As the first English-language author to win a Nobel Prize in Literature, Rudyard Kipling remains a controversial figure. On the one hand, he manipulated language smoothly, transitioning among genres in ways few authors ever have. His novels, verse, and journalism remain standards of their various forms. But he also frequently lapsed into shocking racism, praised imperial conquest, and excused injustice. This collection covers that whole range.
Editor Thomas Pinney naturally selects some obvious choices, poems like “Danny Deever,” “Gunga Din,” and “If-” that audiences know and love. But of these 100 poems, seventy-four were never collected again between the time Kipling published them and 2013. Some have lain unread, even by scholars, for over a century. It seems Kipling habitually tore off quite good verses for friends or special occasions, published them in rag newspapers, and never looked back.
How audiences receive this collection will depend, naturally, on what those audiences hope to find. Readers who enjoy well-turned phrases and artfully constructed rhymes will certainly find them. Kipling was among the last generation of poets who worked exclusively in rhyme, and his tightly constructed verse reflects a waning courtly aesthetic of consciously forged verse going back to bards and gentlemen versifiers preceding Shakespeare or Chaucer.
Readers seeking proof of Neanderthal conservatism will find that, too. Kipling demonstrated patronizing attitudes toward women and brown-skinned peoples that would make even hardened Tories blanche today. Some of these poems include sweeping stereotypes, and more than a few drop the N-bomb. Not that Kipling forgave racism: in several poems, white racists receive swift comeuppance. But he’s remarkably frank in using such language without even an “excuse me please.”
Kipling’s verse adroitly admits multiple readings simultaneously. When he writes about, say, the joy of riding though the Indian countryside at sunrise, we can appreciate his love of nature. But the “nature” he enjoys is neatly barbered by conquered peoples to let white colonial masters ride unhindered. It’s impossible to recognize one side without seeing the other. One suspects even Kipling understood this duality, because his wordplay reveals glimpses of playfully dark irony.
Quoting Kipling’s verse is difficult. Most poems run quite long, with intricate looping rhymes that suggest party-time song and public reading. And not just long in line count, either; his lines run from margin to margin and beyond, a robust display of typography that makes contemporary free-verse poets, who often fill barely half the page, look anemic. Translating that type-bound design to the Internet loses Kipling’s original muscular momentum.
Yet occasional verses have orthographic concision that permits extraction while spotlighting Kipling’s choices. His “Bobs,” dedicated to “Field-Marshal Lord Roberts of Kandahar,” runs three pages, but its short lines and spotlighted rhymes mimic the music-hall classic “Sam Hall,” neatly encompassing Kipling’s, and perforce our, willful blindness to empire:
There’s a little red-faced man(Eight verses in that same inflexible singalong style.)
Which is Bobs,
Rides the tallest ‘orse ‘e can—
If it bucks or kicks or rears,
‘E can sit for twenty years
With a smile round both ‘is ears—
Can’t yer, Bobs?...
Kipling uses this structure well, suggesting he hoped not only that audiences would read his poems aloud, but they’d join in. One can practically hear the audience shouting out “Can’t yer, Bobs?” But this participatory glory has its dark side, as in verses like “South Africa,” an apparent paean to empire’s supposedly unbreakable will:
The shame of Amajuba HillI find myself surprisingly willing to forgive Kipling’s Late Empire attitudes, because one gets the notion even he felt uncomfortable with his situation. Like Joseph Conrad, he seems to recognize how he’s contributing to shockingly violent inequality, yet can’t bring himself to quit the privileges his standing provides. In that way, Kipling may resemble our modern situation more completely than does our moralistic outrage just because he said the N-word.
Lies heavy on our line,
But here is shame completer still
And England makes no sign.
Unchallenged, in the market-place
Of freedom’s chosen land,
Our rulers pass our rule and race
Into the stranger’s hand...
Pinney, who also edited the first-ever truly complete collection of Kipling’s poetry, doesn’t pretend Kipling was some saint. He presents these poems as landmarks of Britain’s waning empire, as products of their time. If we read Kipling that way, without trying to make him conform to our morality, he remains a remarkable poet. But that requires us to do two difficult feats: not judge him by our standards, and not forgive him his era’s limitations.