The Poetry of Kipling Critical Essays

Rudyard Kipling

Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

Kipling began writing poetry in 1876 at the age of eleven; sixty years later he was forgotten, mistrusted, or despised for his popularity that had begun with Departmental Ditties fifty years earlier. Kipling’s early success led to the Nobel Prize and his rejection of the Order of Merit, to be followed by later obloquy; today he is honestly respected for his short stories but still reluctantly for his verse, in spite of the selection of his poetry edited by T. S. Eliot in 1941. Yet Kipling is remembered most for his poems—“Recessional,” “Gunga Din,” “Mandalay,” “The Land,” “Danny Deever,” “The Mary Gloster’”—and for such quotable lines as these from “The Ladies”:

. . . The Colonel’s Lady and JudyO’GradyAre sisters under their skins!

The inescapable fact remains that if poetry is memorable speech, Kipling had the gift, used it, and was loved for it. He was the latest and the most prolific of the popular poets and perhaps the last in this century. His popularity came from his felicitous handling of the lolloping and hence memorable meters of anapest and dactyl, his wide range of novel, picturesque material, and his clear distinction in each poem between right and wrong. The lack of depth in his perceptions is balanced by the strength of his convictions and emotions. His material gave a voice or at least an echo to the people from whom it was drawn, and his easy superficiality of form and content made those people, generally at an elementary or largely oral level of literacy, read him eagerly and quote him frequently. His well-known “If” is an example of his popular, didactic appeal. This is not the whole of Kipling, but it is essential in the ballad-laureate of Empire.

The sources of Kipling’s style are the ballad, the music-hall song, and the Psalms. The last gives him the long, prophetic line in which he sent home the dispatches in verse from the outskirts of the British Empire. Much more of his verse is accompanied by the choruses which perform the same iterative function. The ballads, of which “Sestina of the Tramp-Royal,” is typical, are among his simplest and best though not most memorable verse, such as the quietly noble ballad stanzas of “The Veterans,” written for “the gathering of survivors of the Indian Mutiny” in 1907, or the gentle raillery of “The Three-Decker.” Many poems depend on prologues and epilogues set in italics which bring the poem round to a repetition of the opening lines, again for emphasis. The most characteristic feature of his verse is its introduction not so much of cliches like “the White Man’s Burden” in a poem of that title (addressed with considerable foresight to America) but of foreign terms. There are too many of these in the Indian poems, in which the Anglo-Indian is showing off to his British cousins: “all along of abbynay, kul, an’ hazar-ho”; but a large number of poems stemming from the South African war and the larger number celebrating British regiments use native and military terms easily, such as kopje and voorlooper in “Two Kopjes.” The worst feature of the verse is the hackneyed Cockney that his private soldiers speak; this dialect sounds better in prose.

A curious feature of Kipling’s work is that he published in a unique form, most of his volumes combining stories and poems, sometimes with the same titles, such as “The Benefactors.” Both are so related in Puck of Pook’s Hill, which contains ten stories and sixteen poems that it is a moot point whether his poems can be considered apart from the stories they illustrate (the subtitles often refer to these) or the events they celebrate, as in “The Rowers: 1902: When Germany Proposed that England should help her in a Naval Demonstration to collect debts from Venezuela.” At least once his topicality misfired. “The Ballad of the ’Clampherdown’” records the boarding of a cruiser in battle; it was intended to mock the notion of boarding but was taken as Kiplingesque exaltation of the good old days.

Kipling’s range of material was in facts, not ideas. The occupations of the folk heroes of his ballads, from the water-carrier in “Gunga Din” to the ship’s engineer in “McAndrew’s Hymn” to the Viceroy of India in “One Viceroy Resigns: Lord Dufferin to Lord Landsdowne,”...

(The entire section is 1820 words.)