looking for his literary heritage, or perhaps for echoes of his childhood that made sense in a world that was rapidly becoming indecipherable. Bunyan’s ungarnished message of hope offered a simplicity of form, a totally focussed approach to character, and a plainness of direction and morality that must have appealed immensely to Kipling whose own work eschewed the grey complexities of explanation for the black and white of moral pronouncement.

Lord Birkenhead claims that Kipling ‘had been an early captive of ….Bunyan’ during the dark days of his unhappy childhood at Southsea [Lord Birkenhead, Rudyard Kipling, London, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1978, p.49] It is not difficult to understand how the bright polarities of Bunyan’s essentially positive allegory would appeal to an imaginative lonely child, and, indeed, how the message of the triumph, through adversity, of good over evil would come to be a major theme of Kipling’s work. Peter Keating is of the opinion that Kipling regarded Bunyan’s career as parallelling his own:

‘a background non-conformist, provincial and relatively humble, a character as assertive, independent, abrasive, and selfmade, a craftsman, soldier, preacher, moralist, allegorist, and a writer of both prose and poetry’.

[P.Keating, Kipling the Poet, London, Secker and Warburg, 1994, p.168. The only parallel that does not apply here to Kipling is that of ‘soldier’, although his exploits as correspondent during the Boer War, perhaps, qualify as military service. Kipling certainly saw it as such.]

Of the other major contemporary commentators on Kipling’s verse, neither Carrington, nor Parry, nor Seymour-Smith include any mention of either Bunyan’s or Kipling’s “The Holy War” – a problematical omission given the overtly political nature of a text intended as public rhetoric with the future of Britain as its theme. Kipling’s choice of Bunyan’s text as a basis for his own political rhetoric was a natural one. Auden has commented that ‘Kipling is obsessed by a sense of danger threatening from outside’ [W.H.Auden, ‘The Poet of the Encirclement’ in New Republic, CIX, 25.10.1943, p. 579] and so both Bunyan’s The Holy War and Kipling’s parallel use of its themes and details suited the writer, the time and the current popular interests:

He mapped, for those who follow,
The world in which we are—
“This famous town of Mansoul”
That takes the Holy War.

The theme of both texts is that of the physical and psychological ramifications of a siege – of an entity being attacked overtly from without, and insidiously from within. Bunyan describes an assault on the town of Mansoul by the forces of Diabolus led by Apollyon, while secret agents within the town, the Lords of Looseness, are working to suborn the allegiance of the population away from their true ruler, Shaddai. The allegory into which Bunyan has woven his narrative is that of a progress towards Christian grace through a succession of failures and successes and through a series of episodes of faith and doubt. The culmination of the fight for man’s soul is the acceptance of God and of the rightness of the holy law as reified by the edicts of Shaddai and personified by the presence of his son Emmanuel.

The emphasis throughout is on the nature and testing of personal and collective faith as a necessary preliminary to salvation, which can only be achieved by triumphing over a series of crises. It is these crises, threats by armed forces outside and destabilisation by enemy agents inside the citadel, that Kipling sees as particularly relevant to Britain’s situation in late 1917. The relevance to the poet appears to lie in the allegory of the salvation of man which, in this case, was that of the traditional British conservative ideals which were fast vanishing in the face of a war commonly believed to end all wars.

The army of Diabolus and its leader Apollyon could easily, in Kipling’s view, be equated to Germany and the Kaiser respectively. The horrors of war experienced by a generation of Britons and their allies were attributed by Kipling to the naked greed for power of the German military machine. War propaganda in the British press had already labelled the German administration as agents of the devil; cartoon examples of this view of the Germans are scattered throughout the popular press of the time. The commonest image was that of a Prussian officer, readily identified by the spike on his helmet, and with the barbed tail and wings of a devil, and Kipling echoes this with his use of the term, ‘Armageddon’, with its religious connotations, for the current conflict, engendered by foes that were, in the eyes of many Britons, ‘the true sons of the Pit’. [J. Bunyan, op. cit., p. 165]

But while the external attacks on Mansoul were constant, Bunyan’s narrative gives greater credence to the threat of the enemy agents inside the walls of the city. Kipling takes up this aspect of modern warfare, using Bunyan’s concept of the diabolic infiltrators, the ‘Lords of Looseness’, who try to gain power in Mansoul by:

‘persuasion to a vain and loose life; or, whether by tempting them to doubt and despair; or, whether by blowing up the Town by the Gunpowder of pride and self-conceit.
[J. Bunyan, op. cit., p. 165].

