The Stranger

(notes by John Radcliffe and Daniel Hadas)

Publication

First published with the article “Newspapers and Democracy” in the Morning Post on April 2nd 1908, one of eight “Letters to the Family” on Kipling’s visit to Canada in 1907. ORG No. 914

Collected in

  • Songs from Books (1912)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition Vol. 24 p. 172 and Vol. 34 p. 68
  • Burwash Edition Vols 19 and 27
  • Wordsworth Edition Poems of Rudyard Kipling (2001)
  • Cambridge Edition (2013 Ed. Pinney) p. 714

The poem

Although he was at the height of his fame, awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature that same year, Kipling was in sombre mood durng his visit to Canada in the Autumn of 1907. This is a sombre poem, expressing the belief, which would be widely criticised today as racist, that one must cleave only to people of ones own ‘stock’, in his case Anglo-Saxons. They understand his faults. and he understands theirs, rather than the faults of strangers, whose mind he cannot feel. This was clearly a view held at that time by many Canadians, but also by Kipling himself.

It is hard to believe that this is the same Kipling who wrote vividly of love between an Englishman and a young Indian woman in “Without Benefit of Clergy” (1890), rejoiced in diversity in “The Mother Lodge (1894), expressed a rare sense of universality in Kim (1901), wrote appreciatively of former enemies in “Piet” (1903), and wittily of stereotypes of strangers in “We and They” (1927). He did indeed have ‘two sides to my head’.  {J.R.]

 

Background

This was a time when the Liberals, the anti-imperial party, were in power in Westminster, and the relationship of Britain with her Empire, in particular its defence against potential enemies, was hotly debated. The Imperial Conference of April/May 1907 had ended with no tangible results, partly because the Canadian delegation had blocked every attempt to enlarge and define the Empire’s role. Kipling was clearly very apprehensive about the future.

At the Canadian Club in Winnipeg, he said:

I have, I confess it now, done my best for about twenty years to make all the men of the sister nations within the Empire interested in each other. Because I know that at heart all our men are pretty much alike, in that they have the same problems, the same aspirations, and the same loves, and the same hates; and when all is said and done, we have only each other to depend upon.

And in Toronto, speaking of “Imperial Relations” he said:

Then the question is, are we not in time of peace a little too prone as nations to repeat that blunder in our relations to our fellow-nations throughout the Empire? Put it this way: Are we not each a little too occupied in our immediate present—in time of peace a little too occupied with our immediate present, to take an interest in the potentialities of our neighbours’ future? I say in time of peace, because all the world remembers when one of our community was in distress Canada went to her aid, as Australia went, as New Zealand went, as the Crown colonies went, without one thought of present interests, or politics, or pocket.

A continuing theme during Kipling’s visit was immigration, and in particular the need for over-populated Britain to send more men and women overseas to participate in the growth of Canada. This was a lively issue in Canada at the time, particularly in the West, where there was a shortage of labour, but resistance to Japanese immigration, which had led to violent riots. In an interview with the Toronto Globe Kipling said:

Immigration is what you want in the West. You must have labourers there. You want immigration, and the way to keep the yellow man out is to get the white man in.. .Pump in the immigrants from the Old Country. Pump them in; England has five million of people
to spare.

This is precisely the message he was seeking to convey in this poem.

Andrew Lycett (p. 378) observes:

If Canada had failed as an alternative to South Africa as a country to love, it did at least affirm Rudyard’s Anglo-Saxon tribalism (which today would be described as racialism). His own low spirits contributed to the bleak mood of of ‘The Stranger’, the most enduring of the poems accompanying his articles in the Morning Post.

See also KJ 317 for March 2006, page 19: “Rudyard Kipling’s 1907 cross-Canada speaking tour”, by Dr Jay Johnson, of Medicine Hat College, Alberta; our notes on “When the Great Ark” snd “The Prairie”; and notes on three of the speeches delivered during his tour, together with the text.

Daniel Hadas comments:

“Tribalism” really is a better word than “racism” or “racialism” for Kipling’s attitude in this poem. He’s not arguing for the moral superiority of one race/people over another. On the contrary, the Stranger (i.e. presumably the Japanese immigrant) “may be true or kind” (verse 1), and “bitter bad they”  [the Anglo-Saxons, but presumably also the British Celts] may be” (verse 4).

Kipling’s argument is rather that men of the same origin will understand each other in a way men of different origins will not. This is pretty close to what, in modern immigration politics, we’d call concerns about “integration”. “The men of my own stock” (verse 4) does suggest Kipling sees a genetic root to the differences between peoples, but I doubt this should be pressed too hard. After all, Kipling knew perfectly well of the close genetic links between the English and Germans, and the latter were the objects of his crudest hatred. Kipling’s Five Nations vision of Anglo-Saxon global unity is pretty unappealing, but it’s worth distinguishing from out-and-out racism. I think this helps resolve the paradox spelled out in your introductory notes.

Of course, Kipling shows no awareness that the aboriginal inhabitants of South Africa, Canada, Australia and New Zealand might see the English in just the way he suggests settlers of English stock should view the Japanese. Indeed I think the most marked difference between how Kipling writes about India and how he writes about South Africa, Canada, Australia and New Zealand isn’t in how he thinks about the English themselves, but in his attitude to the native populations. In Kipling’s India, they are omnipresent. In the other countries, they barely exist.[D.H.]

 

Notes on the Text

[Verse 1]

The stranger within my gate an echo of Deuteronomy Chapter 5, verse 14:

The seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God. In it thou shakt not do any work, thou, nor thy son nor thy daugter … nor thy stranger that is within thy gates.

[Verse 5]

all on one vine  See Christ’s parable of the vine at John 15.4-6.

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. A man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.

Just as the disciples are supposed to remain united as branches of the vine of Christ, so the Anglo-Saxons are supposed to remain united as branches of the vine of England. The allusion to “my father” in the next verse further echoes Christ’s frequent discussion in John of His unity with the Father and the disciples’ unity with Him. There’s a hint that English colonists are in the role of Christ, sent out into the world by England in the role of God the Father.  [D.H.]

Ere our children’s teeth .. bread and wine   See Jeremiah 31.29:

In those days they shall say no more, The fathers have eaten a sour grape, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.

The same image is found at Ezechiel 18.2. The “bread and wine” is of course also an allusion to the Eucharist: “bitter bread and wine” is a sort of anti-Communion, breaking the brotherhood of Anglo-Saxons which Kipling is promoting. [D.H.]

 

[J.R./D.H.]

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