Kipling and Modernism
At the outset of his long literary career, Rudyard Kipling was apparently content to recognise the distinction between verse and poetry, and, if we are to judge from his letter to Caroline Taylor of 9 December 1889, equally content to accept that his own place was below the salt: ‘I am not a poet and never shall be—but only a writer who varies fiction with verse.’
Almost a year later, Oscar Wilde recorded a similarly modest assessment of Plain Tales from the Hills, turning his phrase like a bayonet. If Kipling’s title could boast of its artlessness, the unvarnished simplicity of its artistic means, Wilde was not inclined to disagree: ‘one feels as if one were seated under a palm tree reading life by superb flashes of vulgarity.’ (Wilde’s use of the final mot injuste is foreshadowed in Departmental Ditties, where Sleary ‘bade farewell to Minnie Boffkin in one last, long, lingering fit’ , rather that the kiss rather that the ‘kiss’ one might justifiably expect.) This atmosphere of placid agreement—that Kipling’s place was with the hoi polloi—is misleading. What Wilde ruefully perceives as a limitation is precisely what Kipling knew to be his originality—the discovery for literature of the underdog. This is a bent which determines the arc of Kipling’s career from early tales of Anglo-Indians to the later poem, ‘A Charm’:
Take of English earth as much
As either hand may rightly clutch.
In the taking of it breathe
Prayer for all who lie beneath.
Not the great, nor well-bespoke,
But the mere uncounted folk
Of whose life and death is none
Report or lamentation.
When T. S. Eliot, in the course of an essay of fine advocacy, identifies, as a weakness, Kipling’s lack of ‘inner compulsion’, the absence of a Figure in the Carpet, he overlooks Kipling’s uncommon fascination with the common man and the common woman—his helpless underdoggedness.
The atmosphere of congruence between Wilde and Kipling is also misleading because, a year earlier, Kipling had already struck against ‘long-haired things / In velvet collar-rolls’, preferring to side with the less fashionable military types in India who ‘hog their bristles short’. Kipling’s acceptance of the distinction between verse and poetry, between high and low art, was not simply benign, but also a wry, bitter, bristling recognition of the way the battle-lines were drawn. That note of resignation, the calm declaration (‘I am not a poet and never shall be’), could quickly alter to a timbre of puckish aggression, as it does in ‘The Conundrum of the Workshops’ (1890), where the tower of Babel is an early casualty in the history of criticism:
They builded a tower to shiver the sky and wrench the stars apart,
Till the Devil grunted behind the bricks: ‘It’s striking, but is it Art?’
The poem itself is striking and memorable, but is it poetry? Or is it merely verse? I find the Old Testament cadence of ‘builded’ finely judged and two verbs ‘shiver’ and ‘wrench’ beautifully economical in the way they adumbrate, first, the height and the breadth of the tower, and, second, the scale of the driving ambition—the desire to ‘wrench the stars apart’, a desire whose scope is curtailed by the un-Biblical bathos of ‘grunted’ and ‘bricks’. This is a particular instance where, as it were, the pigment of the language can be described by the critic with a modicum of the vividness that Kipling brings to the scar of Matun in ‘The Truce of the Bear’: ‘Flesh like slag in the furnace, knobbed and withered and grey’. In each example, Kipling’s language is patently not inert, but, like the harp of True Thomas, birls and brattles in Kipling’ s hands.
We think of Kipling as a special, borderline case, but he is not. Arnold memorably damned Pope and Dryden as ‘classics of our prose’ in his essay ‘The Study of Poetry’, a critical manoeuvre Eliot then used against Whitman in his essay on Pound: ‘Whitman was a great prose writer.’ His originality ‘is spurious in so far as Whitman wrote in a way that asserted that his great prose was a new form of verse.’ As one who has fallen short of poetry, then, Kipling is in the best possible company. It is particularly appropriate that Pope should be a fellow defendant, since the advertisement to ‘An Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot’ provided Kipling with the title of his autobiography: ‘Being divided between the Necessity to say something of Myself, and my own laziness to undertake so awkward a Task …’.
