Daniel Hadas lectures in Mediaeval Latin at King’s College, London
He has a lifelong interest in Kipling’s poetry.
In 2022, when on leave from my job as a university lecturer, I began a project of reading through the entirety of Kipling’s collected verse, with the assistance of the notes in the Kipling Society’s online Reader’s Guide. I soon began offering my own contributions to the Guide, and have now provided notes on over 300 of Kipling’s poems. What follows is an attempt at an assessment of Kipling’s poetry, written after I finished that project . (This is not the entirety of Kipling’s poetry: “collected verse” refers, in essence, to the poetry Kipling chose to anthologize in his lifetime, and that is now critically edited in volumes 1 and 2 of Thomas Pinney’s Cambridge Edition of the Poems of Rudyard Kipling (Cambridge, 2013). In volume 3 of the edition, Pinney edited the ‘Uncollected Poems’.) I am grateful to the Kipling Society for the gift of Pinney’s above-mentioned edition, to John Radcliffe for editing and publishing my notes, and to Fiachra Mac Góráin for help in improving this essay.
* * *
A Nation spoke to a Nation,
A Queen sent word to a Throne:
‘Daughter am I in my mother’s house,
But mistress in my own.
The gates are mine to open,
As the gates are mine to close,
And I set my house in order,’
Said our Lady of the Snows.
When I was a little boy, my parents acquired a very old copy of Kipling’s fourth volume of poetry, The Five Nations. I have it before me now: “New York. Doubleday, Page & Co. 1907 Copyright,1903, by Rudyard Kipling”. This was a magical book for me, with its mysterious title (what were “The Five Nations”?), its browning, hand-cut pages, and its dark green cover with a sailboat etched in black and the title and author in gold. And then there were the haunting music and countless riddles of its contents. Among its poems, two that particularly fascinated me were ‘The Sea and the Hills’, with its wistful refrain (“So and no otherwise – so and no otherwise – hillmen desire their Hills!”) and the one I have quoted above, ‘‘Our Lady of the Snows’. I could more or less understand the former: I knew what seas and hills were, and had some idea of yearning. But I could make no real sense of the latter: its subtitle, ‘Canadian Preferential Tariff, 1897’, could mean nothing to a child. But I loved it for its incantatory solemnity and indeed for the unanswerable puzzle of what it meant.
Now that I am all grown up, ‘The Sea and the Hills’ still seems a powerful poem. And I am still taken with the music of ‘Our Lady of the Snows’. However – even if I set aside my reflexive discomfort at the latter poem’s lines on how “Soberly under the White Man’s law / My white men go their ways”, I now know only too well what a Preferential Tariff is, and I know that trade tariffs are hardly a subject for which incantatory solemnity is fitting. As often, I find myself wishing Kipling had applied his immense poetic talent to a more worthy theme. But then I reflect that, without his obstinately perverse choices as to what constituted fitting subjects for poetry, Kipling would not be Kipling – that his genius cannot be separated from its flaws.
This will be a recurring theme in what follows, but first two more stories –
When I was in my early twenties, I briefly got to know a man about ten years older than me, who had only recently left a position as an officer in the British army. He had that upright, clean-cut, confident air that marks a man immediately as a soldier. I asked him once in some form to explain life in the army to me. I can no longer remember much of our conversation. However I have not forgotten that he told me that, for the ordinary soldier, matters were still very much as Kipling had written in ‘Tommy’ – the soldier faced public disrespect and disgust until the moment he was needed:
O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an ‘Tommy, go away’;
But it’s ‘Thank you, Mister Atkins,’ when the band begins to play.
Then it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Tommy, ’ow’s yer soul?’
But it’s ‘Thin red line of ’eroes’ when the drums begin to roll’.
More recently, I met a retired professor of literature who, as a work of mercy, would visit very ill and dying patients in hospital, and offer to read them poetry. She said that one of the poems which patients requested most often was ‘If’, and that seeing how its words fortified and revived her listeners had given her a new respect for that poem.
Kipling was the last poet in English to attain mass appeal, and these stories illustrate the durable vestiges of that appeal. Perhaps no poet is truly popular nowadays, but among those English-speakers who have only ever been impressed by a handful of poems, there’s still a good chance several of them will be by Kipling. The stories also demonstrate a prime reason for Kipling’s popularity: he had a great ability to hit the nail on the head, not least because, for better and for worse, he was so often prepared to write with a hammer.
In short, what Orwell wrote of Kipling in 1942 still resonates today: “During five literary generations, every enlightened person has despised him, and at the end of that time nine-tenths of those enlightened persons are forgotten and Kipling is in some sense still there”. Enlightened persons might judge that ‘Tommy’ is a particularly fine and clever music-hall lyric (Kipling would have been delighted, not insulted, by this), but that it is hardly proper poetry. But then again – adjusting for changes in uniform – it truly is, was, and always will be “Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ Tommy go away” in peace-time, and “thin red line of ’eroes” when war comes – and has anyone ever put it better? Enlightened persons may find ‘If’ somewhat facile, somewhat overdone, Stoicism for lonely schoolboys bred for Empire. But then again, can you “meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two impostors just the same”? And if you can’t, don’t you wish you could at least find the fortitude, when you are in the hospital, ill or dying, to see triumph and disaster for the impostors they truly are? And if not, what sort of enlightened person are you anyway?
Both the criticism and the embrace of Kipling’s poetry seem to me to be justified. ‘If’ and ‘Tommy’ say something true and substantial, drawing on Kipling’s vast reservoirs of eloquence, but they are also, as are almost all of Kipling’s poems, uneven. Kipling was rarely reliable in discerning wisely which notes to strike when and which never to strike. A fully successful poem need not be elegant or delightful, but it can never be crass, and Kipling’s poems too often contain crass elements. Few of them are truly awful, but rarer still are those without some lines that jar or repel. This is why, as a whole, Kipling’s prose is more masterful: in prose he is first and foremost a story-teller, and one can forgive a great deal of bad taste in a good story well-told. And this is also why Kipling’s most perfectly realized poems are the Jungle Book lyrics about animals: away from the world of men, the main source of his bad taste – his sillier and more brutal ideas about virtue and politics – could be cut off. But of course animal poems can rarely be more than a minor genre.
Still, I do not think Kipling is a minor poet. He attempted to make poetry do something new, and he tried out countless new tools to achieve that end. For all his reactionary politics, Kipling was one of English poetry’s first modernists. And like so many of modernism’s literary experiments, Kipling’s poetry as a whole can be seen as a sort of magnificent failure, far richer and more thrilling than many a prudent, tasteful success.
* * *
Kipling had poetic gifts which would have made him a natural heir to Keats and Tennyson: a luxuriant visual imagination, a vast command of the English language, a throbbing inner music. But he is nothing like Keats or Tennyson or their imitators. In fact, he is nothing like any other poet before or after him, because his poetic project was so unique.
How best to characterize that project? No one formula can comprise all of Kipling’s poetry, but I suggest that we can make good sense of the nature of his poetic ambitions if we remember that Kipling began his literary career as a journalist, and if we then try to understand Kipling’s poetry as an extension of journalism. By this, I do not at all mean that Kipling aimed to write a sort of rhyming reportage. Rather, I mean that he sought to give poetic form to the spirit and practices that animated the journalism of his day.
Traditionally, the poet seeks out the mental and actual landscapes where poetic inspiration is most easily stimulated: the gleaming world of gods and heroes, the enchanted scenery of mountain and meadow, the inmost recesses of a heart flooded with grief or joy. Poets seek out what is most reliably sublime, or, if they are comic poets, what is most reliably ridiculous. But journalists’ quest is different: their god is the “God of Things as They are”, not just what is most sublime and most ridiculous, but all that lies in between – but above all what is new in the world, what is startling, what is curious and touching and seductive and droll. Journalists must of course report on the great doings in the world, but they know also that “the Captains and the Kings Depart”, and that their great business must share the page with “the tale of common things”, because that tale, if told right, can be no less remarkable, and journalists’ readers are after all common people, who need to hear tales like their own. The ideal journalist is a traveller, an adventurer, an infiltrator. Journalists must understand new people, new places, new things, on their subjects’ own terms, but must also find terms to report back on them which readers will understand. But also, they must be always succinct (Kipling never wrote a poem longer than a few pages) and never dull; they must not care too much about being cheap if it will draw their readers in; they must not fear to dirty their hands with politics.