The Lords disguise themselves as faithful servants to the original supporters of Shaddai but work constantly to undermine the spiritual progress of the besieged inhabitants of Mansoul. Bunyan’s Lords of Looseness are named as

Lasciviousness, Fornication, Adultery, Murder, Anger, Deceit, Evileye, Blasphemy, Covetousness….

[J. Bunyan, op. cit., p. 169]

while Kipling uses Bunyan’s metonymy as a vehicle for overt political accusation of the internal factors that he sees as dangerously treasonable.

Kipling’s ‘Lords of Looseness that hamper faith and works’ are the forces of democracy and social reform embodied in the Liberal element of the coalition government, a political faction that he had earlier condemned as ‘the tribe which describe with a jibe the perversions of justice’ [Kipling’s “The City of Brass” in The Years Between]. Lloyd George’s War Cabinet, without the steadying hand of a recently dead Kitchener, had been held responsible for a disturbing downturn in the progress of the war by a majority of the conservatives in Britain, a view that had been exacerbated by the public fiasco of the ill-fated Gallipoli and Mesopotamia campaigns. Bureaucratic incompetence was entrenched in the military as much as in the stolidly traditional Civil Service, a monolith that could not cope with the administrative flexibility demanded by the dynamics of a foreign war.

The ‘faith and works’ of the British people, built up over half a century of comparative peace, and a full century of imperial growth and affluence, was threatened by a party machine whose political platform was one of reform, even in the darkest days of the war. It was this divergence from the pressing matters in hand of the war that Kipling saw as an invidiously dangerous parallel to Bunyan’s personifications of vice.

Kipling also saw the insidious corruption of the contemporary Lords of Looseness in the threat to Britain of the revolution in Russia that had occurred a few short months before the publication of his poem. He dealt with this political and social upheaval more fully in another of the poems from The Years Between, in which he describes ‘the shadow of a people that is trampled into mire’ and asks ‘who shall be next to fall?’ [“Russia to the Pacifists” in The Years Between]. The ramifications of the revolution for Britain were immediately obvious, and included the devastating loss of a military ally at a crucial time in the war, and the growth of a looming and potentially explosive militant socialism among the workers in the British war industries.

The inhabitants of Mansoul and of Britain also have to deal with the problems caused by:

The Perseverance-Doubters,
And Present-Comfort shirks,

who are part of Diabolus’ army. For Bunyan, doubt was a natural stage through which the faithful were forced to pass on their way to salvation. For Kipling, the doubters are guilty of treason because of their lack of support of, in this case, the war effort and the drive to maintain the traditional conservative standards that, in his opinion, had been responsible for Britain’s greatness.

Kipling’s use of the phrase ‘Present-Comfort’ is problematical in this context. Bunyan does not include it in his text although he delineates ‘Present-Good’ as being one of the factions of Diabolus’ army. With Kipling’s strict adoption of the names of Bunyan’s characters, it is difficult to understand why he has changed ‘good’ to ‘comfort’ unless it is for the sake of easy scansion. The sense of the original is, certainly, retained but the use of the word itself is an anomaly in an intertextual relationship which is otherwise accurate in terms of the original text.

