The poetry of Rudyard Kipling
by Charles Eliot Norton

From the Atlantic Monthly, January 1897


Charles Eliot Norton (1827-1908) was Professor of the History of
Art at Harvard 1875-98. Kipling had much respect for his
judgement. He wrote to him in December 1896:

‘You are the only man except my father
and Uncle Ned [Burne-Jones] whose
disapproval or advice slays me; and I
will say just as one says to one’s father
when one is little, “I’ll try to think
and be better next time”. But, even
now, the notion that you should have
reviewed me rather makes me gasp.’



During the last two or three years, we have often heard the lament that
the Victorian era of poetry was closed: that with the death of Tennyson
the last great voice had fallen silent; that only the small harpers with
their glees were left, such as Chaucer saw sitting at the feet of the
mighty masters of old; or that if one or two who might claim to belong
to the band of fame lingered on, they were now old men, and their
voices were no longer heard or were faint with age. But the lament
was futile, however it might seem to be justified by the verse of the
new Poet Laureate. Pye was Poet Laureate at the beginning of the cen-
tury, as Austin is at its end. But before Pye died Scott and Wordsworth
had already secured their seats among the immortals, and England, at
the end of the century no less than at the beginning, is still the nursing
mother of poets; and though Tennyson and his compeers be dead, her
genius, with its eternal youth, is still finding fresh expression for itself,
inspired with a novel poetic spirit as genuine as any that has moulded
English verse.

This splendid continuous fertility of English genius, this unbroken
poetic expression of English character and life from Chaucer to Rud-
yard Kipling, is unparalleled in the moral and intellectual history of any
other race. For five full centuries England has had such a succession of
poets as no other land can boast. There is no reason to fear that the
succession will fail. One dynasty may follow another, but the throne
will not lack a king. It is a change of dynasty which we are witnessing
now, and it was the mistaking of this for a break in succession that has
given occasion to the lament that the Victorian era of poetry had ended.
As we look back over the poetry of the century, two main inspiring
motives, exhibiting a natural evolution of poetic doctrine and influence,
are clearly distinguishable. The one, of which Wordsworth is the rep-
resentative, proceeded direct from external nature in her relations to
man; while the other, with many representatives from Keats to Tenny-
son, Arnold, Clough and Browning, was derived from human nature,
from man himself in his various relations to the universe and to his
kind. And all these latter poets, however they might differ in their look
upon life, treated it either ideally and romantically, or else as matter
mainly of introspective reflection and sentiment. Poetry with them was
not so much an image of life as, on the one hand a scenic representation
of it, and on the other a criticism of it. In their kind, the finer dramatic
lyrics of Browning, scenic representations of life, may long stand un-
surpassed, while for criticism and exposition of life of the intellectual
order Clough and Arnold may have no rivals, as Tennyson may have
none in the field of pure sentiment in exquisite lyrical form.
The poetry inspired by these motives was the adequate expression of
the ideals of the age—of its shifting creeds, its doubts, its moral per-
plexities, its persistent introspection. The mood lasted for full fifty
years, and never did the prevailing mood of the higher life of a people
find nobler or more complete utterance. But meanwhile the process of
mental and spiritual evolution was going on. The mood was gradually
changing; the poets themselves, by uttering it, were exhibiting its
limitations; it was a phase of the spiritual life of man, of which no age
exhibits the full orb. A new generation had been growing up under
these poets, with its own conceptions and aspirations and its new modes
of confronting the conditions of existance. It found the poetic motives
of the earlier part of the century insufficient; neither external nature
nor human nature in any select aspect was what it cared most about.
It had taken to heart the instructions of the poets; it aimed ‘to see life
steadily and see it whole, or, in Clough’s words, ‘to look straight out
upon the big plain things that stare one in the face’. It took the whole
world for its realm and was moved to depict it in its actual aspect and
what was called its reality. The realists of yesterday or to-day are the
legitimate offspring of the romanticists and idealists of the mid-century,
following, as is often the habit of sons, a different course from that
which their fathers pursued. The new spirit showed itself at first in prose
fiction. It was weak and often misdirected. It waited for its poet. For
realism—the aim to see the world and to depict it as it is—required for
the fit performance of its work the highest exercise of the poetic imag-
ination. The outward thing, the actual aspect, is in truth the real thing
and the true aspect only when seen by the imaginative vision. To see
a thing truly, a man must as Blake says, look through, not with the eye.
The common reporter sees with his eye, and, meaning to tell the truth,
tells a falsehood. But the imagination has insight, and what it sees is

