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.
Kipling’s poetry, in contrast, focuses on common people, the active people whose raw manner of dealing with the world most interested him. Soldiers, as the frequent vanguard of the British Empire and the products of the laboring classes, were often subjects of Kipling’s poetry; laborers themselves were also often the subject of his verse. Kipling gave these people voices; his keen insight made his language strikingly acute. It is coarse, harsh, and elemental. In addition, the poetry by which he is best known is in the ballad form. The ballad is a lyrical folk song that grows and changes with use and custom; it is heard in bars, at country fairs, and in the barracks of soldiers. Kipling’s use of the ballad explains in part Eliot’s judgment that Kipling is a verse-writer instead of a poet; the form is believed by some scholars to be beneath poetry.
Thus, elitism has had much to do with negative responses to Kipling; critics seem to believe that Kipling has degraded verse. Even though he was a conservative with some Victorian notions of poetry, Kipling was ahead of his time. Egalitarianism became one of the significant movements in the twentieth century; literacy burgeoned, as did access to literature. Kipling wrote for the broad literate mass of people; he gave voices to people who were generally left out of poetry, and he did not romanticize them. A soldier’s achievement is to survive one more day; a laborer’s achievement is to feed himself one more day. Their contempt for those who are not physically active fits well with Kipling’s own disgust with aesthetes who are out of touch with much that is thought and done by those who provide the foundations for civilization.
“The Way Through the Woods” and “Cities and Thrones and Powers”
Kipling’s verse is highly crafted poetry. It uses metaphors and prosody in unusual ways, but this is a strength, not a weakness. Kipling’s mastery of metaphor is apparent, for example, in “The Way Through the Woods,” which describes an eroded road that was closed some seventy years before. On its surface, the poem offers a wistful description of the encroachment by the wilderness on a road no longer used. It is more than that, however; there is an eeriness in its description of “coppice and heath,” “ring-dove broods,” and “trout-ringed pools,” which all utterly hide a road that makes its presence felt only in echoes of the past. The lost road and the woods that have covered it are metaphors for the passage of time and the transitoriness of human works. The theme of the fragility of human achievements is an important one in poetry; in “The Way Through the Woods,” Kipling makes the theme mystical and haunting.
The near futility of human endeavors when confronting time is a common motif of Kipling’s work. Although “The Way Through the Woods” is remote in tone and metaphor, Kipling is perfectly willing to be blunt—and still metaphorical. In “Cities and Thrones and Powers” he uses flowers as metaphors:
Cities and Thrones and PowersStand in Time’s eye,Almost as long as flowers,Which daily die:
The poem continues and turns tragedy into triumph:
But, as new buds put forthTo glad new men,Out of the spent and unconsidered EarthThe Cities rise again.
Few readers would have trouble understanding the basic metaphor: Flowers die but leave seeds that grow into new flowers, and cities do the same. Even Kipling’s eccentric phrase “Almost as long as flowers” is within easy reach of the unsophisticated reader: In the vastness of time, cities exist only briefly. The surface meanings of the central metaphor do not preclude subtlety. The transitoriness of “Cities and Thrones and Powers” is a melancholy topic, one that other poets have used to show the vanity of human achievements. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” is the archetypal expression of the theme; a pedestal alone in the desert bears an almost meaningless inscription: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:/ Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Shelley adds: “Nothing beside remains.” A city and civilization are reduced to desert. Kipling takes the same sad theme, attaches it to flowers, making the frail plants bear the weight of civilization, and in flowers he reveals that seeming transitoriness is in fact a cycle of renewal. “Time,” he says, “Ordains . . . That in our very death,/ And burial sure,/ Shadow to shadow, well persuaded, saith,/ See how our works endure!” In the deaths of human works are the seeds of new works: One civilization begets another.
Kipling’s interest in the passing and survival of civilizations also extended to current events. In “The Dykes” of 1902, he ponders the dangers to Britain posed by the militancy of Europe. “These are the dykes our fathers made: we have never known a breach,” he says. The people of Britain have built protections against their enemies, but through neglect the “dykes” might be broken. “An evil ember bedded in ash—a spark blown west by the wind . . ./ We are surrendered to night and the sea—the gale and the tide behind!” Kipling the prophet uses metaphor to warn of war. “The Dykes” is dynamic and threatening; history has shown its warning to be apt.
Kipling’s narrative poetry is probably his best known. It includes “Gunga Din” and “The Ballad of East and West,” both of which discuss British imperialism and cultural differences and are thus unfashionable. “Gunga Din” is as well known a poem as exists in English. In it Gunga Din, a water bearer for British soldiers in India, faithfully serves his masters and saves the life of the poem’s narrator—giving up his own life in the process. Kipling uses the rhythm of the ballad form to create strikingly memorable phrases, including the last lines:
You Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din!Though I’ve belted you and flayed you,By the livin’ Gawd that made you,You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!
The language is raw and the verse melodic; the combination is powerful. Gunga Din’s life is shown to be miserable, and his masters are shown as beastly, but Gunga Din is revealed as having a noble quality that Kipling valued; Gunga Din cares enough for his fellow men to die for them. Thus, the last line summarizes the central theme of the poem; Gunga Din is the better man.
“The Ballad of East and West”
In a similar vein, “The Ballad of East and West” shows that all men can understand one another in the fundamental test of courage:
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, though they come from the ends of the earth!
Kipling admired men of action and physical courage. He asserted that men can communicate on fundamental levels that transcend the veneer of culture. In “The Ballad of East and West,” two strong men are brought face to face, their differences seemingly beyond hope of peaceful resolution. They discover that they are alike and not as different as others would believe. Beginning as enemies, they part as friends.
“The Absent-Minded Beggar”
Kipling dealt with large metaphysical ideas, with the cycles of civilizations and the threats to Western civilization, yet for all his great themes, Kipling was at home with subjects no more lofty than the ordinary person’s hope for a better future. In “The Absent-Minded Beggar,” for example, Kipling reminds his readers of the hard lot of the dependents of the soldiers who fought in the Boer War. “When you’ve finished killing Kruger with your mouth,/ Will you kindly drop a shilling in my little tamborine/ For a gentleman in khaki order South?” The poem was written to help raise money for the needs of the families of the soldiers. The tone is sympathetic but honest. The British soldier has “left a lot of little things behind him!” The “little things” include his children—not necessarily legitimate—wives, lovers, girlfriends, and debts. The families will “live on half o’ nothing . . . ’Cause the man that earns the wage is ordered out.” The soldier is “an absent-minded beggar, but he heard his country call.” Kipling’s language demonstrates his understanding of his subject. The poem reveals the fundamental Kipling—not imperialist, not prophet, not poet playing with great poetic conceits—but a poet who understands people and cares about them. Few writers can be honestly said to have cared more about their subjects than Kipling.
Long after the politics of his day are forgotten and his polemics have become of interest only to literary historians, Kipling’s essential efforts will still have meaning. Readers who approach Kipling’s verse with a love for poetry can still declare, as did scholar David Masson to his students at Edinburgh in 1890, while holding a copy of “Danny Deever,” “Here’s Literature! Here’s Literature at last!”