Article abstract: The author of several books of extraordinary insight about the realm of childhood, as well as some stirring popular poetry sympathetic to the British soldier, Kipling’s greatest accomplishment was his depiction of life in India at the close of the nineteenth century.
Rudyard Kipling was born in 1865 in India, one year after his father had accepted a position as a teacher of architecture in Bombay. His parents both came from prominent but not wealthy families, and the promise of a reliable source of income was sufficient inducement for the Kiplings to leave England. Rudyard Kipling always recalled his childhood in India as a time of exceptional happiness, a paradisiacal existence in an Edenic setting where he was treated like a young god by a loving family and many friendly local servants. This idyll came to an end in 1871, when his parents, in accordance with British cultural expectations about hygiene, social status, and racial purity, sent him to England to board with a retired sea captain in Southsea. For the next six years, Kipling lived in what he called “The House of Desolation,” severely disciplined by the captain’s widow. The only pleasure he had during this time was his holiday visits to the home of his uncle Edward Burne-Jones, the renowned Pre-Raphaelite painter, in whose “magical domain” Kipling learned the stories of the “Arabian Nights” from family group readings, and from whom he developed an appreciation for games of language and wit, for stories of invention and surprise, and for the eclectic decor of the Burne-Jones home.
In 1875, Kipling’s father became curator of the museum in Lahore, a considerable advancement in status and financial remuneration. This promotion permitted Kipling to enter the United Services College, a very new, very minor public school with an unusual headmaster (Cormell Price) who shared the radical public views of William Morris and recognized Kipling’s need for encouragement in his idiosyncracies of character. Incompetent at and disdainful of the social-entry games of cricket and soccer, Kipling nevertheless became close friends with two other individualistic boys (the trio became the basis for the heroes of Stalky & Co., 1899) who shared his early interest in writing, debating, and exotic gestures such as decorating their study with Japanese fans, old china, and glass from second-hand shops. Avidly pursuing a program of self-education, the boys read and discussed all the modern poets, including Walt Whitman, whom Kipling defended against attacks by the English master. Kipling was editor of the school magazine but otherwise an ordinary student, and he could not qualify for a scholarship at Oxford, a necessity since his parents could not afford to pay his tuition. With no other prospects immediately apparent, his parents used their social connections to make an arrangement for him to return to India as a reporter for The Civil and Military Gazette of Lahore. In 1882, Kipling accepted this position and returned to India, three months before his seventeenth birthday.
Kipling’s return to the land of his birth gave him a renewed access to places and situations which fired his imagination and gave a direction to his tremendous latent creative energy. From his parents’ place in Anglo-Indian society, he was able to get a clear picture of the workings of the British colonial administration. His journalistic assignments enabled him to learn about the daily life of the British soldiers “at the ready,” and his desire to learn about Indian culture took him on excursions across much of the subcontinent. In 1885, in collaboration with his parents and his sister, he published Quartette, including his first major short story, “The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes,” a powerful evocation of the fears of the rulers who recognized the precariousness of their position in a country torn by mutiny only twenty years before. In 1886, the year of his majority, he published Departmental Ditties, poems primarily about life among the civil servants based in Simla, the summer home for the Viceroy of India. Kipling’s stories had become a regular feature of The Civil and Military Gazette, and the pace of his work drove him to the limits of his energy. Between November, 1886, and June, 1887, thirty-nine stories appeared. In 1888, the volume Soldiers Three was published. It contained many of the best stories of three “typical” British privates whose farcical adventures in a picaresque milieu gave Kipling a frame to probe the barracks’ world of adultery, treachery, bullying, and even murder, and then to probe further into the brooding interior landscape of the soldier’s life, a harsh existence relieved only by the deep, close friendship of the men.
In autumn, 1887, Kipling was transferred to the senior paper of the syndicate, The Pioneer, where his astute but opinionated political commentary led to the threat of a lawsuit, attempted assault, and the grievance of some high government officials. As Kipling was becoming increasingly famous in English literary circles, with his parents’ encouragement he decided to test his skills as a free-lance writer in London. In March, 1889, he left Calcutta, returning only once more to India to visit his parents in 1891. For the remainder of his life, the cultural and psychic landscape of India haunted his dreams; it had already become the foundation for his finest work.