It is now some six or seven years since Plain Tales from the Hills gave
proof that a man who saw through his eyes was studying life in India
and was able to tell us what he saw. And those who read the scraps of
verse prefixed to many of his stories, if they knew what poetry was,
learned that their writer was at least potentially a poet, not by virtue
of fantasy alone, but by his mastery of lyrical versification. The rhythm
of these fragments had swing and ease and variety, and there was one
complete little set of verses, at the head of the last story in the book,
which made clear the writer’s title to the name of poet. We had not
then seen Departmental Ditties and Other Verses, or Ballads and Barrack-
Room Ballads: they came to us before long, and showed that the qual-
ities which distinguished Mr. Kipling’s stories were not lacking in his
poems. There was the same sure touch, the same insight, the same
imaginative sympathy with all varieties of life, and the same sense of
the moral significance of life even in its crudest, coarsest, and most vul-
gar aspects. Many of these verses were plainly the work of youth—of
a boy full of talent, but not yet fully master of his own capacities, not
yet wholly mastered by his own genius. They had a boyish audacity
and extravagance; they were exuberant; there was too much talent in
them, usurping the place and refusing the control of genius: but under-
neath their boyishness, and though their manner was not yet wholly
subdued to art, there was a vital spirit of fresh and vigorous originality
which, combined with extraordinary control of rhythmical expression,
gave sure promise of higher manly achievement.

Mr. Kipling’s progress as poet has been plain to those who have
read the pieces from his hand which have appeared in magazine and
newspaper in England and America, or have had their place in his vol-
umes of stories during the last four or five years. A good part of this
scattered verse is now gathered into The Seven Seas, but this volume
is by no means a complete collection, and there are poems omitted
from it which the lover of poetry can ill spare, and for which he would
readily exchange some of those included in it.
But in spite of omissions and inclusions alike to be regretted, The
Seven Seas contains a notable addition to the small treasury of enduring
English verse, an addition sufficient to establish Mr. Kipling’s right to
take place in the honourable body of those English poets who have
done England service in strengthening the foundations of her influence
and of her fame. The dominant tone of his verse is indeed the patriotic;
and it is the tone of the new patriotism, that of imperial England,
which holds as one all parts of her wide-stretched empire, and binds
them close in the indissoluble bond of common motherhood, and with
the ties of common convictions, principles, and aims, derived from the
teachings and traditions of the motherland, and expressed in the best
verses of her poets. It is this passionate, moral, imperial patriotism that
inspires the first poem in the book, ‘The Song of the English’, and
which recurs again and again through its pages.

But if this be the dominant tone, easily recognized by every reader,
the full scale which includes it and every other tone of Mr. Kipling’s
verse is that of actual life seen by the imagination intensely and com-
prehensively, and seen by it always, in all conditions and under all
forms, as a moral experience, with the inevitable consequences resulting
from the good or evil use of it.

The gift of imagination, with which as a quality Mr. Kipling is en-
dowed as few men have ever been, has quickened and deepened his
sympathies with men of every class and race, and given him free en-
trance to their hearts. He ‘draws the thing as he sees it for the God of
things as they are;’ and the thing as he sees it is the relation of exper-
ience and conduct, while the rule of life which he deduces from it is that
of ‘Law, Duty, Order and Restraint, Obedience, Discipline’. He does
not enforce this rule as a preacher from the pulpit, but, as Shakespeare
teaches it, by the simple exhibition of life in its multiplicity and appar-
ent confusion.