So Kipling was no frequenter of Wordsworth’s solitary hills and streams or Tennyson’s gauzy fairy-lands. He made himself at home in the engine room of ships, behind the wheel of speeding cars, in the dust and sweat of colonial offices, amidst the stench and squeals of a troop of marching elephants. And, while there have been poets of the battlefield since Homer, and doubtless long before, Kipling stands apart as a poet of the army: the tension and tedium of barracks, the enlisted man’s cocky honour and shameless violence, the chaos and relief brought by ordinary women – no Helens of Troy – in a world of men.
The list could go on – like any committed journalist, Kipling was always on the look-out for a good story. From the sewers of India in 1887 to the snake venom laboratories of Brazil forty years later, Kipling’s muse never ceased to wander, to seek new settings and stories. There was no end to the “extended observation of the ways and works of man”. A list of subject matters for Kipling’s poems would be almost as long as the list of the poems themselves. That is extraordinary for a poet: it resembles business as usual for a journalist.
How did Kipling set about transforming the journalistic mission into a poetic one? We may answer this by noting what is the most remarkable, most unique stylistic feature of Kipling’s poetry: its enormous formal variety. Although most of Kipling’s poems are instantly recognizable as his work, no overall imitation or parody of his poetry is possible. One could write a pastiche of a given poem, but it would not hold as a pastiche of the whole œuvre, because Kipling has no one style or tone. Just as almost every Kipling poem has a new topic, so almost every poem is a new experiment: in structure, in metre, in vocabulary (Kipling loved both dialects and terms of art), and very often in voice. Kipling inherited from Browning the art of the dramatic monologue, but altered and extended it. Browning’s speakers are alter egos of the poet himself, or characters of high drama. Kipling’s characters, while still usually expressing ways of thinking the poet shared or admired, are not painters, dukes and cardinals, but poor soldiers and shipmen and officers’ wives and children and cavemen and smugglers and wild beasts and buoys and dynamos and so forth. And each must have their own thoughts and language, different from all the rest.
This is the great fascination of Kipling’s verse: this bold affirmation that poetry was everywhere, that a poetic voice could be found for everything that stimulated the journalist and his readers. Of course, many of the experiments failed, or turned out odd. But how gripping, how heart-rending are the successes. Listen for instance to the bell buoy, speaking of his brother the church-tower bell:
When the smoking scud is blown –
When the greasy wind-rack lowers –
Apart and at peace and alone,
He counts the changeless hours.
He wars with darkling Powers
(I war with a darkling sea);
Would he stoop to my work in the gusty mirk?
(Shoal! ’Ware Shoal!) Not he!
Or again the demobbed soldier, back in England, longing for his lost girl in the East:
I am sick o’ wastin’ leather on these gritty pavin’-stones,
An’ the blasted English drizzle wakes the fever in my bones;
Tho’ I walks with fifty ’ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand,
An’ they talks a lot o’ lovin, but wot do they understand?
Beefy face an’ grubby ’and –
Law! wot do they understand?
I’ve a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ’crost the bay.
This last quote summons Orwell’s remark that “one can often improve Kipling’s poems, make them less facetious and less blatant, by simply going through them and translating them from Cockney into standard speech”. This is to miss the point. Unquestionably, Kipling’s Cockney and other dialects can grate, but his aim in using them was to give poetic expression to voices easily thought incapable of poetry. Altering those voices into “proper” English would have been to traduce them.
Of course, a real demobbed soldier would hardly express himself in the careful architecture of ‘Mandalay’. But to find a way to build such structures around the soldier’s voice, and around a myriad other such voices and themes from beyond poetry’s usual domain – this was the core of Kipling’s project.
* * *
Journalism is not one of the fine arts, and so, inevitably, the journalistic impetus of Kipling’s poetry is also the source of deep flaws. These do not lie in the varying degrees of failure in his experiments with finding new poetic idioms for his new landscapes. We cannot have expected every such experiment to succeed, and we can look clemently on what goes wrong, in much the way we forgive an overworked conceit in Donne, or an excess of arcane symbolism in Yeats. But far less kindness is due to Kipling’s importation into poetry of certain forms of shallowness which are besetting sins of journalism.
The first of these is the indulgence of the facile effect, the glib catchphrase, the comforting cliché – of kitsch. Journalism is prone to such indulgences by its very nature: they provoke an ephemeral but reliable emotional reaction, and such reactions are one way to ensure that readers will be drawn to so ephemeral a form of writing.