Kipling established himself in London as a kind of tentative bohemian bachelor. Generally reserved and no self-promoter, his ambition was still quite clear. Above the door in his rooms, he declared, “To Publishers, A classic while you wait.” Many others agreed, and his reception in London was very encouraging, beginning with a London Times leading article in March, 1890. The style of his life is captured in the description by Kay Robinson, his editor at The Pioneer, who wrote in 1896 about a man in a white cotton vest and trousers who suggested a Dalmatian because of the mass of inkspots that covered him. Robinson saw him as mildly eccentric, with a “mushroom-shaped” hat and a fox terrier that looked like a “nice clean sucking pig.” In later years, Kipling tended to look more formal, a smallish man of soldierly bearing with glasses and a cartoonist’s delight of a mustache, a high forehead, and, quite often, a hat when out in public. His first years in London saw the publication of the finest stories of his early period, The Courting of Dinah Shadd and Other Stories (1890), the two versions of The Light That Failed (1890, 1891), both in American editions, and Barrack-Room Ballads and Other Verses (1892), which included poems such as the very well known “Danny Deever.” Kipling’s visits to London music halls seem to have been instrumental in the development of the insistent jaunty rhythms which he fitted to poems of military life.
In spite of his success, Kipling was not entirely comfortable with the world of letters in London. Its innate conservatism in literary matters did not really suit his temperament or aesthetic principles. In addition, his usual regimen of constant, intensive writing and a continuing feeling of displacement or homelessness had brought him to the verge of a breakdown. Part of his course of recovery included a long sea voyage to Calcutta to visit his supportive family, and another part included his marriage to Caroline Balestier, the sister of his agent and a member of a prominent American family from Brattleboro, Vermont. By way of a kind of extended honeymoon, Kipling and his bride traveled extensively in the United States, where Kipling met Mark Twain, a favorite author. In 1893, Kipling and his wife settled in southern Vermont on five acres of land purchased from her family and lived there until 1895. The distance from India may have given Kipling the perspective he needed to shape his experiences and impressions of India into literature, because it was in Vermont that he produced the Mowgli stories, publishing The Jungle Book in 1894 and The Second Jungle Book in 1895. He wrote the second half of Barrack-Room Ballads and Other Verses in Vermont, and began work on Kim (1901), his great visionary epic of India. During this time he also made several trips to the whaling port of Gloucester, Massachusetts, to do research for Captains Courageous (1897). Several factors combined, however, to end his stay in the United States. His once-harmonious relationship with his wife’s younger brother deteriorated into litigation, he feared that the Cleveland Administration would draw the United States into war with Great Britain over a minor dispute in Venezuela, and he felt hounded by American reporters who pursued him for his celebrity without giving him the peace to continue the writing that produced it.
The Kiplings returned to England in time for the Jubilee of 1897, and Kipling contributed to the carnival atmosphere with his memorable poem “Recessional,” which was published in the London Times after a family friend retrieved it from the wastebasket where Kipling had discarded it. Many people read their own political feelings into the poem, often missing its negative view of the imperial creed, but the poem contributed considerably to Kipling’s reputation. Oxford granted him an honorary degree, compensating for the disappointment of his inability to matriculate there ten years earlier, and he was elected to the very exclusive Athenaeum Club, a tribute considered “one of the greatest professional-class establishment honors of late Victorian England.” The publication of “The White Man’s Burden” (also in The Times) in 1898, with its explicitly racist title, was Kipling’s statement of resistance to foreign tyranny and anarchy, two bêtes noires of his belief in the necessity of an ordered existence. While visiting South Africa during the winter of 1898, he met and was captivated by Cecil Rhodes, and became a firm supporter of Rhodes’s empire-building ideas, thus further developing an ideology particularly repugnant even to many people who much admired his other work. Perhaps more significantly, during his stay in South Africa he journeyed along the Limpopo River, a crucial part of his inspiration for the Just So Stories (1902), which he composed in a comfortable house made available on Rhodes’s estate.
