Joseph S. Salemi
The first thing that strikes one about Rudyard Kipling’s poetry is how much of it there is. If anyone suffered from the itch of cacoëthes scribendi, it was this writer. There are no less than 544 individual poems in the definitive edition of Kipling’s Complete Verse put out by Anchor Press Doubleday in 1989, and probably more will turn up. The man had a facility for verse-making that never failed. And all this is separate from the journalism, sketches, tales, and novels which make up the other pillars of his literary reputation.
There’s an additional and crucially important fact about Kipling: he was popular. No English poet since Lord Byron had such a wide and appreciative audience. His work was accessible, interesting, strongly patriotic, and with a down-to-earth, common-sense quality that is quintessentially English. Kipling was the voice of John Bull—the tough soldiery and yeomanry on whom the British Empire was built, and on whose ramrods, guts, and sinews it was maintained. He has to be understood as the literary expression of an England diametrically opposed to that of Pre-Raphaelitism, Oscar Wilde, decadence, and fin-de-siècle languors. Lavender and mauve were not Kipling’s colors. His were khaki, and the Union Jack.
Kipling is hated today, with the kind of open, unvarnished, venomous hatred that the left reserves for any champion of imperialism, military might, and national pride. I doubt if one could find a single academic course offered on his work anywhere in an American or British school. He is most frequently dismissed as a “versifier” (a fey T.S. Eliot came up with this stupid description) and therefore not worthy of serious study. But that judgment is purely an excuse to cover up the sheer rage that Kipling’s poetry can generate among left-liberals. It’s not just that he’s an unapologetic conservative and that his work is excellent. It’s that his popularity endures. Several years ago a survey was taken in Britain asking people what their favorite poem was. Kipling’s “If” was named by the vast majority as their choice. The irate bafflement of Britain’s po-biz establishment knew no bounds.
Kipling was born in Bombay, India in 1865, to English parents. His father, a sculptor and professor of architectural design, was the principal of an art school in that city. As a small child Kipling was bilingual in English and the native tongue of his Indian nurses and nannies, and he freely admitted that in those early years he was more fluent in the latter language, and spoke English somewhat hesitantly with his mother and father. Throughout his life he never ceased to think of himself as an Anglo-Indian, and a proud son of the Imperial British Raj.
Children born to British parents in India were normally sent home to be educated. The five-year-old Kipling and his younger sister spent six unpleasant years in a boarding house in Portsmouth. Their mother rescued them in 1877, and in the following year Kipling matriculated at a military services college, in preparation for a possible career in the British Army. His family could not afford to send him to Oxford, so his father arranged an editorial job for his sixteen-year-old son on a newspaper in Lahore, India. This was to be his first professional writing experience.
Kipling was born to write. He might as well have had a pen grafted permanently to his hand. In those years at Lahore he poured out a steady stream of journalism, sketches, short stories, essays, and individual poems. By the time he returned to England he was already well known as an energetic and vigorous young author with a hard-hitting colloquial style. His first book of poems was Departmental Ditties, published in 1886—an amazing production for a youth of twenty-one. The book was later republished with another collection of verse from those same early years, Barrack-Room Ballads, so it’s best to consider them together.
Departmental Ditties and Barrack-Room Ballads make up a wonderful collection of comical, facetious, and wryly sarcastic pieces, many of them in delightfully tripping non-iambic meters. They touch upon bureaucratic mishaps, the travails of military life, gossipy anecdotes, and depictions of Indian culture and habits. Sometimes they deal with the absurdity, sometimes the glory, and often the sheer excitement and strangeness of colonial existence. A characteristic poem is “A Code of Morals,” about how a young British officer on duty in the field uses the military heliograph code to send messages to his wife, warning her of the erotic entrapments of a certain Lieutenant-General:
Jones had left his new-wed bride to keep his house in order,
warned her ’gainst seductive youths in scarlet clad and gold,
The poem goes on to describe how his heliographed messages are intercepted by the General Staff’s intelligence service, and how embarrassing facts about General Bangs and his immoral private life thereby become common knowledge in that military unit. This is only one example of Kipling’s anti-authoritarian streak, and his dislike of hypocrisy, pomposity, and bureaucratic ineptitude. Another is a poem (“Pagett, M.P.”) concerning an arrogant Member of Parliament who comes on an official visit to India with all sorts of stupid, preconceived notions about what life is like in the Raj. The poem recounts how the sheer ferocity of Indian hot weather reduces the M.P. to near-fatal exhaustion:
Pagett, M.P., was a liar, and a fluent liar therewith, —
began with the punkah, coolies, and prickly-heat—
reached a hundred and twenty once in the Court at noon,
laughed as I drove from the station, but the mirth died out on my lips
Such poem are wryly comical, but many others in this early collection entwine their humor with serious and sometimes unpleasant tones. The prime example of this is “Danny Deever,” which recounts the hanging of one British soldier for the murder of another. In the form of a clipped dialogue between a Colour-Sergeant and a troop of soldiers detailed to witness the execution, the poem is as real as a tape recording of the British military in the 1890s:
are the bugles blowin’ for?” said Files-on-Parade.
