Rudyard Kipling Poetry: British Analysis
Rudyard Kipling’s poetry is such a part of the culture of English-speaking people that one is hard put to approach his work without preconceived notions of its quality and content. In his own day, Kipling’s poetry outraged many critics and provided handy epithets for politicians of many political leanings. Even today, scholars can be excited by his so-called racial and imperialistic topics. Myths thus abound. Kipling’s verse is called racist; in fact, Kipling’s verse repeatedly emphasizes that no one can rightfully be regarded superior to another on the basis of race or origin. “The White Man’s Burden,” he wrote, was to “Fill full the mouth of Famine/ And bid the sickness cease.” Although imperialistic, the poem emphasizes not race but the obligations of Europeans and Americans to the oppressed peoples of the world.
“The Last of the Light Brigade”
Kipling is said to glorify warfare by devoting much of his poetry to descriptions of the lives of soldiers; in fact, he shows war to be ugly and stupid. In “The Last of the Light Brigade,” he portrays veterans of the Crimean War as destitute: “We leave to the streets and the workhouse the charge of the Light Brigade!” In the poem, Kipling calls attention to the differences between Tennyson’s poetic description of the ill-fated charge and the degradation that characterized the soldiers’ lives. Another myth is that Kipling’s poetry is coarse and crude. The subject matter is, indeed, sometimes crude, but not the prosody. Even T. S. Eliot, who admired Kipling’s work, asserted that Kipling wrote good verse that occasionally ascended to poetry but that in general Kipling did not write poetry.
Criticism, founded and unfounded
Some of the sources of misconceptions about Kipling’s poetic achievement seem obvious: Casual or careless readings might glean only the surface remarks of subtle poems; Kipling’s political poetry was and remains unpalatable to many people who condemn it on no other grounds than political distastefulness; his aggressive dislike of academics and admiration for men of action alienate many of those who would be likeliest to write about his poetry. Some of the negative myths are Kipling’s fault. If one writes on the politics of the moment, one invites political interpretations of one’s work.
Nevertheless, too much of the criticism of Kipling’s poetry is clearly biased. Many rationales for denigrating the poetry seem contrived, as if covering reasons that would not bear exposure. After all, portraits of the hard lives of working people, as well as soldiers, dominate novels fromÉmile Zola to the present; such novels are often praised for their realism. One of the most highly regarded Anglo-American poets of the twentieth century, Ezra Pound, was a fascist who made propagandistic radio broadcasts from Italy during World War II. His avowed racism is well known and is as unpalatable to well-informed and compassionate people as anything to be found in the work of Kipling. Indeed, Kipling deplored Nazi Germany and dictatorships in general. Yet Pound was fashionable; Kipling was not.
Kipling’s unfashionableness has its origins in two important aspects of his poetry: His versification was clear and usually unadorned, and his subjects were usually plain, working-class people. He began his career in the Victorian era, and his lyrical and narrative poetry has more in common with the styles of Tennyson, Robert Browning, and Swinburne than it has with the styles that have been predominant in a more modern age. One of the important aspects of modernism in poetry was the emphasis on metaphor; metaphors were used to make such works as Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) hauntingly remote from casual reading. Critics came to expect good poetry to demand close and sometimes prolonged reading for one to understand even the most basic meanings of the verse.
Kipling’s approach to his poetry was neither better nor worse than that of his later contemporaries; it was merely different, because he aimed for an audience other than the literary elite. Poetry had been a genre for popular reading; Kipling kept it such. His best poetry will reward close reading by perceptive readers; it will also reward the unskilled or casual reader with a basic surface meaning. For example, “Loot” provides a basic discussion of techniques for looting; the persona—the poem’s speaker—says, “always work in pairs—/ It ’alves the gain, but safer you will find.” A quick reading elicits the picture of a lowly soldier providing a description of an ugly but realistic aspect of war (and provides ammunition against Kipling for anyone who is determined to misread the poem as somehow glorifying looting). A close reading of the poem, however, reveals a careful use of language; Kipling uses his knowledge of soldiers and their ballads to give his persona an authentic voice. One will also discover a picture of the mindless violence and degradation of war at the level of the common foot soldier. Kipling’s style was out of step with the literary movement of his day; it was judged by the wrong standards and often still is.
Victorians and common folk
Poetry has traditionally been regarded as the elite of literary genres. The term poet was reserved in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries for those who had excelled in literature; it was a term of honor to which writers aspired. Poetry has been thought of as appropriate to high aspirations and great ideas; it has been considered “elevating.” The Victorians added the notion that poetry was morally uplifting and that a poet was obliged to discuss high topics in grand language; thus, biblical phrasing and high-sounding archaisms such as “thee” and “thou” lingered in nineteenth century poetry. No matter how much they were involved with the literary revolutions of their time, Kipling’s contemporaries were children of the Victorians. Many of the most admired poems of the first three decades of the twentieth century focused on the Arthurian legends or revived Latin poetic traditions.
(The entire section is 2527 words.)
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