Kipling’s use of such charms is peculiar, because it is flavoured with machismo (one senses he almost set himself as an aim to write only poems which one could recite in the enlisted men’s, or at worst the officers’, mess without being called a pansy). But macho kitsch is still kitsch. Kipling’s poems are studded with hollow maxims, superficial sentiments, cut-out characters, nudging jocularity, and meretricious jingles. Far too often, the grave wisdom of the lama from Kim is marred by the empty bonhomie of the absent-minded beggar.
One example will serve: Kipling’s famed short dirge for the young dead of the First World War, ‘My Boy Jack’, often thought to have been written as a lament for the battlefield death of his own son John. This poem, with the haunting simplicity of its maritime refrain, is in part a dignified, truthful expression of the ocean of grief the war poured over the Western world:
‘Have you heard news of my boy Jack?’
Not this tide.
‘When d’you think that he’ll come back?’
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.
But by the third stanza another note intrudes itself:
‘‘Oh dear, what comfort can I find?’
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind –
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.
“He did not shame his kind” – one need not begrudge Kipling or any war-bereaved parent whatever personal comfort they may have found in such cardboard sentiments, to see that they spoil the purity of the dirge. Kipling is evoking the Massacre of the Innocents:
In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not (Matthew 2.18).
That evocation is entirely fitting to the massacres of modern wars. But to then undercut it by suggesting that, unlike the mothers of Bethlehem, those of England will in fact be comforted, comforted by pride in their “kind” and in their national honour – this is to insert a recruiting slogan into the desolation of parental grief. It is true enough that such jingoistic rhetoric is what propels war onwards, what sends new tides to sweep away millions more Jacks. But Kipling – a man so often eager to embrace war as a necessity – is here celebrating, not lamenting, that rhetoric.
It is not of course the case that all of Kipling’s maxims are hollow, that all his jokes are trivial, all his patriotism shallow. His aphorisms, his humour, and his love of place are among the best features of his poetry and prose. But corrupt, cheapened versions of these strengths are also to be found on almost every page of his verse.
Secondly, not every journalist’s report gets beneath the surface of its subject. Moreover, the sort of adventurous, immersive work that does so, and that drove Kipling’s poetry, is very often a task best suited to the young. Accordingly, Kipling’s poetic powers diminished substantially in his later years. While he never stopped exploring, through travel and through reading, he ceased to see as keenly, to feel as sharply, in reaction to these explorations. Kipling perhaps felt this diminishment himself: after The Five Nations, in 1903, he published – leaving aside anthologies of older work – only one substantial book of verse (The Years Between, in 1919), and most of his new poems were written as accompaniments to his short stories. To be sure, just as he wrote weak poems in his youth, Kipling continued to write fine ones throughout his life: his gifts for language and imagery never left him. But the bulk of his most memorable and powerful verse is from his early years.
Above all, in verse as in prose, Kipling was most often at his best when writing about India, which he left once and for all in 1889, and gradually ceased to write about thereafter. It was in India that Kipling could exercise his journalistic talent to the fullest. He had the courage and exuberance of youth on his side. And he was both enough of an insider to understand much, and enough of an outsider to make what he understood legible to the world outside. Kipling’s India, for all that he left out or saw askew, will always be his greatest literary creation.
The best journalism must always report not just on large-scale happenings, but on individual men and women. So it fits that Kipling’s India poems, and his earlier poems in general, differ from his later work in their more frequent and more vivid presentation of individuals.Gunga Din, Tomlinson, Jack Barrett, the rival ladies of ‘My Rival’, the seamen of ‘Mulholland’s Contract’, ‘The Mary Gloster’ and ‘McAndrew’s Hymn’, Mohammed Khan the warlord, men and women (and, in the Jungle Book poems, even animals), with their own stories and personalities, imagined with penetrating sympathy. Nor is the best of the early verse found only in character vignettes: Kipling mixed these single stories with pictures of the wider world in which they were set, and meditations on that world. That indeed is what the very best journalism does.
However, already, in The Five Nations, we find the eponymous nations (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Britain) to be strangely thinned out of individuals and individual stories. Instead we get abstract symbols for whole populations (“Our Lady of the Snows” is in fact Canada) and symbolic characters – often enough the white man, taking up his burden. In the later Sussex poems, individuals do return, but they are largely shadowy figures from history and tales. Again, while Kipling wrote much about the Boer War, and sojourned in South Africa at some length, his South African poems tell few tales of individual Boers or Englishmen, while the black and coloured population is almost invisible. For Kipling to have written of an India without Indians is unimaginable, so the fact that the non-white population could be rendered invisible in his South African poems is a measure of how much he had narrowed the breadth of his journalistic mission and vision.
