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387px-Rudyard_KiplingThe poet with perhaps the widest range, of both material and tone, was I think Rudyard Kipling. Though much better known as a writer of fiction, his poetry too is fascinating. Bloom leaves him out of his book of Genius, which is understandable given the distinctively American perspective he brings to bear. Kipling’s genius on the contrary was quintessentially English, though I should say English in terms of the colonial experience that governed the thinking of England for so long, as well as adulation of the countryside, which is a particularly British trait (though shared with colonial writers, and the Russians, which confirms my view that the British, when they cease to be sanctimonious, are capable of greater cultural sensitivity than most Westerners).

Kim, which exemplifies all this, is undoubtedly a great book. The same cannot be said of any particular poem that Kipling wrote. But the corpus as a whole is readable and memorable. And it can also surprise. Kipling, the poet of empire, when asked to write something for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, wrote a warning against hubris that is still the best advice available for any politician thinking himself successful–God of our fathers, known of old,


Lord of our far-flung battle-line,
Beneath whose awful Hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies;
The Captains and the Kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

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!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word—
Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!

 

The same idea recurs in another of his better known poems, with an ending that recalls Shelley’s Ozymandias, but accompanied by similes that make us realize how applicable the thoughts are to all of us
Cities and Thrones and Powers
Stand in Time’s eye,
Almost as long as flowers,
Which daily die:
But, as new buds put forth
To glad new men,
Out of the spent and unconsidered Earth
The Cities rise again.

This season’s Daffodil,
She never hears
What change, what chance, what chill,
Cut down last year’s;
But with bold countenance,
And knowledge small,
Esteems her seven days’ continuance,
To be perpetual.

So Time that is o’er-kind
To all that be,
Ordains us e’en as blind,
As bold as she:
That in our very death,
And burial sure,
Shadow to shadow, well persuaded, saith,
“See how our works endure!”

What is probably Kipling’s most famous line occur in The Ballad of East and West, but the whole verse, the preamble to the poem, needs to be cited for Kipling’s further commentary on his first line

OH, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!

 

What might be termed universal sympathy comes out too in Gunga Din, Kipling’s celebration of a labourer with the British army

I sha’n’t forgit the night
When I dropped be’ind the fight
With a bullet where my belt-plate should ‘a’ been.
I was chokin’ mad with thirst, 55
An’ the man that spied me first
Was our good old grinnin’, gruntin’ Gunga Din.

‘E lifted up my ‘ead,
An’ ‘e plugged me where I bled,
An’ ‘e guv me ‘arf-a-pint o’ water—green; 60
It was crawlin’ an’ it stunk,
But of all the drinks I’ve drunk,
I’m gratefullest to one from Gunga Din.

It was “Din! Din! Din!
‘Ere’s a beggar with a bullet through ‘is spleen; 65
‘E’s chawin’ up the ground an’ ‘e’s kickin’ all around:
For Gawd’s sake, git the water, Gunga Din!”

‘E carried me away
To where a dooli lay,
An’ a bullet come an’ drilled the beggar clean. 70
‘E put me safe inside,
An’ just before ‘e died:
“I ‘ope you liked your drink,” sez Gunga Din.
So I’ll meet ‘im later on
In the place where ‘e is gone— 75
Where it’s always double drill and no canteen;
‘E’ll be squattin’ on the coals
Givin’ drink to pore damned souls,
An’ I’ll get a swig in Hell from Gunga Din!

Din! Din! Din! 80
You Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din!
Tho’ I’ve belted you an’ flayed you,
By the livin’ Gawd that made you,
You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!

This does not mean that Kipling questioned the superior position of the British. But even in that regard, he was a realist, and did not idealize the life of the soldiery. Boots is not a great poem, but only Kipling of literary men could have appreciated the essentially dull nature of a soldier’s life in a distant land, where large distances had to be covered on foot. Just one verse from that account of endurance will suffice to establish the breadth of Kipling’s vision –

We—can—stick—out—’unger, thirst, an’ weariness,
But—not—not—not—not the chronic sight of ’em—
Boots—boots—boots—boots—movin’ up an’ down again!
An’ there’s no discharge in the war!

This idiosyncratic diction to increase empathy with the ordinary soldier takes on an ever more vivid tone in Danny Deever, a moving account of an execution in the barracks, and the different reactions of a seasoned soldier and a raw recruit. Whenever I read it I am reminded of Richard’s fantastic performance, of that poem and much else, in the One Man Show of Kipling we put on in 1986, and toured all over the country –

“What are the bugles blowin’ for?” said Files-on-Parade.
“To turn you out, to turn you out”, the Colour-Sergeant said.
“What makes you look so white, so white?” said Files-on-Parade.
“I’m dreadin’ what I’ve got to watch”, the Colour-Sergeant said.
For they’re hangin’ Danny Deever, you can hear the Dead March play,
The regiment’s in ‘ollow square — they’re hangin’ him to-day;
They’ve taken of his buttons off an’ cut his stripes away,
An’ they’re hangin’ Danny Deever in the mornin’.

