Saturday, 7 March 2015

Exceedingly Good Poems

Were it not for the wonderful Mr Michael Wood (how come he hasn't been knighted yet?) the 150th anniversary of the birth of Rudyard Kipling might have passed me by altogether.  In his column in this month's BBC History magazine, Michael points out that "writers are made by their times", an astute observation from someone whose first occupation is not literature - although who can forget his wonderful documentary series on Shakespeare?

Quite rightly, he points out the dichotomy between Kipling's two sides - as both champion and critic of the British Empire.  Siegfried Sassoon's response to Kipling's work was equally ambivalent.  He certainly admired Kipling as a writer, but became self-conscious about this as he gradually realised how closely associated the latter was becoming with Establishment and Empire.  It was by now recognised that his Just So Stories, which so many of his critics had enjoyed as children, represented the colonial lifestyle that was already not merely out of fashion, but had fallen out of favour with some - though it would be many decades before it died out altogether.

One thing Siegfried Sassoon and Rudyard Kipling had in common was that they lived in the south-east of England at the same time, though Kipling did not move there until 1897, having previously lived in India, South Africa and the United States, as well as other parts of the UK.  Eventually, in 1902, he and his American wife Carrie settled permanently at Bateman’s, a Jacobean house near Burwash, now in East Sussex.  The house and gardens now belong to the National Trust and are open to the public, and come highly recommended (by me).  This was Kipling's home until his death in 1936.

John Kipling
Kipling's son John would have been four or five years old when the family moved into Bateman's.  He was born at their previous home, "The Elms" in Rottingdean (also in Sussex).  John's story is widely known, having been adapted into a play, My Boy Jack.  Kipling's attitude towards Jack is seen by many as having brought about the young man's death, and this outcome is generally regarded as a just punishment for his father.  Severely short-sighted, the boy was turned down at least twice for military service before Kipling senior used his influence to get him a commission in the Irish Guards, aged only seventeen.  He lasted about a month at the Western Front, before going missing in September 1915.

As for Rudyard Kipling, his activities as a government propagandist made him unpopular with liberals and the literary fraternity, even before the war.  When a nervous Sassoon met Rupert Brooke for the first time, he made the mistake of assuming that Brooke would share this opinion, and commented (according to his own account of the occasion) that Kipling's poetry was "terribly tub-thumping stuff".  Brooke disagreed, pointing to "Cities and Thrones and Powers", which Siegfried was forced to admit he had never read.

By a strange coincidence, Kipling died, aged 70, two days before King George V, who was six months his senior.  For some years, Kipling had been writing the King's most important speeches, and his 1922 poem, "The King's Pilgrimage", describes a visit made by George V to the battlefields of Europe to visit the graves of those killed in the service of Empire during the War.  Jack's grave was not, of course, among them, as his body had never been identified.  Kipling was by now a member of the Imperial War Graves Commission, perhaps helping to assuage some of his own paternal grief by writing inscriptions to commemorate other men's sons.  "Known unto God" (on the graves of unidentified soldiers) and "The Glorious Dead" (on the Cenotaph at Whitehall) are just two of the phrases he coined.

I would not dream of passing myself off as a Kipling expert, but my own feelings towards his work were considerably softened by Meg Crane's reading of his wonderful short story, "The Gardener", to the coachload of Sassoonites who travelled to Ypres in 2010.  If you were among them, I know you will remember it too.  If you haven't read it, try to do so and you will understand why I will stop at that. 
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