To substantiate his case against Pope and Dryden, Arnold quoted, maliciously:
To Hounslow Heath I point, and Banstead Down;
Thence comes your mutton, and these chicks my own.
Of course, counter examples could be cited against this damning quotation from the ‘Second Satire of the Second Book of Horace Paraphrased’. One might list more obviously poetic lines of Pope like ‘Die of a Rose in aromatic Pain’, but better are lines that merely, yet perfectly enact the unremittingly alert language we call poetry: the exact comedy of bowls ‘obliquely waddling to the mark in view’; the just comparison of learned commentary to the silkworm and vice versa (‘So spins the silkworm small its slender store, / And labours, ‘till it clouds itself all o’er’); the finely calculated reversed foot in the middle of the line ‘Keen, hollow winds howl thro’ the bleak recess’; the incriminating guinea vividly ‘gingling’ down the tell-tale stairs; the punishment for erring sylphs:
Or Alom-Stypticks with contracting Power
Shrink his thin Essence like a rivell’d Flower
What a couplet. Elsewhere in Pope, the words ‘power’ and ‘flower’ are contracted to ‘flow’r’ and ‘pow’r’, which is what the metre requires here. Yet the words are written out in full, so that they exist, perfectly, precariously, between expansion and the threatened contraction. Notice, too, that Pope chooses not the obvious adjective ‘shrivelled’, but ‘rivell’d’, which calls to mind the expected work ‘shrivelled’, then gives it to us short of one letter—shrunken and contracted to ‘rivell’d’. A further punishment for sylphs re-imagines drinking chocolate, and its preparation, with a paradoxical and poetic combination of microscopic intentness and boldly inverted perspective:
Or as Ixion fix’d, the Wretch shall feel
The giddy Motion of the whirling Mill,
In Fumes of burning Chocolate shall glow,
And tremble at the Sea that froaths below!
By now, even the accident of orthography, ‘froaths’ , makes its illusory contribution to the poetry—seeming more frothy by virtue of its extra vowel, silent though it is.
Examples, however, do not answer the general point behind Arnold's particular example. To do that, one must establish what verse actually is. Once establish that with certainty and we can see if Kipling holds to the norm and does indeed write verse rather than poetry. By verse, however, I do not mean light verse. Though we seldom trouble to distinguish between them, verse and light verse are easily differentiated. In light verse, the interest, the meaning, resides, paradoxically and primarily, in the intricacies of the form: the content is merely the pretext to activate the elaborate metrical mechanics, just as the steel ball-bearing in a pin-table is only of interest in so far as it gets the pyrotechnics going. Verse, on the other hand, is a transparent medium which is important only as a vehicle for the meaning it carries—and which, therefore, is distinguished from prose only by the use of rhyme. Unsurprisingly, examples of pure verse are hard to find. Garrison Keillor’s ‘Mrs Sullivan’, however, is the perfect instance, das Ding an sich: its message is wryly feminist and its medium, when Keillor reads it on radio, is the purest prose anecdote because the enjambment ensures that the unobtrusive rhymes are utterly inaudible.
‘Function follows form,’
Said Louis Sullivan one warm
Evening in Chicago drinking beer.
His wife said, ‘Dear,
I’m sure that what you meant
Is that form should represent
Function. So it’s function that should be followed.’
And looked dimly far away
And said, ‘Okay.
Form follows function, then.’
He said it again,
A three-word spark
Of modern arch-
That would dazzle millions.
‘Think I should write it down?’
He asked with a frown.
‘Oh yes,’ she said, ‘and here’s a pencil.’
He did and soon was influential.
