Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Have you ever kippled?

Note: See my post on Ilana Mercer's blog http://www.ilanamercer.com/ under Solomonic State Censors Speech. I post fairly frequently there.

"Do you like Kipling?"
"I don't know, I've never kippled."

John Derbyshire has a column on poetry at National Review Online here http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=NmY5ODVkZjdiZDAzYWUwZjM0YzhmZWZhMWQ0MGNmMjk=

"Popular poetry is no longer written. If a person, other than a salaried academic or the recent product of a university Eng. Lit. course, spontaneously quotes a line of poetry at you, the line is unlikely to be less than 80 years old. (In my experience, which to be sure is mostly with fellow conservatives, it will be a line from Kipling about 50 percent of the time.)"

I have long been puzzled that few people in college English departments seem to recognize what seems perfectly obvious to me, that Rudyard Kipling is the major poet of the modern English language. One college textbook said that he was once considered in the first-rank of English poets, but now is recognized as a second-rank poet. I was told by a Polish academic however, that Jorge Luis Borges considered Kipling the greatest English poet, "Because he's the only one who wrote about real things."

Kipling is one of those writers who looked at life as it is, not as we wish it were, and wrote about it with brilliant insight and ruthless honesty. For this he is passionately loved and passionately hated, nobody is indifferent to him. And if the quality of a man is made known by his enemies then Kipling is certainly worth a look.

Poul Anderson commented that, like Homer, Kipling may outlive our civilization. A thousand years from now scholars are going to have their hands full understanding the language he used, full of Hindi loan words, soldiers argot and the dialect of common folks rendered in phonetic spelling. This gives non-native speakers trouble trying to understand him. (Though my wife loves him and often brings works she's found on her own to my attention.)

(Academics think that writing in the common tongue is kind of no-class evidently. Didn't a fellow named Dante Alligheri shock everybody once by doing something like that?)

People who hate Kipling don't just disagree with him and his quaint, old-fashioned notions of virtue, honesty, character and loyalty, nor do they fail to understand what he's saying, they go out of their way to misrepresent and vilify what he said and stood for.

"Kipling was a racist."

In a word, poppycock. (I would have said "bullshit" - but Kipling wouldn't.) Read his short stories "Without Benefit of Clergy" or "The Story of Mohammed Din" or poems such as "My Mother Lodge Back Home" and say that.

Those who cry "racist" sometimes cite "Song of the White Men"

"Now this is oath that the white men take when they build their homes afar,
Freedom for ourselves, and freedom for our sons, and failing freedom - war.
We have kept our faith, bear witness to our faith, dear souls of freemen slain,
But well to the world when the white men join, to prove their faith again!"

Two observations: To speak well of your own people is NOT equivalent to speaking ill of someone else's. And it's pretty plain from the body of his work that he was talking about Western Civilization, not a race per se. Now try reciting the poem to a gathering of the very PC, substituting "Black Men" for "White Men" and see who thinks it's racist. It's a hoot - but stand near the exit if you can't resist letting them in on the joke eventually.

Others cite the line, "Those that hold not thee in awe, lesser breeds without the law." This is great because it's prima facie evidence that they haven't read him. Otherwise they'd know that he was talking about the Germans in the years between the world wars.

Now sample this if you still believe Kipling was a racial chauvinist.

"The people of the Eastern Ice they are melting like the snow,
They beg for coffee and sugar, they go where the White Men go.

"The people of the Western Ice, they learn to steal and fight,
They sell their furs to the trading post, they sell their souls to the White.

"The people of the Southern Ice, they trade with the whaler's crew,
Their women have many ribbons, but their tents are torn and few.

"But the people of the Elder Ice, beyond the White Man's ken,
Their spears are tipped with the narwhal horn, and they are the last of The Men!"

Has anyone else written as eloquently about the passing of traditional cultures?

"Kipling was an imperialist."

Yes he was - and we all know that Imperialism is always and forever a Bad Thing. I have heard people in academia argue that the British had no right to interfere with indigenous customs such as Thuggee (the worshippers of the Hindu goddess Kali, whose devotion consisted of strangling and robbing parties of travellers on the roads - 40,000 in a good year), Suttee (the custom of burning widows on their husbands funeral pyre) and slavery. (Not at all the same as the detestable practice of the American South, more like an extended foster-family. Really.)

Kipling pretty obviously thought the British Empire was on balance, a force for good. He also recognized that there was a lot of stupidity in it - and that it was not going to last forever, perhaps not even his lifetime. Now the British Empire is no more and one might ask, "Is the world a safer place specifically because of this?"