A remedy would have been for the older Kipling to turn inwards, to abandon his exploration of the outside world in favour of giving poetic expression to the sorrow and self-knowledge that may come with age. But in his verse, with a few, very late, exceptions (for instance ‘At his Execution‘, ‘Hymn to Physical Pain‘) Kipling was singularly unwilling to do this. Perhaps this inner turn would have been too painful: the last great tragedy of Kipling’s life, the death of his son John in the war, was a poison for which he never found an antidote that brought the necessary conditions for “emotion recollected in tranquillity”.FWhite Man
The war brings us to the last, great flaw, in Kipling’s poetry: his tendency to reduce poetry to a form of political pamphleteering. Journalism inevitably bleeds into politics. But if journalism debases itself when it puts political manipulation before truthful reporting, this is all the more so for poetry, whose beauty can never be separated from its commitment to truth.
Kipling liked to say that he wrote not poetry, but “verse”. This was a way of indicating that he knew full well, and celebrated, that so many of his poems were more likely to meet the approval of those who heard them sung at the music-hall or encountered them first in a daily newspaper, than of would-be experts in literary aesthetics. Now, we need not be bamboozled by this distinction: Kipling was no W. S. Gilbert, and many of his richest poems are couched in his jauntier modes. However where poetry becomes a tool of propaganda, it really does begin to be mere “verse” – mere politics in rhyme. And this strain of verse propaganda is only too insistent in Kipling – in ‘The White Man’s Burden’, ‘For All We Have and Are’, ‘The Question’, ‘A Death-Bed’, and many, many other poems. In fairness, Kipling is rarely an obvious propagandist: his idiosyncrasies and profuse imagination render even many of his most unrestrainedly partisan verses gripping. One may well scoff today at such famous phrases as “new-caught, sullen peoples, / Half devil and half child”, or “The Hun is at the gate!”, but one does not easily forget them. Nevertheless, the more Kipling puts politics before poetry in his verse, the more the final product is at bottom disgusting.
This disgust is in part owed to political poetry of any stripe. However no more now than in Orwell’s time can the substance of Kipling’s politics be sidestepped in an assessment of his poetry. In a way, this is a testimony to the intensity of his journalistic commitment – Kipling’s attention went to the great changes in his world, changes which have proved so significant that Kipling’s understanding of them can still make readers angry almost nine decades after his death. Kipling’s views on empire and war may offend widely today, but at least the reality of empire and war was impressed deeply on his consciousness. In contrast, one may read the bulk of canonical nineteenth-century English verse and prose, from Austen and Byron through to Hardy and Swinburne, and gain only the dimmest awareness that Britain even was a great military power, with a world-spanning empire. Thus any distaste at Kipling’s politics must be tempered by the acknowledgement that his political passions are inseparable from the breadth of vision which drove him to bring this vast swathe of British reality into the mainstream of English letters. Ironically, for a writer so out of sympathy with the left’s emphasis on material class conflict, Kipling was never bourgeois enough, never detached enough from the global web into which were spun England’s material realities, as to narrow his focus to exclude war and empire: “What should they know of England who only England know?” Kipling had seen “half Creation damning half Creation’s eyes”, and he was determined to report back on both halves. He undertook this reporting as a supporter of the British empire and British militarism, and his understanding was always filtered through this support. Still at least he saw that war and empire mattered and needed to be understood.
Nor must we deform Kipling’s political stance into a tub-thumping caricature. Again and again, his racism is trumped by his fascination with the variety and universal brotherhood of mankind; his bellicosity by his keen grasp of the savagery of war and military life; his triumphalism by a never distant note of sorrow and pain.
Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
The man who arranged for the war cemeteries of the Great War to be spaces of sober grieving, laid out without regard for rank, creed, or colour, cannot be reduced to a war-mongering, bigoted brute.