After returning from the United States, the Kipling family had lived in close proximity to various relatives in Rottingdean, in Sussex, from 1897 to 1902. Kipling completed Kim in this setting and pulled the Stalky stories together, as well as finishing the last of the Just So Stories, “The Elms.” The death of his young daughter Josephine in New York City in 1899, however, spoiled the charm of the home in which she had been reared. Kipling purchased a house in Burwash, in the country of East Sussex, in 1902, and there spent the remainder of the time he was in England. The failure of the British imperial venture in South Africa distressed him, and the ascendancy of the Liberal Party to power in 1906 made him feel like a member of the rejected Tory old guard. He believed that his cherished concept of “order,” the foundation of his faith in existence, was now threatened by such new forces as “cosmopolitanism,” “egalitarianism,” and “individualism,” unconventional ideas which, he thought, undermined England’s “world-civilizing mission.” With his fabled India fading into the oblivion of memory, the deaths of both his parents in the winter of 1910-1911 cut him off from the possibility of recall in conversation, and he felt compelled to find a new locus for his faith. To some extent, he found it in the lush, unspoiled Sussex countryside which he established as a constant source of value in his cyclical stories of renewal set in medieval times, Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906). Paradoxically, just as he was retreating from public life, he was named the first British laureate by the Nobel Committee (1907).
England’s entry into World War I drew Kipling back into active public life, and the death of his son John in October, 1915, led him into two large-scale projects to combat his sorrow. As a kind of memorial for his son, he compiled The Irish Guards in the Great War (1923), interviewing many of his son’s fellow officers, and he accepted an appointment to be Commissioner of War Graves, a post that took him to Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, Palestine, and other sites where British forces fell in battle. His last two collections of stories deal primarily with the psychological effects of war on combatants and emphasize themes of compassion and healing. A striking exception to this, however, was his continuing hatred of everything German, which found expression in some virulent anti-Kaiser poetry and in the famous story “Mary Postgate,” in which a German airman dies in agony. Through the 1930’s, Kipling continued to criticize the Germans, and with the rise of Nazism, acting with typical consistency in personal as well as political affairs, he removed the Indian “ganesh” sign from his publications because of its resemblance to the swastika.
Kipling’s health had been declining for some time when, in 1922, he suffered a serious gastrointestinal attack (the result of an undiagnosed duodenal ulcer). This moved him further into what Angus Wilson called “an ever-growing introspective meditative frame of mind.” During his later years, Kipling and his wife spent considerable time abroad, particularly in France, with Kipling writing occasional stories, verse, essays, and an interesting and revealing autobiography, Something of Myself: For My Friends Known and Unknown (1937). He died in January, 1936, just as England was beginning to respond to the Nazi menace about which he had warned. Kipling was buried in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey, near the ashes of Charles Dickens, who had died the year before Kipling arrived in England.
The passage of time has not been particularly kind to Rudyard Kipling. His strong political opinions earned for him the enmity of many people in Great Britain, the United States, Canada, and India during his lifetime, and while such eminent critics as Edmund Wilson and George Orwell paid him the compliment of taking him seriously, their attacks on his ideas and his art have contributed to a general attitude that Kipling is either a historical curiosity, a local colorist, a Tory bully, or, at best, the writer of cliché-ridden, jangling verse and a few charming children’s books. Ezra Pound’s caustic assessment, beginning “Rudyard the dudyard/ Rudyard the false measure . . .,” suggests how simple it is to dismiss Kipling in the style of his own poetry, how close he is to parody even at his best.
Yet Pound, probably because he detested Kipling’s politics, missed one of Kipling’s greatest strengths, something that Pound himself (in The ABC of Reading, 1934) prescribes as an essential component of poetry: the sheer, unforgettable rhythmic musicality of Kipling’s best work. There is a primal power of language in poems such as “Gunga Din” and “Mandalay” which has pressed them into the memory of at least three generations in the United States and the British Commonwealth, where they can be easily recalled and recited with evident sensual delight. Kipling instinctively sensed the energy of the popular song and knew how to seize and use it, though it is not only the sound of the best poems that is so compelling. Some of his most familiar lines—“East is East and West is West,” “Somewheres East of Suez,” “The female of the species is more deadly than the male,” and “He travels fastest who travels alone”—have been incorporated into the collective subconscious as aphoristic folk wisdom.