"Kipling was a Victorian moralistic prig." (Freely paraphrased.)

Again, read "Without Benefit of Clergy" about the love of an Englishman for his 16-year-old Indian concubine and their child. Or, "The Gardener" about a woman who passes off her illegitimate child as the by-blow of her late brother. Be warned though, be prepared to have the heart torn right out of your body. Both stories are told with a depth of compassion one doesn't see much of these days when everybody seems filled to the brim with a smug, self-satisfied counterfeit of it, but both make it plain that violating the taboos of your tribe has consequences.

"Kipling was an elitist."

If you mean, Kipling had the deepest respect for competence in any field, OK. If you mean "disdain for the lower orders" you can't have read the same Kipling. Unlike the phoney and fatuous love for the common man expressed by Leftists, Kipling actually spent quite a lot of time with army rankers, civil service clerks and workingmen. He loved and respected them are they were, warts and all. From a bit of openly commercial doggerel written to raise money for soldiers' family relief in the Boer War:

"He's an absent-minded beggar and his weaknesses are great:
But we and Paul must take him as we find him:
He is out on active service wiping something off a slate:
And he's left a lot of little things behind him!
"There are girls he walked with casual, they'll be sorry now he's gone,
For an absent-minded beggar they will find him,
But it ain't the time for sermons with the winter coming on:
We must help the girl that Tommy's left behind him!"

So much for Victorian moralizing.

"Kipling looked down on non-Western cultures and religions."


"My brother prays, so saith Kabir, to stone and brass in heathen-wise. But in my brother's voice I hear, mine own unanswered agonies. His God is as his fates assign. His prayer is all the world's - and mine."

Or check out, "Buddah at Kamakura" or "Kim" for that matter.

Even Kipling wrote doggerel sometimes (see "Great Heart"), and often in an otherwise great poem you'll find awkwardly forced rhymes ("The Old Issue").
My son's godmother, who remembers Kipling coming to visit her father, attributes this to his wife (who she will only describe as "that dreadful American woman") making him write to pay the bills when the muse simply wasn't with him. But Kipling's doggerel is better than most of anyone else's best and when Kipling was in top form, he transcends poetry into what one girl I introduced him to described as "inspired prophecy". See, "The Gods of the Copybook Headings".

"In the Carbonifeous Epoch, they promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter, to pay for collective Paul.
And although we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said, "If you don't work, you die."

"On the first Feminian sandstones, they promised the Fuller Life,
Which started by loving our neighbor, and ended by loving his wife.
Till the women had no more children, and men lost Reason and Faith,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said, "The wages of sin is death."

Beginning to see why he's hated, vilified and lied about? He said things that make people profoundly uncomfortable. He said that actions have consequences, that every good thing must be paid for, and that pain is part of our lot in life and there's nothing you can do about it but meet it as bravely as you can.

I was introduced to Kipling by my father when I was a boy, "Gunga Din" I believe it was, and to this day I'm not sure there's anything better he did to prepare me for life's rough spots. I can recite pages of Kipling from memory and can recall some very bad times when I took comfort and strength by taking long walks reciting it to myself.

If I were to recommend literature for the moral education of children, I'd start at an early age with The Jungle Books and I'd make sure they were familiar with "If" and "Hymn to Breaking Strain".

Surely any writer should keep in mind:

"If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken, twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or see the things you gave your life to broken, and stoop and build 'em up with wornout tools."

And take comfort from:

"Oh veiled and secret power, whose paths we seek in vain,
Be with us in our hour, of overthrow and pain.
That we by which sure token, we know thy ways are true,
In spite of being broken, because of being broken,
May rise and build anew.
Stand up and build anew."

Kipling knew whereof he was writing about. His beloved youngest daughter died aged four. He and his wife watched as their 17-year-old only son went off to France and certain death in WWI. After preaching the necessity of sending their nation's youth to the horror of that war, they couldn't find the hypocrisy in themselves to urge him to avoid military service or pull strings to keep him from harm's way.They never even had the comfort of recovering his body. Kipling's line ended with him, none of his surviving children had children of their own.

What he left behind for us is the knowledge that you can take it. Life's blows can break you, and will eventually kill you, but can't beat you unless you give in.

There are worse ways to spend an evening with friends than having a kipple. Turn off the TV, grab a beer, pass around the Complete Verse and have everyone read their favorites.


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