‘What is a poet?’ asks Wordsworth, and he answers his question: ‘He
is a man speaking to men . . . carrying everywhere with him relation-
ship and love … He binds together by passion and knowledge the
vast empire of human society.’ And this vast empire of society
includes the mean and the vulgar no less than the noble and the refined,
Tommy Atkins and Bill ’Awkins as well as McAndrew and True
Thomas. The recklessness, the coarseness, the brutality of Tommy
Atkins, the spirit of the beast in man, all appear in the Barrack-Room
Ballads, but not less his courage, his fidelity, his sense of duty, his ob-
scure but deep-seated sentiment. The gist of all these Ballads is the dis-
play of the traits of human nature which makes this semi-savage ‘most
remarkable like you’. Yet it will not be only the fastidious and the
super-refined reader who will find that some of the ballads might well
be spared. There is more than one in this last volume which offends the
taste by coarseness insufficiently redeemed by humour or by suggestion
of virtue obscured by vulgarity, diminishes the charm of the book as
a whole, and interferes with the commendation of it which might
otherwise be hearty and unqualified. And yet, in condemning these
few pieces, and in regretting their association with nobler work, I am
reminded of a sentence in the Apologie ofPoetrie of Sir John Harington,
printed in the year 1591, which runs as follows:

But this I say, and I think I say truly: that there are many good lessons to be
learned out of these poems, many good uses to be had of them, and that there-
fore they are not, nor ought not to be, despised by the wiser sort, but so to be
studied and employed as was intended by the writer and deviser thereof, which
is to soften and polish the hard and rough disposition of men, and make them
capable of virtue and good discipline.

But enough of blame and of excuse. From the reek of the barrack-
room we come out with delight to the open air and to the fresh breezes
of the sea. For the sea has touched Mr. Kipling’s imagination with its
magic and its mystery, and never are his sympathies keener than with
the men who go down upon it, and with the vast relations of human
life to the waters that encircle the earth. Here too is manifest his love
of England, the mistress of the sea. The ocean is the highway of her
sons, and the paths of the ocean which they travel from one end of the
earth to the other are paths from one region to another of her imperial

The passion for the sea, the mastery of its terrors, the confident but
distrustful familiarity with it of the English seaman, have never had
such expression as Mr. Kipling has given to them. From his splendid
paean of‘The English Flag’—‘What is the flag of England, winds of the
world declare’, to ‘The Song of the English’—

We have fed our sea for a thousand years,
And she calls us, still unfed,
Though there’s never a wave of all her waves
But marks our English dead

—his imagination dwells with vivifying emotion on the heroic com-
bats—now victories, now defeats—of his race with the winds and the
waves from which they draw their strength. All that belongs to the
story of man upon the sea—the line-of-battle ship, the merchantman,
the tramp steamer, the derelict, the little cargo-boats, the lighthouse,
the bell-buoy—has its part in his verse of human experience. And so
vivid are his appreciations of the poetic significance of even the most
modern and practical of the conditions and aspects of sea life that in
‘McAndrew’s Hymn’, a poem of surpassing excellence alike in con-
ception and in execution, Mr. Kipling has sung the song of the marine
steam-engine and all its machinery, from furnace-bars to screw, in such
wise as to convert their clanging beats and throbs into a sublime sym-
phony in accord with the singing of the morning stars. He has thus
fulfilled a fine prophecy of Wordsworth’s, that when the time should
come, if it should ever come, when the discoveries and applications of
science shall become familiarized to men, and shall be ready to put on,
as it were, a form of flesh and blood, the Poet will lend his divine spirit
to aid the transfiguration, and will welcome the Being thus produced as
a dear and genuine inmate of the household of man.