cot was right-’and cot to mine,” said Files-on-Parade.
The best known of Kipling’s soldier-poems is “Gunga Din,” a mixed-meter poem about a humble water-bearer who saved the speaker’s life (at the cost of his own) in the rifle-fire of a skirmish. It was even the basis of a famous movie of the same name, made soon after Kipling’s death in 1936. Written in the common speech of a simple soldier, it’s a gritty and down-to-earth portrait of comradeship based on bravery in battle. I can only quote a little:
may talk o’ gin and beer
shan’t forgit the night
In the third line of the poem the term “penny-fights” refers to mock combats staged for training purposes in the British military; and “Aldershot” is Kipling’s nonce verb meaning “to serve on garrison duty” in the English army base at Aldershot in Hampshire. Both are meant to contrast with the real and dangerous fighting that a soldier must eventually face. The speaker recognizes, at the end of the poem, that Gunga Din, despite his inferior and subservient position, was “a better man” than him. And it puts the lie to the fashionable idea that Kipling was a “racist,” or whatever cant term is now employed to describe white persons who refuse to apologize for their heritage. Kipling judges Gunga Din not by his “blackface,” but by his heroism.
Another poem in this same mode is the magnificent “Fuzzy-Wuzzy,” a heptameter poem in the voice of a British veteran of a campaign of the Soudan Expeditionary Force during the Mahdist wars of the 1880s. The speaker relates how his unit faced the “Fuzzy-Wuzzies” (a fierce Soudanese warrior tribe), and he compliments them on their bravery and prowess as fighters. He mentions several other enemies that the British army had fought, and how combat with them was difficult and costly, but that these enemies were nothing compared to “Fuzzy-Wuzzy”:
’ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, at your ’ome in the Soudan;
’ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, an’ the missis and the kid;
Kipling expresses the genuine admiration that good soldiers have for
each other, even when facing each other across opposing lines. In the
second quatrain, the word “Martinis” refers to the Martini-Henry rifle,
a breech-loading firearm that was then standard issue in the British
military. The Soudanese warriors had mostly swords, spears, and less
effective firearms, and nevertheless their attacks broke the celebrated
British square—a formidable field deployment of soldiery that was
considered almost impossible to smash. The poem combines the speaker’s
deep pride in British arms with a genuine appreciation for the valor and
fighting skill of an enemy:
’ere’s to you Fuzzy-Wuzzy, an’ your friends which are no more,
Without a doubt, Kipling’s most eloquent piece on soldiering is “The Widow at Windsor,” a poem that is both a statement of imperial pride, and a plangent elegy for the British dead. The “widow” is Queen Victoria, long-reigning monarch for whom the armed forces fight. They maintain and extend her far-flung empire, at the cost of their blood and death. Here are some passages:
you ’eard o’ the Widow at Windsor
There’s ’er nick on the cavalry ’orses,
’ere’s to the Widow at Windsor,
wide o’ the Widow at Windsor,
Kipling was well aware that the life of a British soldier in the Raj was one where suffering and death hung in the air, like the oppressive Indian heat. His poem “The Young British Soldier” gives much practical advice to the new recruit, in the voice of a toughened veteran who tells the young fellow what to do and what to avoid. He is warned to hold back on strong drink, to keep clear of disease, to obey all orders, and even what sort of woman to marry. But the real power of the poem comes in the concluding stanzas:
first under fire an’ you’re wishful to duck
’arf of your bullets fly wide in the ditch,
your officer’s dead and the sergeants look white,
you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
The last stanza is brutal in its description of Afghan barbarity, and this is why so much of Kipling’s poetry had an electric effect in Victorian England. Readers had not been prepared for this kind of gritty realism. The British army had to face exactly this sort of foreign savagery wherever it was sent, and sometimes suicide was the only way out for a helplessly wounded man. No one spoke of it except Kipling, who was the sole voice of “Tommy Atkins,” the stereotypical British trooper.