Even if Pound were right about Kipling’s politics—a bizarre anomaly in the light of Pound’s own political theories—the chauvinistic, semiracist, cryptofascist declarations are distortions of some quite sensible and thoughtful political formulations. Kipling’s idea of The Law is akin to Ernest Hemingway’s famous “Code” in that it was not a rigid social contract but a method of maintaining personal integrity amid the forces of chaos, and a doctrine designed to ensure maximum individual freedom amid a cooperative social system. Because Kipling was so easily unsettled by personal demons, he tended to overcompensate by supporting what he hoped were organizational principles which would guarantee some stability in what he knew was a fragile world even for the strongest of men and women. A careful reading of Kipling’s stories and poems will reveal a very subtle mind.
While his children’s stories have been highly praised, they have also been appreciated only as children’s stories. As Angus Wilson points out:
. . . the elusive magic which lies at the heart of most of his best work . . . came from the incorporation into adult stories and parables of two of the principal shapes which are to be found in the imaginative world of children. The first is the transformation of a small space into the whole world which comes from the intense absorption of a child. The second is the map-making of hazards and delights which converts a child’s smallest journey into a wondrous exploration.
That aspect of the adult psyche that remains permanently tied to childhood has rarely been touched and projected as well as in Kipling’s writing.
Finally, Kipling’s sense of India, especially the Anglo-Indian world that he loved, gave him a subject and a sense of place from which a powerful literary vision could be drawn. Kim, the “Ariel of Kipling’s magic kingdom,” is one of the true originals of English literature. His delight in life, his openness to people and things, make him a wonderful guide to Kipling’s own India, and his story, as Wilson perceptively explains, is “an allegory of that seldom portrayed ideal, the world in the service of spiritual goodness.” By contrast, the more ordinary but still complex mortals of his songs and stories are dreadfully human in their faults and limits, but the soldiers, civil servants, and their families that he wrote about are the subject of a kind of compassion and empathy surprising in a man regarded as an aloof defender of class and caste. If the worst of Kipling is caught in the crumbling of an obsolete empire, the best is preserved in the art of a man who understood how tenuous life is and how valiant the human struggle can be.
Bodelson, C. A. Aspects of Kipling’s Art. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1964. A superior interpretation of Kipling’s writing, with attention to his symbols.
Cornell, Louis L. Kipling in India. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1966. Contains a considerable amount of important information about Kipling’s early career, as well as an incisive interpretation of the crucial aspect of India as a visionary concept in Kipling’s writing.
Dobrée, Bonamy. Rudyard Kipling. New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1951. An early examination of Kipling from the perspective of a professional soldier turned professor who provides a balanced view of Kipling’s ideas.
Henn, T. R. Kipling. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1967. Brief but succinct discussion of Kipling and his writing, including a survey of criticism and a list of the short stories.
Kipling, Rudyard. Something of Myself. London: Macmillan, 1936. An underrated, candid, and revealing account of Kipling’s life from the artist’s own point of view. Important as a complement to any other study of Kipling.
Rutherford, Andrew, ed. Kipling’s Mind and Art. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1964. Includes the historical views of Lionel Trilling, George Orwell, and Edmund Wilson, as well as more recent essays of particular sensitivity that cover the full spectrum of modern criticism.
Stewart, J. I. M. Rudyard Kipling. New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1966. A biographical and critical study of Kipling’s writing and his personality.
Wilson, Angus. The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling. New York: Viking Press, 1977. A prominent novelist’s quirky, passionate, and highly knowledgeable study of Kipling’s life and writing, grounded in very thorough scholarship and guided by a most sympathetic, individualistic series of insights. Indispensable for anyone interested in Kipling.