Such a poem as ‘McAndrew’s Hymn’ is a masterpiece of realism in
its clear insight into real significance of common things, and in its
magnificent expression of it. Here Mr. Kipling is at his best, revealing
the admirable quality of his imaginative vision and obeying the true
command of his genius. It is not strange that the insistence of his varied
and vigorous talents should often, during youth, when the exercise of
talents is so delightful and so delusive, have interfered with his perfect
obedience to the higher law of his inward being. And the less strange
is it because of the ready acceptance of the work of talent by the world
and by the critics, and their frequent lack of readiness of appreciation
of the novel modes of genius. Moreover, this age of ours, like every
other age, is full of false and misleading doctrines of art, of which the
fallacies are often to be discovered by the artist only through his own
hard experience. But the interested reader of Mr. Kipling’s verse will
not fail to note that almost from the beginning there were indications
of his being possessed by the spirit which, whether it be called realist
or idealist, sees tilings as they are; delights in their aspect; finds the
shows of the earth good, yet recognizes that they all are but veils, con-
cealments, and suggestions of the things better than themselves, of
ideals always to be striven after, never to be attained. The dull-eyed
man finds life dull and the earth unpoetic. He is McAndrew’s ‘damned
ijjit who asks: ‘Mr. McAndrew, don’t you think steam spoils romance
at sea?’ But the poet finds to-day as entertaining as any day that ever
dawned, and man’s life as interesting and as romantic as it ever was in
old times. Yet he is not satisfied; he reveals this human life to himself
as well as to his fellows; he gives to it its form of beauty; but for him-
self there is a something for which he longs, which he seeks for, and
which always eludes him. It is Inis beloved, it is his ideal; it is what Mr.
Kipling, in one of his most beautiful poems, and one in which he gives
expression to his deepest self, calls the True Romance. This poem

Thy face is far from this our war,
Our call and counter-cry,
I shall not find Thee quick and kind,
Nor know Thee till I die:
Enough for me in dreams to see
And touch Thy garments’ hem;
Thy feet have trod so near to God
I may not follow them.

It is this poem which more than any other gives the key to the
interpretation of Mr. Kipling’s work in general, and displays its con-
trolling aim. And more than this, it gives assurance of better work to
come than any which Mr. Kipling has yet achieved. For as with every
man who holds to a high ideal, pursuing it steadily, each step is a step
in advance, so is it with the poet. The imagination, if it be a genuine
faculty, and not a mere quality, is not to be worn out and exhausted by
use. Nay, rather, it grows stronger with exercise; it is constantly quick-
ened by each new experience; its insight becomes deeper and more keen.
It is the poets in whom imagination is a secondary quality who, as they
grow old, fail to equal their youthful selves. But the poets whose
imagination is the essence of their being lose nothing, but gain always
with advance of years. They are the real idealists.

I have said too little, in what precedes, concerning the gifts possessed
by Mr. Kipling which would be matters of chief consideration with a
minor poet—gifts subsidiary to his imagination, though dependent on
it for their excellence—the frequent perfect mating of word with
sentinient, the graphic epithet, the force, freedom, directness, and
simplicity of diction, the exquisite movement and flow of rhythm, the
felicity of rhyme. It would be easy to illustrate these qualities of his
poetry by the selection of verses in which they are displayed; but there
is little need to do so, for the poems are already familiar, not only to the
readers of poetry, but to many who have hardly read any other verse.
The Barrack-Room Ballads, set to old tunes, are already sung wherever
the British soldier plants his camp. The correspondent of the London
Times, who accompanied the recent expedition to Dongola, told in one
of his letters how, while he was writing, he heard the soldiers outside
his tent singing one of Kipling’s songs.

The study of the forms of Mr. Kipling’s verse must be left for some
other occasion. It is enough now gratefully to recognize that he con-
tinues the great succession of royal English poets, and to pay to him the
homage which is his due.