Another poem in the same vein is “The Grave of the Hundred Head,” which narrates how a young British subaltern officer is killed by a sniper in Burma, and how his native Burmese troops take vengeance on the rebel village where the sniper was hidden and supported. They attack it on their own initiative, destroying the place, decapitating fifty men, and piling up their heads in a monument on top of the subaltern’s grave. It’s a wonderful tale of requital, and how terrorism must be treated if an empire is to survive.
Kipling loved to write about animals, and many poems dealing with them are found in his stories. One of the best appeared in his second Jungle Book, and is in the voice of an older wolf giving advice to a wolf-cub. The poem is “The Law of the Jungle,” and it begins thus:
this is the Law of the Jungle—as old and as true as the sky;
the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk the Law runneth forward and
The couplets in paired triple meter are pithy, and sinewed with unquestioned authority. The speaking wolf goes on to lay down sixteen basic laws that every pack member must follow without question or debate. Here are a few:
Kill of the Pack is the meat of the Pack. Ye must eat where it lies.
Lair-Right is the right of the Mother. From all of her year she may
may kill for yourselves, and your mates, and your cubs as they need, and
Because of his age and his cunning, because of his gripe and his paw,
What delights many a reader about this poem is its straightforward, apodictic certainty. No hesitations, no second thoughts, no mindless “dialogue.” The speaker’s voice is as absolute as the Decalogue, or a Roman senatorial decree. And this quality is what makes Kipling so appealing in a time such as ours, when we are all officially urged to be mealy-mouthed rabbits, lest we offend somebody.
Kipling was well known for his skill in ballad meter—an easy form on the surface, but one that demands an acute sensitivity to rhythm. Let me quote from an 1893 piece, “The Merchantmen,” which shows his uncanny ability to capture a seafaring style. Here’s a merchant seaman describing some of the frightening marine apparitions he has faced:
Beyond all outer charting
Strange consorts rode beside us
heard the Midnight Leadsman
Kipling was no seaman, but note his expert manipulation of nautical terms (land-lights, witch-fire, vane, truck, bunt, gasket) combined with references to ghostly phenomena like The Swimmer, The Midnight Leadsman, and the Isle of Ghosts. This is what a real poet does. He has no need to use his personal experiences, but can create imagined experiences out of whole cloth. This is what is meant by fictive mimesis, which is the heart and soul of literature.
Kipling married an American woman in 1892, and for several years resided with his wife and three children in Vermont. His reputation was now world-wide, and he produced a steady stream of novels, short story collections, children’s books, and verse. But a family dispute with a drunken in-law and the subsequent negative publicity that it generated, along with the death in 1899 of one of his young daughters, embittered him. He had experienced America at first as a place of exuberant freedom that allowed him the time and the leisure to do his best work. Amazing texts like the two Jungle Books, Captains Courageous, and The Seven Seas come from this period of his life. But Kipling also discovered America’s provincialism, its tendency to groupthink, its chronic anti-British animus, and its stifling demand for intellectual conformism. He returned to England with his family, and never left.
In some respects Kipling’s American experience changed him. He had always been fiercely patriotic, but his confrontation with American hostility towards British foreign policy made him an even more stalwart Englishman. The loss of his daughter to pneumonia (the result of a forced and unnecessary trip back over the seas to the United States) was something that marked him forever, and was an ominous prelude to the more shattering loss of his only son in the First World War. The tone of his poetry became more strident, more aggressive, more “in-your-face,” as the new vulgarism puts it. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907, and his name was a household word throughout English-speaking nations. He had no financial worries, as the royalties from his manifold writings gave him plenty of amplitude. But he had been through a wringer that squeezed out much of his joie de vivre.
One thing to note especially about Kipling is his utter refusal to speak other than straightforwardly and plainly, with no tolerance whatsoever for cant, mealy-mouthed pieties, or sugar-coated evasions. Part of this is due to his frequent use of the persona of a common soldier in his poems, but this is not the main source of the habit. He was a timid and shy child who had been seriously maltreated by foster parents, and who had afterwards attended a tough military prep school that had a tradition of hazing new students, and where senior students could make life very difficult for underclassmen. In such a rigorous atmosphere, it was essential for Kipling to become tough himself, and to face reality without flinching. He was small, weak in body, and nearsighted. If he had failed to develop a thick hide, or had shown cowardice or evasiveness, he would have been eaten alive. Instead he became consciously stern and hard-boiled. This is evidenced in his love for the masculine side of things, and his distrust of anything effeminate, weak, epicene, or lacking in the honor and simplicity of a manly handshake. And it has much to do with the alleged “misogyny” of some of his work.
Kipling’s poem “The Female of the Species” is often put forward as an example of his anti-feminine bias. But in fact this is due to a willful misreading of the text. Consider the first three quatrains:
the Himalayan peasant meets the he-bear in his pride,
Nag the basking cobra hears the careless foot of man,
the early Jesuit fathers preached to Hurons and Choctaws,
Here Kipling begins with an observed phenomenon—that in the animal kingdom (humans included) a pitiless savagery is often noted in the female sex that is not necessarily present in the male. The poem goes on to expatiate at some length on the reason for this:
a bear in most relations—worm and savage otherwise, —
the Woman that God gave him, every fiber of her frame
The poem develops this point at some length. The inborn task of a female is to protect her offspring, and nothing else on earth matters to her. No law, no abstract sense of justice, no compromise can stand in the way of this primal reality, and for this reason she must be “more deadly than the male.” There is no “misogyny” here, just a statement of simple biological fact. When feminists adduce this poem as proof that Kipling hated women, I can only wonder about their personal attitudes towards children and childbearing.
Another poem that raises feminist hackles is “The Betrothal,” a delightful piece in the voice of a bachelor who has been handed an ultimatum by his fiancée Maggie: give up cigars, or give up her. It’s in twenty-five hexameter couplets, perfect in their rhythmic flow. I can quote just a sample:
the old cigar-box, get me a Cuba stout,
quarreled about Havanas—we fought o’er a good cheroot,
the old cigar-box—let me consider anew—
million surplus Maggies are willing to bear the yoke;
me another Cuba—I hold to my first-sworn vows.
Note Kipling’s perfect ease with non-iambic meters. The absolute colloquial fluency of his line is unfailing. He wrote to be read aloud, to be heard, and to be sung. He has a formidable command of diction but there is never anything precious, or obscure, or recherché in his language. And this straightforwardness in Kipling is part of his appeal to the common reader, and part of the reason he was so hated by the subsequent generation of modernists and their descendants. For modernism made a great pretense of avoiding Victorian ornamentation and getting back to everyday speech, and thereby reconnecting with a contemporary audience. That pretense was a sham. Modernism turned much of today’s poetry into something unpleasant, impenetrable, narcissistic, and fraudulently mysterious. Kipling, however, had already shown poets how to speak to the common man, in clear, mature, and supple English.
Let me end by mentioning what is probably Kipling’s most characteristic poem, “The Gods of the Copybook Headings.” It is a late composition (1919) that encapsulates the poet’s world-view and basic attitudes. The phrase “copybook headings” refers to the short moral sayings or maxims that in the past were frequently printed in cursive script at the top of every page of a young schoolboy’s notebook. The student was expected to copy out the saying (it was always in the form of a brief and pithy sentence) several times, as a way to improve his handwriting, and to impress upon his mind an ethical truth. It could be very simple, like Let prudence attend all your actions, or One’s honor is easily lost, or The good child is ever obedient.