The threat of the:

‘brittle intellectuals
Who crack beneath a strain—’

is an echo of the anti-intellectualism that had been a feature of British conservatism for decades. The influence of the landed upper classes who had long been suspicious of academic cleverness, along with the effect of the military code which preferred action to theory, meant that the intellectual was regarded as ephemeral, especially at a time of war. Kipling had previously discussed what he saw as the divide between the planners of action and the active participants in his poem, “The Sons of Martha” [The Years Between], which emphasises the lack of importance of the theorists.
‘The State-kept Stockholmites’ were those in favour of a Labour Party proposal in the House of Commons to send delegates to a planned socialist international peace convention in Stockholm late in 1917. The proposal was endorsed by the United Socialist Council at their Leeds convention in June 1917. It was, as A J P Taylor remarks (in his

English History 1914-1945

, OUP 1965, p.128), ‘the first breath in England of the Bolshevik wind’. The motion was, in any case, defeated in the House of Commons by over six hundred votes, and led to the split between Liberal and Labour that began the fall of Lloyd George’s Liberals. Because it intimated an attitude of appeasement towards to the enemy, the resolution appalled those who, like Kipling, saw such moves as dangerously seditious. [The British seamen pre-empted the issue by refusing to carry any peace delegates to Sweden] Its defeat in the House led to the resignation from the War Cabinet of the Labour leader, Arthur Henderson, and engendered further rifts in an already unstable political structure.

‘The Pope’ that Kipling includes in his contemptuous list of enemies was Benedict XV, whose moves towards facilitating a peace agreement between Germany and the Allies had raised the militaristic hackles of many Britons. Kipling was, a year later, to deal dismissively with the Pope’s neutrality in a vicious exercise in public poetic rhetoric [“A Song at Cockcrow” in The Years Between] that accused the pontiff, ‘a poor silly fisherman’, of diplomatic inactivity at a crucial time for the whole of Europe:

‘Earth in her agony waited his word
But he sat by the fire and naught would he do’

It was this particular reference to the Pope that caused an explosion of resentment by members of the Catholic Church in America. They took immediate offence at what they saw as:

this lying insult, in the face of all contemporary history,

[Red Cross Magazine, Feb 19 1918]

and Cardinal O’Connell was moved to observe that:

This is not the first time that Kipling’s abnormality has led him to prostitute a noble gift to a base purpose.

[Red Cross Magazine, March 16 1918]

The Cardinal does not specify the abnormality, but it was almost certainly Kipling’s repeated and very public objections to Irish Home Rule in speeches and such poems as ‘Ulster’ and ‘The Covenant’.

Closely allied to the Pope, in Kipling’s view, were ‘the swithering Neutrals’ whose ranks had recently been lessened by the entry to the war of the United States. Like many British conservatives, Kipling saw the neutral countries as tantamount to enemies, not for their profiteering at the expense of the actively belligerent nations, but because of their refusal to take sides.

The main object of Kipling’s accusations, however, are ‘The Kaiser and his Gott’. Kaiser Wilhelm II was often depicted in cartoons in the popular press with the motto, ‘Ich selbst und Gott’, implying a special and divinely authorised mission for his militaristic nationalism. By his use of the disassociative phrase, ‘his Gott’, Kipling appears to be ascribing to the Germans in general, and the Kaiser in particular, a different God from that of the English.

The implication is that the Kaiser’s ‘Gott’ is Bunyan’s Diabolus, and that the Kaiser himself is the satanic Lord Apollyon, leading the forces of darkness against the armies of the true faith inside the citadel of British Mansoul. Despite Kipling’s deep-seated paranoia about Germany and the Germans, evident in much of his prose and verse from 1900 to 1920, his concept of a Manichean struggle between good and evil was rooted more in British war propaganda than in any variation in religious dogma. The Kaiser prided himself on his Christian principles – no grandson of Queen Victoria would have dared do otherwise – and his armies were led by a Prussian officer class steeped in an almost medievally monastic religiosity. Kipling may have earlier accused the Germans of being ‘lesser breeds without the Law’

[“Recessional” 1897]. This interpretation appears to have a better foundation than the phrase being either anti-semitic or racist. but this was because he could not conceive that a set of principles different from his own could have any merit.