The mystery here—why is this prose anecdote set out as verse?—is solved as soon as one realises the problem facing Garrison Keillor. His material is too short to be a prose anecdote, and it would be ruined by padding or elaboration. However, it is too subtle to be a straight-forward joke taking up two lines. So it is awarded the poetic treatment—capital letters and rhymes. In fact, it would make a respectable prose poem, did we not have the mistaken conviction that the prose poem should have a heightened quality of ‘froathy’ language. In reality, there is no reason why a prose poem should be anything other than a piece of prose which is too short, too short to be even a very short short story—what the Germans call eine kleine Prosa. Eliot understood this perfectly in his prose poem ‘Hysteria’. The prose poem, however, is not a remedy one might expect Garrison Keillor to discover. The solution he finds is ingenious enough.
Even if we accept the Keillor as a particularly pure example of verse—and therefore as a standard which Kipling’s poetry manifestly surpasses—we are still obliged to confront the issue of versification. Surely, as we try to distinguish between poetry and verse, a further difficulty arises when, unlike the Keillor verse, the lines are differentiated from prose not only by rhyme but also by versification?
To Hounslow Heath I point, and Banstead Down;
Thence comes your mutton, and these chicks my own.
Is this merely versified prose? Further, why does versification seem to imply the versifier, an epithet with unmistakably derogatory connotations, while the poet somehow escapes the mechanical universe of metrics into the more plastic and subtle dimension of rhythm? Of course, the two terms are supposedly neutral and interchangeable, because versification (the principles of metrical practice) and rhythm both depend on the repetition of stress.
Nevertheless, our prejudice is that metre is less subtle in its repetition than rhythm (however strained and inaccurate this looks when seen against the long tradition of English poetry). Modernism in poetry did not go metric in this country. In Russia, things were different, despite the best efforts of Mayakovsky. The metres of Russian poetry, from Pushkin to Pasternak, demonstrate enormous subtlety. The Russian poet can deploy metres which, in English, arrive in the ear tainted with comedy, whereas in Russian their associations are majestic.
There is an element of pure prejudice in our unthinking, negative response to complex metre. At the same time, the Russian example isn’t a clinching counter-instance because it is on the English milieu that Kipling is dependent. English culture is no longer receptive to metrical virtuosity. Readers can no longer identify or name even the easier reaches of prosody. In fact, translations from the Russian which attempt to preserve the original metrical complexities only succeed in investing the host language with laughable syncopations. Given this negative predisposition, Kipling’s detractors might adapt a phrase of his own and use it against him to evoke the unseemly air of vigorous, even raucous improvisation in his verse. The phrase comes from ‘Naaman’s Song’: ‘In tones like rusty razor-blades to tunes like smitten tin’. While one can acknowledge the drift of the charge, one could not concede either its accuracy or justice without first citing passages, like the Biblical cadences of ‘Gertrude’s Prayer’, which, finally, make the charge implausible.
Even a professed admirer like Eliot enters the caveat that Kipling is musically deficient: ‘what fundamentally differentiates his “verse” from “poetry” is the subordination of musical interest.’ In an earlier and less well-known review in the Athenaeum of 9 May 1919, Eliot’s view of Kipling was more decidedly negative, but the limitations in Kipling’s poetry were substantially the same: Kipling, the young Eliot found, had ‘ideas’ but no ‘point of view’, no ‘world’, and the music of his poetry was music only ‘as the words of orator or preacher are music’, persuading ‘not by reason, but by emphatic sound’. The older Eliot has the same reservations, but is less dismissive. Nevertheless, though he hedges the judgment with modifications, the charge that Kipling verse is musically deficient remains on the charge-sheet. Kipling, we are given to understand, writes terrific tunes but misses out on melody; we like his songs, but where are his lieder?
Obviously, one can point, as Eliot could, to Kipling’s free verse in ‘Song of the Galley Slave’ and ‘The Runners’ , but these are exceptions which simply prove the rule. Which is that, for every poem like ‘Runes on Weland’s Sword’, with its curt, two-stress line, there are hundreds of poems whose metre is as subtle as a barn dance, as predictable as the fiddler at a ceilidh. One thinks of "The Ballad of the Bolivar’:
Leaking like a lobster pot, steering like a dray—
Out we took the Bolivar, out across the Bay!
Yet consider these lines, from earlier in the same poem:
We put out from Sunderland loaded down with rails;
We put back to Sunderland ’cause our cargo shifted…
The line ‘Leaking like a lobster pot, steering like a dray’ is actually made up of a trochaic tetrameter catalectic, followed by a trochaic trimeter catalectic. The pattern here is repeated in the earlier line: ‘We put out from Sunderland loaded down with rails.’ But the effect is completely different since the pattern hasn’t yet established itself in the ear. Thus the absence of a caesura—a pause in the line to divide the tetrameter catalectic from the trimeter catalectic—means that there is a double stress at ‘Sunderland loaded’ which enacts rhythmically what the line depicts: a loading down, a weightiness at the centre.
And the following line is another tiny miracle of rhythmic subtlety: ‘We put back to Sunderland ’cause our cargo shifted’. Again, deprived of the caesura, the ear cannot decipher and demarcate the two halves of the line, so that the whole line is poised ambiguously between the (as yet unresolved) metre and the natural rhythm of speech. On the one hand, ‘we’ wouldn’t naturally take a stress, whereas ‘put’ would. On the other hand, the metrical imperatives reverse this natural pattern of stress: ‘we’ is stressed and ‘put’ recedes. The line, then, is decidedly shifty about its rhythmic status and the instability is added to by Kipling’s use of a full trimeter and the ‘extra’ syllable (making 13 in all)—so that the cargo’s shift is embodied in the line itself.
These are not crude effects ‘like smitten tin’, nor are they isolated effects. We do not discover them because, like Eliot, we do not expect to discover them. Instead we listen impatiently for the blunter satisfactions of the chorus, eradicating subtleties along the way by assimilating them to the main template. Yet the subtleties are everywhere. To take an example readily to hand, ‘smitten tin’ contains its own tinny, off-key echo, exactly inexact —not ‘tin-tin’ , but ‘ten-tin’.
I can’t think of a poet in the language who attracts more prejudice than Kipling. Orwell, an avowed admirer, is perfectly prepared to rewrite the poetry so that the dialect is standardised. But dialect is Kipling’s greatest contribution to modern literature—prose and and poetry—and he is the most accomplished practitioner since Burns. Without his example, Eliot’s great avant-garde coup, the Cockney pub conversation in ‘A Game of Chess’ , would have been inconceivable. The bonus of dialect is easy to illustrate: which is the more lascivious, the standard English ‘lascivious’, or McAndrew’s Scots version, ‘those soft, las-ceevious stars’? To the non-dialect speaker, at least, the Scots variant is infinitely more seductive than its less wheedling standard English version. Orwell would probably concur about Kipling’ s use of Scots—for some reason, the Scots dialect is exempt from the snobbery which attaches to other dialects. The real problem for Orwell is the Cockney dialect of Kipling’s soldiers, which he finds intrinsically comic—though he attributes his own ‘under-lying air of patronage’ to Kipling. In the short stories, Mulvaney’s Irish is a similarly insoluble problem for many readers. It is, the argument runs, a caricature with no foundation in phonetic reality. It is stage Irish. In fact, just as Scots would make a distinction between the Glaswegian accent and the more refined delivery of Edinburgh’ s Morningside, Irish-English likewise contains multitudes—the harsh accent of Protestant Belfast, the soft erosions of Catholic Killiney. In Mulvaney’s speech, Kipling offers us only one of many alternatives—the broadest of the dialects—but one which, however unrepresentative, has its counterpart in rural reality. The inability to pronounce ‘th-’, which means that ‘thousands’ comes out as ‘t’ousands’, while not universal, is easily observable. (‘Inability’, though, is the wrong word, because it suggests deficiency where in truth there is only difference.) I do not believe that Kipling intended, in Orwell’s words, ‘to make fun of a working-man’s accent’. I think it more likely that Orwell, an old Etonian and a writer who, in Down and Out in Paris and London, worries that his accent will instantly discover him as a gentleman, is transferring his own attitudes to Kipling.
After all, Orwell is not a reliable reader of Kipling’s poetry: faced with the dove-tailed ironies of ‘The Winners’, its ‘water-tight, fire-proof, angle-iron, sunk-hinge, time-lock, steel-faced Lie’, Orwell is taken in: ‘Sooner or later you will have occasion to feel that he travels fastest who travels alone, and there is the thought, ready made and, as it were, waiting for you.’ Orwell has missed the warning signals sent out by Kipling to dissociate himself from his ostensible ruthless moral:
Down to Gehenna, or up to the Throne,
He travels the fastest who travels alone …
Win by his aid and the aid disown—
He travels the fastest who travels alone.
Kipling knows that the recommendation of ingratitude as a moral precept is repugnant. But Orwell is more concerned with the poem’s alleged proverbial memorability. For him, it is a moral mnemonic—good bad poetry whose survival is its justification. It is a tag. As praise, this is decidedly back-handed—and I should like to remove the curse by quoting the end of D. J. Enright’s British Council leaflet on Eliot at the time of his centenary in 1988. ‘Many of his lines, felt “as immediately as the odour of a rose”, have entered the language in the form of catch-phrases or adages.’ Enright goes on to quote, lavishly, without any sense that there is some impropriety in the gift of memorability. Of course, Eliot’s intellectual bona fides is impeccable. It will be some time,however, before the taint attached to wide popularity leaves Kipling, as, at last, it has left Dickens—another writer of genius belittled for decades by our cultural custodians.
For them, Kipling’s very virtuosity is suspect. The sestina is the artiest of poetic forms, almost Fabergé in its insistence of surface over substance. Successful sestinas, though, invert the given limitations of the form, subduing the obtrusive repetition until it is invisible. Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘A Miracle for Breakfast’ is one perfect example. The other is Kipling’s ‘Sestina of the Tramp-Royal’. The strict, cramped, formal demands of the sestina are belied by the unbuttoned dialect and its illusion of relaxation and roominess. The tone rambles and spreads itself, and Kipling solves the technical problem of the sestina by making its repetitiveness part of his speaker’s character. He does this boldly and immediately in the first stanza, by adding an extra repetition at the beginning of the third line:
Speakin’ in general, I ’ave tried ’em all—
The ’appy roads that take you o'er the world.
Speakin’ in general, I ’ave found them good…
Throughout, too, Kipling’s way with the iambic pentameter is as varied as any comparable passage in Tennyson, partly because of caesurae, partly because the emphases of the speaking voice run over the metre’s metronome. ‘Sestina of the Tramp-Royal’ isn’t a great poem—even though it manages to modulate from the buttonholing style of explanation to the poetic bravura of ‘An’, out at sea, be’eld the dock-lights die, / An’ met my mate—the wind that tramps the world!’—but it is a very good sestina.
And what it illustrates is the strength of not being poetic. Kipling’s use of dialect is usually associated with the music hall—a popular art form—whereas perhaps it would be more helpful and truer to classify it with Modernism, with Stravinsky’s use of jazz and Russian folk melodies, with Picasso’s restless appropriation of African sculpture and every-day materials like the daily paper. Unquestionably, Kipling, though popular, was as prepared as Stravinsky or Picasso to flout conventional standards of beauty. Kipling’s aesthetic position is the argument from authenticity:
Ah! What avails the classic bent
And what the cultured word,
Against the undoctored incident
That actually occurred?
(Note the extra ‘undoctored’ syllable in line three.) This italicised quasi-manifesto from ‘The Benefactors’ attracts examples to itself from Kipling’s entire oeuvre, where the ‘beauty’ of each example is the beauty of accuracy rather than the beauty of eloquence. For instance, the political background of the Marconi scandal is now almost irretrievably lost, so that ‘Gehazi’ , once a topical poem, now survives as an unforgettable evocation of leprosy:
The boils that shine and burrow
The sores that slough and bleed—
Four verbs that one can hardly bear to dwell on, so vivid that one almost inches away.
In this category, one can include the olfactory shock of ‘the mud boils foul and blue’; the sticky candour of ‘ “Snarleyow” ’ where a gun-carriage wheel is said to be ‘juicy’ after it has gone over a body; and the unpleasantly palpable details which Kipling relishes in ‘Mandalay’: the ‘Beefy face an’ grubby ’and’ of housemaids in a London of ‘gritty pavin’-stones’, far from the ‘sludgy, squdgy creek’ back East. Kipling’s poetry has a strong stomach and it hardly ever looks away. There is very little in the way of whiffling sensibility. Rather there is a determination to include the unaesthetic: ‘breech-blocks jammed with mud’; ‘the lid of the flesh-pot chattered high’; ‘the ten-times fingering weed’; ‘the club-footed vines’. Rather than the baby seal with its soap-bubble eye, seal culling means gloves ‘stiff with frozen blood’. Barren, featureless and therefore indescribable landscapes are not a problem for Kipling because he d0esn’t feel the constraint of literary decorum and takes his similes where and as he finds them: ‘Old Aden, like a barrick-stove / That no one’s lit for years an’ years.’ He casts a cold eye on death, too—on ‘the wide-eyed corpse’, on ‘Blanket-hidden bodies, flagless, followed by the flies’, on ‘ ’Is carcase past rebellion, but ’is eyes inquirin’ why’ .
It would be easy to continue quoting in this heterogeneous way. Sounds and the sea, however, provide two conveniently unified anthologies of excellence. Perfectly captured sounds include: ‘And the lisp of the split banana-frond / That talked us to sleep when we were small’; ‘To hear the traffic slurring / Once more through London mud’; ‘the sob of the questing lead!’; the ‘snick’ of a breech-bolt; ‘the thresh of deep-sea rain’; ‘the first dry rattle of new-drawn steel’ at the battle of Edgehill.
The sea is an equally generous provider, bringing us ‘wind-plaited sand-dunes’ and ‘rain-squalls’ that ‘lash and veer’. Kipling’s beach is as real as Joyce’ s Sandymount Strand:
In the heel of the wind-bit pier,
Where the twisted weed was piled.
‘Piled’ somehow evokes very precisely the illusion of immense and slightly inept labour that is suggested by the accumulation of sea-weed on a shore—as if it had been put there, deliberately, untidily, rather than accidentally. Kipling is good on the sea solus (‘the drunken rollers comb’) and in conjunction with ships: ‘The shudder, the stumble, the swerve, as the star-stabbing bowsprit emerges’; ‘the shouting of the back-stay in a gale’.
When it comes to the sinking of ships, Kipling surrenders everything to the task of seeing the object as in itself it really is: the most famous example occurs in ‘The Mary Gloster’:
Down by the head an’ sinkin’, her fires are drawn and cold,
And the water’s splashin’ hollow on the skin of the empty hold—
Churning an’ choking and chuckling, quiet and scummy and dark—
In ‘ “The Trade” ’, Kipling catches the aftermath: ‘only whiffs of paraffin / Or creamy rings that fizz and fade’. ‘The Destroyers’ again consults the entrails of catastrophe: ‘Till, streaked with ash and sleeked with oil, / The lukewarm Whirlpools close!’ Here, ‘lukewarm’ adds immeasurably to the reality of the scene. As an adjective, it is calculatedly unpoetic compared to the more obviously rhetorical lines which follow:
A shadow down the sickened wave
Long since her slayer fled.
Here we are recognisably in the presence of poetry, whereas with ‘lukewarm’ poetry was not a consideration.