“What makes the rear-rank breathe so ‘ard?” said Files-on-Parade.
“It’s bitter cold, it’s bitter cold”, the Colour-Sergeant said.
“What makes that front-rank man fall down?” said Files-on-Parade.
“A touch o’ sun, a touch o’ sun”, the Colour-Sergeant said.
They are hangin’ Danny Deever, they are marchin’ of ‘im round,
They ‘ave ‘alted Danny Deever by ‘is coffin on the ground;
An’ ‘e’ll swing in ‘arf a minute for a sneakin’ shootin’ hound —
O they’re hangin’ Danny Deever in the mornin’!

“‘Is cot was right-‘and cot to mine”, said Files-on-Parade.
“‘E’s sleepin’ out an’ far to-night”, the Colour-Sergeant said.
“I’ve drunk ‘is beer a score o’ times”, said Files-on-Parade.
“‘E’s drinkin’ bitter beer alone”, the Colour-Sergeant said.
They are hangin’ Danny Deever, you must mark ‘im to ‘is place,
For ‘e shot a comrade sleepin’ — you must look ‘im in the face;
Nine ‘undred of ‘is county an’ the regiment’s disgrace,
While they’re hangin’ Danny Deever in the mornin’.

“What’s that so black agin’ the sun?” said Files-on-Parade.
“It’s Danny fightin’ ‘ard for life”, the Colour-Sergeant said.
“What’s that that whimpers over’ead?” said Files-on-Parade.
“It’s Danny’s soul that’s passin’ now”, the Colour-Sergeant said.
For they’re done with Danny Deever, you can ‘ear the quickstep play,
The regiment’s in column, an’ they’re marchin’ us away;
Ho! the young recruits are shakin’, an’ they’ll want their beer to-day,
After hangin’ Danny Deever in the mornin’.

Though he was aware of the difficulties of life in India, for the colonized as well as the colonizers, Kipling had an almost romantic relationship with the Indian countryside, and this comes out vividly in a poem that made me always dream of travelling to Mandalay. I was not disappointed when I got there, though sadly I did not spent a night there and had to be content with the pyrotechnics of the sun only in Pagan, on that long ago visit to what was still Burma –

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst;
For the temple-bells are callin’, an’ it’s there that I would be
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea;
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay,
With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay!
O the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay !

But Kipling left India when he was still quite young, and having settled down in England he extended affection of an equal measure to Sussex, the area in which he settled down. His feelings though are less rousing, as perhaps befits a family man preferring tranquility to the activity of his early years –
GOD gave all men all earth to love,
But since our hearts are small,
Ordained for each one spot should prove
Belovèd over all;
That, as He watched Creation’s birth,
So we, in godlike mood,
May of our love create our earth
And see that it is good.

So one shall Baltic pines content,
As one some Surrey glade,
Or one the palm-grove’s droned lament
Before Levuka’s Trade.
Each to his choice, and I rejoice
The lot has fallen to me
In a fair ground—in a fair ground—
Yea, Sussex by the sea!
More powerful than this statement though is his magical evocation of history in his evocation of the countryside, a skill he exhibited also in the short stories in which he covered two important periods in English history, the fading of Roman power and the advent of the Normans, treated through ordinary youngsters struggling against changing circumstances. My own favourite amongst Kipling’s poems is his dreamy account of The Way through the Woods

THEY shut the road through the woods
Seventy years ago.
Weather and rain have undone it again,
And now you would never know
There was once a road through the woods
Before they planted the trees.
It is underneath the coppice and heath,
And the thin anemones.
Only the keeper sees
That, where the ring-dove broods,
And the badgers roll at ease,
There was once a road through the woods.
Yet, if you enter the woods
Of a summer evening late,
When the night-air cools on the trout-ringed pools
Where the otter whistles his mate,
(They fear not men in the woods,
Because they see so few.)
You will hear the beat of a horse’s feet,
And the swish of a skirt in the dew,
Steadily cantering through
The misty solitudes,
As though they perfectly knew
The old lost road through the woods.
But there is no road through the woods.

I have not expounded much because the poetry speaks for itself. But let me conclude with a poem that is not so well known, but which combines many subjects that Kipling wrote about in his poetry. This is The Explorer, which is the story of a man who felt compelled to wander through unknown country. In addition to celebrating its strange beauty, the poem is cynical about those who explored to leave a name for themselves. But it also conveys sorrow for the changes the opening up of land will bring, recognizing these as inevitable but nevertheless rousing regret for the destruction of virgin beauty.

The poem is a long one, so I will have to be content with just a few stanzas, but the conversational tone, the casual dismissal of commercial exploitation, the laconic assertion of what the real reward of exploration is, all convey a sensitivity that is unconventionally but powerfully moving

Have I named one single river? Have I claimed one single acre?
Have I kept one single nugget — (barring samples)? No, not I!
Because my price was paid me ten times over by my Maker.
But you wouldn’t understand it. You go up and occupy.

Ores you’ll find there; wood and cattle; water-transit sure and steady
(That should keep the railway rates down), coal and iron at your doors.
God took care to hide that country till He judged His people ready,
Then He chose me for His Whisper, and I’ve found it, and it’s yours!

 

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