Kipling’s poem presents a commentary of opposition and contrast. He speaks of the gods of the copybook headings as tried and true realities that correspond to actual life and human interaction, and places them as enemies to the “gods of the market-place.” These latter are modern ideas that seem trendy and chic and up-to-date, but which are in fact false and pernicious. The modern world has fallen prey to these false gods, and has neglected the perennial truths that the gods of the copybook teach. Let’s look at a few passages:
pass through my incarnations in every age and race,
were living in trees when they met us. They showed us each in turn
The meaning here is as clear as crystal. The copybook headings teach us simple but precious truths, while we human beings, in our fashion-conscious stupidity, are tempted by silly dreams and visions. Kipling uses the key term “Uplift” here, which in the early twentieth century was a catchall jargon word for progressivism, moral improvement, utopian hopes, advanced ideas, bourgeois piety, democracy, the onward march of civilization, and all the rhetorical baggage of sentimental liberalism. Here in America H.L. Mencken frequently used the same term “uplift” contemptuously and sarcastically, and that is exactly what Kipling is doing. “Uplift, Vision, and Breadth of Mind” represent the gaseous and glassy-eyed idealism that he scorns. The poem continues:
the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
the first Femininian Sandstones we were promised the Fuller Life
the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
These three quatrains all have specific political references, disguised as allusions to geological strata. The “Cambrian measures” refers to a politician from Wales (Cambria) named Lloyd George, who was connected with certain utopian plans for disarmament. The “Femininian Sandstones” refers to feminism and the suffragette movement, which was not merely a campaign for voting rights, but also closely connected with the clamor for easy divorce, free love, sexual equality, and a host of other trendy notions. The “Carboniferous Epoch” refers to the growing trade-unionist movement, in which coal miners were heavily represented, and which was in bed with the more radical forms of socialism that agitated for deep cultural changes in British life, including massive income redistribution. Kipling saw all of these movements as pernicious, short-sighted, and crackpot. They went against the age-old realities of enmity and warfare, the polarity of male and female roles, and the rights of property. These “gods of the market-place” are false gods, and are rooted in nothing but malice and fantasy. But people wanted them, because the Gods of the Copybook Headings did not allow for idle dreaming:
the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch.
the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards
poem shows Kipling at his characteristic best—the sane, sensible,
down-to-earth Englishman who has no truck with brainless dreamers and
political radicals. He was the last of a generation of Europeans who
were not ashamed of their achievements and superiority, and who did not
treat literature as a hospital ward for the perverse and the deranged.
He used with pride the language that had been handed down to him, and
did not attempt to strangle it into something new or strange or alien.
Naturally his reputation has sunk into oblivion in our dark age, but
persons will remember and recite him long after the tsunami of sewage
that engulfs us now is just a bad memory.
I should note here that when I was planning this essay, I carried a large volume of Kipling’s poetry with me as I rode to work on the Manhattan subway. I would read it and make notes in the margins. One afternoon some meddlesome jerk sat next to me. He was the typical epicene millennial Manhattanite with a row of political campaign pins on his lapel, sporting a bizarre haircut, and wearing the usual black turtleneck and Birkenstock sandals. He turned to me and said (in that insufferably patronizing tone that marks one as a left-wing virtue signaler) “I didn’t think anybody read Kipling anymore!” I gave him a wry smile, and turned back to the text. I can only imagine how Kipling would have savagely handled this jackass in a poem.
Joseph S. Salemi has published poems, translations, and scholarly articles in over one hundred journals throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. His four collections of poetry are Formal Complaints and Nonsense Couplets, issued by Somers Rocks Press, Masquerade from Pivot Press, and The Lilacs on Good Friday from The New Formalist Press. He has translated poems from a wide range of Greek and Roman authors, including Catullus, Martial, Juvenal, Horace, Propertius, Ausonius, Theognis, and Philodemus. In addition, he has published extensive translations, with scholarly commentary and annotations, from Renaissance texts such as the Faunus poems of Pietro Bembo, The Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, and the Latin verse of Castiglione. He is a recipient of a Herbert Musurillo Scholarship, a Lane Cooper Fellowship, an N.E.H. Fellowship, and the 1993 Classical and Modern Literature Award. He is also a four-time finalist for the Howard Nemerov Prize. His upcoming books, Gallery of Ethopaths, and a collection of critical essays, are forthcoming.