In ‘The King’ (1894), Kipling shows himself fully aware of his aesthetic position which is completely counter to Arnold, who felt Victorian England to be intractably unpoetic—a supposition indubitably correct in his own case, as a glance at ‘East London’ and ‘West London’ will show. Kipling’s allegiance is rather with Baudelaire and Eliot, poets determined to write in the present, with its gamps, galoshes, gaslights, spats, stove-pipe hats and area gates. Kipling’s King is the spirit of Romance—a figure generally considered to be incompatible with, say, the railway season ticket. Kipling’s King brings up the 9.15 train, in the driver’ s cab, the ‘unconsidered miracle’.
Kipling, then, is a Modernist rather than the dated Edwardian of conventional criticism. Looked at thus, his poetry can surprise us with its affinities. Eliot, for instance, is indebted to ‘The Long Trail’ for the metre of ‘Skimble-shanks’—the greatest Modernist significantly taking the serious metric of Kipling and transposing it downwards to the frankly lighter mode. But more importantly Eliot is Kipling’s debtor in ‘The Hollow Men’ and in the third of his ‘Preludes’:
You dozed, and watched the night revealing
The thousand sordid images
Of which your soul was constituted;
They flickered against the ceiling.
Kipling’s ‘Gentleman-Rankers’ not only foreshadows Eliot’s use of the nursery rhyme in ‘The Hollow Men’ (‘We’re poor little lambs who’ve lost our way, / Baa! Baa! Baal’) but also contributes: ‘Every secret, self-revealing on the aching whitewashed ceiling.’ When one reads ‘Gertrude’s Prayer’, one looks back to Chaucer and to Ecclesiastes, but also ahead to Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos in their closing pages. The subject of both poems is irremediable error, for which a language drenched in contrition and self-denial is appropriate—so each poet chooses an impersonal, ritual dialect, a diction of hallowed simplicity, worn smooth with centuries of use, which yet avoids the taint of archaism, of mere quaint pageantry:
The ant’s a centaur in his dragon world.
Pull down thy vanity, it is not man
Made courage, or made order, or made grace,
Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.
Learn of the green world what can be thy place
In scaled invention or true artistry,
Pull down thy vanity,
Paquin pull down!
Pound’s rhyme is more intermittent than Kipling’s, but both men are masters of the refrain whose measured simplicity eventually amounts to what one can only call a scourged eloquence. ‘Dayspring mishandled cometh not againe!’
Reading Kipling’s poetry now is to realise how far ahead of his time his writing was. ‘The Return’ returns to a constant theme of Kipling’s—the soldier's discontent in civvy street—and looks ahead to the laconic specificity of Auden. In ‘Memorial for the City’, Auden brings a scene alive with a single bizarre image: ‘The soldiers fire, the mayor bursts into tears.’ ‘The Return’ anticipates Auden’s economical documentation of the war-zone:
Towns without people, ten times took,
An’ ten times left an’ burned at last;
An’ starvin’ dogs that come to look
For owners when a column passed…
I think Kipling’s is less mannered and contrived: ‘Be’ind the pegged barbed-wire strands. / Beneath the tall electric light …’ There are two words in the Kipling which expose Auden’s effortful authenticity. They are ‘pegged’ and ‘tall’.
I do not wish to overstate Kipling’s Modernism. It would be slightly fanciful to insist on the poésie pure of ‘McAndrew’s Hymn’—the pure sound of catalogued technicalities like crosshead-gibs, the coupler-flange, the connecting-rod, the spindle-guide—since the poem is by way of being Kipling’s earliest manifesto and fraught, therefore, with meaning. As a poem, it belongs with those others that declare the figure in Kipling’s carpet—‘The Glory of the Garden’, ‘The Survival’ and ‘Alnaschar and the Oxen’. McAndrew is Kipling’s lifelong subject. He is one of the Sons of Martha. He is an underdog—essential, but ignored by ‘the passengers, wi’ gloves an’ canes’. In ‘The Glory of the Garden’, the lawns are not everything: ‘the Glory of the Garden lies in more than meets the eye’:
For where the old thick laurels grow, along the thin red wall,
You find the tool- and potting-sheds which are the heart of all;
The cold-frames and the hot-houses, the dungpits and the tanks,
The rollers, cans and drainpipes, with the barrows and the planks.
