Kipling the Reliable

David Trotter

  • Early Verse by Rudyard Kipling 1879-1889 edited by Andrew Rutherford
    Oxford, 497 pp, £19.50, March 1986, ISBN 0 19 812323 X
  • Kipling’s India: Uncollected Sketches 1884-88 edited by Thomas Pinney
    Macmillan, 301 pp, £25.00, January 1986, ISBN 0 333 38467 9
  • Imperialism and Popular Culture edited by John MacKenzie
    Manchester, 264 pp, £25.00, February 1986, ISBN 0 7190 1770 X
  • Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases edited by Henry Yule and A.C. Burnell
    Routledge, 1021 pp, £18.95, November 1985, ISBN 0 7100 2886 5

At the height of Empire, and of the literature of Empire, J.K. Stephen looked forward to a time

When there stands a muzzled stripling,
    Mute, beside a muzzled bore,
When the Rudyards cease from Kipling
    And the Haggards Ride no more.

The Haggards have ridden rather precariously since the decline of Empire, if at all. But the next few years promise no end of Kipling. When copyright runs out, his work will be published extensively in paperback, and may or may not be read.

Kipling is a writer between readerships: no longer anything like as popular as he once was, but not quite unpopular enough to be included in courses on Modernism or The Short Story. His reputation declined quite sharply during his lifetime; so much so that a Kipling Society was founded in 1927 to restore it. The first issue of the Kipling Journal was devoted to reaffirming the basis of that reputation: the ‘Patriotism Appeal’ of a man who had always written ‘for the honour and benefit of England, praising us when we deserve it, and rating us when we need it’. The founders of the Society supposed that Kipling’s vision of a rooted but technocratic Greater Britain would continue to attract and identify a readership:

So long as men commune with men
Their lips will shrine thy lyric pen.
So long as we have eyes to see,
Thy temple of Humanity
Will rear from Britain’s royal sod
To draw us nearer to our God.

In 1986 Kipling’s readers have eyes for other aspects of his imagination: a tendency welcomed by the Society’s current literature. But the work of commemoration goes on. Somebody is still slipping into the temple of humanity, if only to polish the silver, or donate an Irish sixpence.

The Great Traditions of the academic study of literature have on the whole been framed to exclude technology, Patriotism Appeal and the royal sod. They have on the whole excluded Kipling. Andrew Rutherford’s 1971 Penguin selection tried to smuggle him in by putting the emphasis on the later, more psychologically and artistically complex stories. But as Angus Wilson (President of the Kipling Society) pointed out in his 1977 biography, this won’t really do. You can’t ignore half a career, or the political and literary traditions which shaped the whole of it. Unlike Wells, say, Kipling is not a latecomer to the party who can be relieved of blunt implements at the door and coaxed apologetically towards the drinks.

Nevertheless, canonisation – or at least the bulking-out of an oeuvre which sometimes accompanies it – has begun. An edition of the letters is on the way. Already we have Professor Rutherford’s gathering of previously unpublished or uncollected early poems, and Professor Thomas Pinney’s selection from the early journalism: special reports, feature articles, social notes, reviews and comic sketches written for the Lahore Civil and Military Gazette between 1884 and 1888. Both editors acknowledge the rawness of the work they have printed, but argue that it will change our view of Kipling’s early career.

Professor Rutherford has the harder task, since, as he admits, the early poems should be regarded as ‘digressions’ not only from Kipling’s official duties but also from his ‘main artistic endeavours’. To be sure, they reveal Kipling’s precocity, and the breadth of his reading. ‘It is a body of verse uneven in quality, but of considerable interest, social and historical as well as biographical and literary.’ In this context, however, ‘uneven’ is the estate agent’s version of half-way down a precipice; while the ‘considerable interest’ derives very largely from Professor Rutherford’s meticulous headnotes, rather than from the poems.

The book consists of 117 poems written while Kipling was still at school, and 171 written after he had returned to India in 1882. The Indian poems are irreverent and inexhaustibly facetious:

These are the ballads, tender and meek,
Sung by a bard with his tongue in his cheek.
Sung by a poet, well a day!
Who doesn’t believe a word of his lay.
Rattleton Traplegh was pretty and pink;
Rattleton Traplegh was (only think!)
Sadly addicted to flirting with
Mrs Saphira Wallabie Smith.

The names at least are a minor addition to Anglo-Indian humour: in a Ford Madox Ford novel, one would be a place, the other Head of a beastly Public School for Middle-Class Girls. Kipling was adept at parody. By writing with Tennysonian or Arnoldian grandeur about the realities of Anglo-Indian life, he dramatised not only his literary ambitions but differences of attitude between the British at home and the British in India. Although staunchly Anglo-Indian, he didn’t hesitate to expose social and political lapses, and sometimes drew an angry protest from his victims; the formality and self-evident marginality of verse allowed him to enjoy the role of irritant. But it was not until he settled in London in 1889, and assimilated the rhythms and the fatalistic bravado of music-hall songs, that he began writing poems which claim to represent, to articulate common experiences.

It is possible to admire Professor Rutherford’s scholarship, and still wonder why this book has been published. We now have a better edition of poems which will appeal only to the most hardy among the faithful than we do of poems which readers attracted by the prose are quite likely to seek out. T.S. Eliot’s 1941 selection helped to revive Kipling’s reputation. Surely it would have made sense to include the best of the early verse in a new and more comprehensive selection. Why go to such lengths to refurbish and consecrate a lumber-room at the back of the temple of humanity when you are not yet sure how many people will be coming in through the front?

Kipling was 19 when he began to write for the Civil and Military Gazette, and still feeling his way into forms and idioms designed above all to settle his nerves. His sketches of Indian and Anglo-Indian life are a little forced, but eminently – almost presumptuously – readable. Unlike the poems, they were not digressions. They represented the means by which Kipling hoped to establish himself in society: not as an irritant, but as a reliable witness and a shaper of opinion. They will, as Professor Pinney suggests, change our view of his early career.

In his autobiography, Something of Myself, Kipling told a story of exile and return. He represented India as a land of imaginative and emotional stimulus, England as a land of exile where he learnt (through deprivation) the advantages of self-discipline and reserve. Arriving back in India at the age of 16 to take up his post on the Civil and Military Gazette, he knew at once that his original responsiveness had survived intact. ‘I found myself at Bombay where I was born, moving among sights and smells that made me deliver the vernacular sentences whose meaning I knew not ... my English years fell away, nor ever, I think, came back in full strength.’ The English years did persist at Lahore, in the shape of a tyrannical editor who kept him hard at work on routine matters. But he benefited from the discipline: and the productive sights and smells of India were never far away.

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