It is Kipling’s refusal to accept any variation or divergence from policies that will benefit the British war effort that leads to the ringing exhortation:

No dealings with Diabolus
As long as Mansoul stands

This is a warning to the Labour minority in the War Cabinet whose socialism was suspect as tending towards a treasonable pacificism. In fact the Parliamentary Labour Party was not particularly pro-Bolshevik except for a small number of militant radicals. There was too much pragmatic Fabianism in the party for revolution on a national or international scale. But the very definite admonition is there that no-one should suggest peace while there still a hope of Britain coming out of the Great War at least partially intact. [The cartoon that accompanied the publication of Kipling’s “The Holy War” makes the point graphically, showing Britain as Saint George being held back from attacking the Kaiser in the form of Diabolus by a cringing pacifist.] With hindsight, Kipling was probably right, in that any pre-emptive peace talks in 1917 would have almost certainly been destructive for Britain and her Empire.

Apart from the dire warnings about ‘dealings with Diabolus’, Kipling’s use of the framework of Bunyan’s allegory has another purpose: to point out to his reader that history is a cyclic process, and that contemporary events are recapitulations of earlier ones. Bunyan is cited as foreshadowing the terrors of the Great War:

Two hundred years and thirty
Ere Armageddon came
His single hand portrayed it,
And Bunyan was his name!

There is a problem here with Kipling’s chronology. Bunyan’s The Holy War was written in 1682, two hundred and thirty-five years before Kipling wrote his tribute in 1917. The discrepancy may be connected with Kipling’s reading of his own scansion, although, in terms of versification, ‘two hundred years and thirty-five’ would fit equally well into his metrical scheme.

Kipling also has Bunyan describing the current threats in a seventeenth-century context:

The craft that we call modern,
The crimes that we call new,
John Bunyan had ’em typed and filed
In Sixteen Eighty-two.

Kipling goes on to cast Bunyan and, by association, himself in the role of a seer who forecasts ‘no marvel then if the enemy both within and without should design and plot our ruin’. [ J.Bunyan, op. cit., p. 182] Bunyan, of course, dealt in metonymic archetypes of human vice, but Kipling found it all too easy to transfer the details of a spiritual conflict to those of his polarized view of war.

Their roles, their goals, their naked souls—
He knew and drew the lot.

There is a triple allegory evident in Kipling’s “The Holy War”. Bunyan’s Mansoul is the British character and way of life and, at the same time, Britain itself. Both are, according to Kipling, under threat from the influences of Diabolus and the forces of evil with the Kaiser personified as Apollyon and the Lords of Looseness as the seditious forces within the gates of Mansoul. Kipling has used Bunyan’s primary allegory of human virtue and weakness to subsume his own culture’s contemporary problems.

The first level is the direct transfer of Bunyan’s narrative to 1917. This puts the quest onto a personal level of finding redemption through the acceptance of Emmanuel’s rule in Mansoul. The second level of allegory is the expansion of the concept of Mansoul into a national arena, making the British people the inhabitants of Mansoul, subject to all the forces of vice and, preferably, rejecting them for the way of Shaddai. The third is another expansion, tied to the second, which makes Mansoul a specific place in a specific time – Britain at the height of the Great War – with Bunyan’s siege and battles, reified into the horrors of Passchendaele, Ypres and the Somme, as real threats to her national safety, identity and sovereignty.

In late 1917 Britain was truly under siege and desperate to grasp at any hope or sign of potential victory, even in the fictional lessons of a distant past. It is not surprising, then, that in such disturbing times, a major poet should turn to an important writer from the past for inspiration. “The Holy War” combines many of the aspects of Kipling’s work that made his verse of the war period so revealing of the poet himself. The poem is colloquial in tone, perhaps to echo the informality of Bunyan’s text, while the parallels that he draws to a Christian quest for personal salvation are fixed firmly in the matrix of his own contemporary politics. The poem has none of the overt hate displayed in, for instance, ‘Mesopotamia’ or ‘The Death-Bed”, but is deeply scathing in its contempt for what Kipling saw as the threats within; Liberalism, socialism, and a dangerous tendency to negate, through inaction, the gains of centuries of British tradition.


[J M]

©Julian Moore 2006 All rights reserved