This is the metrical source, as it happens, for ‘Growltiger’s Last Stand’. How was it, then, that Eliot overlooked this vital connecting-rod? Eliot’s selection of Kipling was made in 1941 and, in a sense, represents an aspect of the poet’s war-work. France had capitulated, the evacuation at Dunkirk had taken place and Germany had begun what looked like a successful invasion of Russia. All this finds its reflection in Eliot’s selection which draws heavily and understandably on Kipling’s patriotic verse. As a result, Eliot’s selection, though an enduring landmark, has some extraordinary omissions: the ballad "The Gift of the Sea’, the chilling and pitiless masterpiece ‘A Death-Bed’, ‘My Boy Jack’, ‘A Nativity’, the powerfully nostalgic ‘Lichtenberg’ whose refrain (‘Riding in, in the rain’) contains its own swallow of emotion, and ‘Bridge-Guard in the Karroo’. This last poem, written in 1901, is one of Kipling’s most characteristic masterpieces. It territory is familiarly foreign. It deals with soldiers. Its narrative is easy to follow. It has none of the chilly parallelism of ‘A Death-Bed’ where the course of the First World War and the progress of a cancer patient towards certain death are juxtaposed with cold relish. The stamp of Kipling’s authority is every-where in ‘Bridge-Guard in the Karroo’—from the beauty of the sunset to the quiet desolation of the homesick guard:
We slip through the broken panel
Of fence by the ganger’s shed;
We drop to the waterless channel
And the lean track overhead;
We stumble on refuse of rations,
The beef and the biscuit-tins…
Kipling is our laureate of litter, our bard of homesickness, capable of capturing the very details of despair: ‘the click of the restless girders / As steel contracts in the cold—’; ‘A morsel of dry earth falling / From the flanks of the scarred ravine’. The ‘hosts of heaven’ themselves are seen ‘Framed through the iron arches—/ Banded and barred by the ties’—and remind one, yet again, of Pound:
a sinistra la Torre
seen through a pair of breeches.
Perhaps it is appropriate to conclude with the coupling of two politically unpopular poets—with their beleaguered sympathies and their discriminating ears. However, the sceptic will respond, with some justice, that it is easy to justify ‘Bridge-Guard in the Karroo’, but where is the poetry in the famous, unexcludable ‘If —’? The case for ‘If—’ has never been made. Neither has the case against it. For admirers and detractors alike, I imagine, the verdict seems self-evident. Those who dislike Kipling on principle would frame their objections as follows: ‘If—’ is nothing more than the complacent aggregation of impossible precepts and as far from poetry as the average school song.
I agree that ‘If—’ is a test case. Personally, I feel the poem’s power, but is that power the power of verse or the power of poetry? The advice is by and large sound and line eight (‘And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise’) takes off the curse of complacency. What the sensitive reader responds to is not the particularities of advice but the impossibly stretched rhetorical structure. ‘If—’ is a single sentence, endlessly burdened by the weight of hypotheticals. The conclusion ‘you’ll be a Man, my son!’—depends on more qualifications than it seems possible for one sentence to bear. The poem, then, mimics the moral difficulty posed by Kipling—and yet the successful negotiation of the impossibly cumbered sentence to its end demonstrates, in miniature, the possibility of achieving something genuinely difficult. As single sentence poems go, it is one of the longest, and it possesses all the poetry of the lovingly deferred finale of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto. Form tells as much as the substance—and is, indisputably, poetry of a high order.
Source: London Review of Books. Vol. 14 No. 15. 6 August 1992