Exploring Rudyard Kipling's political life

April 28, 2002|By John E. McIntyre | By John E. McIntyre,Sun Staff

The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling, by David Gilmour. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 368 pages. $26.

Kipling the poet and Kipling the man with the scarring childhood occupy books elsewhere.

David Gilmour is interested in Kipling the imperialist, the poet laureate of Empire, who turns out to be more complex than the blatting jingoist of popular repute.

This does not mean that Rudyard Kipling turns out to have been a wooly lamb. He believed that Britain had a right -- and a duty -- to rule lesser peoples, and he was sure which peoples were lesser. He held a great, though paternalistic, affection for the people of what is now India and Pakistan, but he believed that they lacked the capacity for responsible self-government.

And yet.

And yet, in his younger days, he slipped the confines of the Raj, moved about the subcontinent and wrote about its people memorably and with sympathy, notably in Kim. His sympathy for the working-class English was given a literary voice in his Barrack Room Ballads. And yet at the high-water mark of the imperialism for which Kipling propagandized, he heard the tide receding. His most famous poem of Empire, "Recessional," is apprehensive that a nation grown arrogant and boastful will fail to live up to its responsibilities, becoming "one with Nineveh and Tyre."

As Kipling aged, the tone shifted toward anger and contempt. The period just before the First World War, Gilmour says, was Kipling's "decade of hating," with "a crescendo of execration to reinforce a range of loathing that already stretched from the Germans to the Quebecois, and from the Irish to the Indian National Congress. In England it encompassed trade unions, democracy, liberalism, Free Trade, socialism and bungalows."

It was not a hatred much conducive to art as a bit of a poem opposed to Irish independence shows: "We know the war prepared / On every peaceful home, / We know the hells declared / For such as serve not Rome -- / The terror, threats, and dread / In market, hearth, and field -- / We know, when all is said, / We perish if we yield."

Animus malforms the prose as well. There is a particularly creepy short story, "Mary Postgate," in which a genteel lady savors the lingering death of a German airman.

Despite the psychological and literary references, The Long Recessional is a book about politics, and therefore of specialized interest, casting its light, by design, on only one facet of its enigmatic subject.

The Kipling Problem is of a considerable creative talent put into the service of reprehensible ideas and attitudes. It may be that we are too close in time, too tender about imperialism, to forgive him. It may be that we are too uncomfortable to take the balanced view that Gilmour achieves. But after all, as Gilmour observes, Kipling was right; the Empire didn't last.

John E. McIntyre is The Sun's assistant managing editor for the copy desk and president of the American Copy Editors Society. He thinks that there has been very little worthwhile political poetry since the death of Dryden -- well, maybe Swift.

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