Kipling and Modernism

Craig Raine

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’ 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 damn ed 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.’
Sullivan swallowed
And looked dimly far away
And said, ‘Okay,
Form follows function, then.’
He said it again,
A three-word spark
Of modern arch-
Itectural brilliance
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.

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