Rather, what is ultimately cloying about Kipling’s politics is their naivety. Beyond one’s stance towards any given position of his, Kipling’s overall politics are incessantly childish. Orwell wrote that Kipling “never had any grasp of the economic forces underlying imperial expansion”, and his grasp of political forces was also rudimentary. His understanding of why Britain had and deserved an empire amounted to little more than the notion that the British were at their best particularly gallant and tough, so that it could be a blessing to be ruled by them, while he reduced European politics to a child’s game of goodies (Britain, France) against baddies (Russia, and above all the hated Germany). Those who disagreed with such views were then nothing but cowards, liars and shirkers. In all of this, Kipling was not so much wicked as superficial, and this superficiality inevitably infected every poem where it was expressed.
Of course, Kipling, at his best, could be childlike, rather than childish. He could find a true communion with the child’s purity of heart, so that the best of his work for children is among his most perfect creations. But politics and wars are not children’s affairs. Hence Kipling’s political poetry leaves a worse taste than the mere time-serving found in the court poetry of a Virgil or Dryden. It is, once again, the taste of kitsch.
Kipling may have been a political naïf, but in literature he was shrewd. He seems to have had no interest in such destructive innovators as Joyce and Eliot, younger contemporaries for whom he paved the way (Orwell’s famous 1942 essay on Kipling, from which I quote repeatedly above, was published as a review of Eliot’s anthology of Kipling’s poetry. Kipling’s ‘absent-minded beggar’ is one of the many ghosts haunting the pages of Ulysses). But he was fully conscious of his own poetic innovation and rule-breaking. For this he made no apologies, but he did write several robust defences, themselves fine examples of his unique blend of arcane vocabulary, oblique lyricism, and breezy story-telling:
In the Neolithic Age savage warfare did I wage
For food and fame and woolly horses’ pelt.
I was singer to my clan in that dim, red Dawn of Man,
And I sang of all we fought and feared and felt.
Yea, I sang as now I sing, when the Prehistoric spring
Made the piled Biscayan ice-pack split and shove;
And the troll and gnome and dwerg, and the Gods of Cliff and Berg
Were about me and beneath me and above.
But a rival, of Solutré, told the tribe my style was outré —
‘Neath a tomahawk, of diorite, he fell.
And I left my views on Art, barbed and tanged, below the heart
Of a mammothistic etcher at Grenelle.
Then I stripped them, scalp from skull, and my hunting-dogs fed full,
And their teeth I threaded neatly on a thong;
And I wiped my mouth and said, “It is well that they are dead,
For I know my work is right and theirs was wrong.”
But my Totem saw the shame; from his ridgepole-shrine he came,
And he told me in a vision of the night: —
‘There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
And every single one of them is right!’
Still the world is wondrous large,—seven seas from marge to marge—
And it holds a vast of various kinds of man;
And the wildest dreams of Kew are the facts of Khatmandhu,
And the crimes of Clapham chaste in Martaban.
Here’s my wisdom for your use, as I learned it when the moose
And the reindeer roamed where Paris roars to-night:—
‘There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
Or again –in ‘The Conundrum of the Woekshops‘:
When the flush of a new-born sun fell first on Eden’s green and gold,
Our father Adam sat under the Tree and scratched with a stick in the mould;
And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart,
Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves, ‘It’s pretty, but is it Art ?’
Did Kipling do it right? Is it art? The devil whispers these questions to every critical reader of Kipling’s poetry. Orwell resorted to the conclusion that Kipling is a “good bad poet”. I have tried to set out the view that he is something more – a good poet with particularly anti-poetical flaws. But I think Kipling would have laughed or shrugged at much of my censorious assessment. He would however – I believe – have liked its opening memories, just as he would have been happy to know how widely his poetry is still read and studied in India. If some of his poems still retain their power to give delight and comfort to children, to soldiers, to the agonizing, and to the people of his native land, then he has created tribal lays that are indeed “right” for some of the tribes he loved most. Any further judgment could be referred to the highest Judge, who would give him all eternity to remedy any poetical sins committed in this fallen world:
When Earth’s last picture is painted and the tubes are twisted and dried,
When the oldest colours have faded, and the youngest critic has died,
We shall rest, and, faith, we shall need it — lie down for an aeon or two,
Till the Master of All Good Workmen shall put us to work anew.
And only The Master shall praise us, and only The Master shall blame;
And no one shall work for money, and no one shall work for fame,
But each for the joy of the working, and each, in his separate star,
Shall draw the Thing as he sees It for the God of Things as They are!
Daniel Hadas, September 2023