Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Kipling in five great poems (and one awful one)

Can a Progressive like Kipling?

Well I do, and so did George Orwell, and evidently so did the person who scrawled the last verse of The Secret of the Machines on the wall of the footpath under Manchester Airport's first runway during the protest against the second (right).

So here's my pocket guide to Kipling for the left-of-centre reader.

First, the worst.

The White Man's Burden (1898)

Take up the White Man's burden,
And reap his old reward--
The blame of those ye better
The hate of those ye guard--

Here's Kipling as most people know him.

It's difficult to know where to begin with being offended by this poem, although the description of subject races as "Half devil and half child" is probably as good a place as any.

Written after the USA decided to get in on the empire building game by nicking Cuba and the Philippines off the Spanish, this is Kipling at his imperialistic worst.

But as Orwell points out, the real objection to this poem is not the lack of morality in the message, but the grand delusion of what the Empire was all about. The British Empire was many things, but at its heart it was never the armed evangelistic crusade that Kipling imagined.

Kipling admired the soldiers, engineers and governors of the Empire, and shared the disdain of his class for the 'boxwallahs', the traders and businessmen. He would be amazed as much as anything to discover that it was the boxwallahs, or rather their financial backers, who really pulled the strings.

But whilst this poem may be extremely objectionable, it can't be denied, as Orwell also points out, that it is actually a very good description of how a significant proportion of the population of this country saw the mission of Empire.

Arithmetic on the Frontier

A scrimmage in a Border Station --
A canter down some dark defile --
Two thousand pounds of education
Drops to a ten-rupee jezail --

But if Kipling was deluded about why we had an empire, he was more informed than many about what the reality of imperial administration actually involved.

Kipling before 1914 is often accused of glorifying war, but that's unfair. Compare this poem to The Charge of the Light Brigade by Tennyson, who never went anywhere near Afghanistan. You'd never catch Kipling writing guff about "was there a man dismay'd" - he knew that British soldiers always go into battle grumbling about their officers.

And it is the ordinary soldier who is the hero of Kipling's military poems, not the war.

Others may suggest that the minor wars of Empire were simply a case of "We have got the Gatling Gun ... and they have not", but Kipling knew that for every Battle of Omdurman there were a hundred scrimmages at Border Stations and that, then as now, the odds favour the guerrilla.

If- (1895)
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

How to be a man by Rudyard Kipling.

As you might expect from such a character as Kipling there not a lot of room for compassion or empathy here, but lets not be too negative.

It's a hymn to Stoicism, the unofficial religion of the era and as Melvyn Bragg has pointed out it's a remarkably classless depiction of British virtues, including "Upper Class aloofness, Middle Class stiff upper lip and Working Class grit".

If- isn't just the morality of the ruling class, it also inspired the Working Class that formed the Labour Party and that would go on to found the Welfare State. It was translated into Italian by Gramsci for his radical newpaper and, as Dennis Hopper's reading above shows, it can even inspire the Beat Generation and modern rebels.

What strikes me though is that how, by modern standards, it is so un-macho. For Kipling, being a man was not about not being a woman, but about not being a boy.

Today's New Lads should read it and learn.

Recessional (1897)

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!

This, remarkably, was Kipling's contribution to Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, a late substitution for The White Man's Burden.

1897 is generally regarded as the high water mark of British Imperialism, so Kipling's poem stands out like Darcus Howe at a Monday Club bash.

However a century and a bit later his words seem so much more prescient than the rubbish that everyone else was putting out at the time.

As representatives of a hundred grateful colonies and dependencies trooped down Whitehall, and a hundred iron hulls steamed up the Solent, few people, including Kipling, could imagine it would all disappear, but it did.

A Tree Song (1906)

Oh, do not tell the Priest our plight,
Or he would call it a sin;
But--we have been out in the woods all night,
A-conjuring Summer in!

Having lived most of his adult life in India, Kipling returned to England in the final years of the nineteenth century. Looking beyond, or just not seeing, a century of Enclosures and an Agricultural Revolution, he imagined a land unchanged since the days of the pagans - apart from a slight hiccup called the Reformation.

The result was the book Pook of Pook's Hill, which includes this poem.

Modern Pagans, or at least Wiccans, may recognise some of it as it's the only poetry to make it into Gerald Gardner's Book of Shadows.

When Kipling met W.B.Yeats it was no surprise that the Arch-Imperialist and Irish Rebel didn't get on, but despite this there is a lot of similarity in their work. Both looked to a mystical past and, not finding one to their liking, decided to make up their own.

Gethsemane (1919)

And all the time we halted there
I prayed my cup might pass.

It didn’t pass—it didn’t pass-
It didn’t pass from me.
I drank it when we met the gas
Beyond Gethsemane!

Kipling is my favourite First World War poet, which may be a minority position but not an entirely unique one.

His Epitaphs of War sums up the horror and futility of the war in just a handful of words.

The war was both a personal and a political disaster for Kipling. As well as the death of his son, the entire world of benign imperialism had fallen apart. How could any sane person now believe that Europeans were worthy, let alone capable, of bearing the White Man's Burden?

This makes these lines almost unbearably sad.

Was Kipling in part responsible for sending a generation to their deaths?

Perhaps, but if so, at least he realised where that guilt lay. That is the response of a great artist.

No comments: