David Gilmour’s witty and elegant, original and useful book chronicles “Kipling’s political life, his early role as apostle of the Empire, the embodiment of imperial aspiration, and his later one as the prophet of national decline.” Sympathetic yet aware of Kipling’s faults, Gilmour shows that his ideas were more subtle than those of a crude imperialist. Kipling’s political causes included
British rule in India, Imperial Federation, Tariff Reform, the survival of France, compulsory military service, the preservation of Ulster from home-ruled Ireland, the protection of Britain from the dangers of Germany . . . and the cause of British supremacy in southern Africa.
Always a good hater and man of strong words, Kipling’s range of loathing
stretched from the Germans to the Québécois, and from the Irish to the Indian National Congress. In England it encompassed trade unions, democracy, liberalism, Free Trade, socialism, [suffragettes,] and bungalows.
His bêtes noires included prime ministers H.H. Asquith, Lloyd George, and Winston Churchill, as well as Lord Ripon, the viceroy of India. His pantheon of heroes consisted of Cecil Rhodes, proconsul Alfred Milner, colonial secretary Joseph Chamberlain, and Teddy Roosevelt, who warned Kipling that a war with England over the Venezuela boundary would be worthwhile if it enabled America to seize Canada.
Born in India, the son of an artist and a teacher, with (like Maugham and Orwell) a public-school but not a university education, physically unattractive, unusually dark, extremely nearsighted, personally insecure, and aggressively trying to make his way in the world, the young Kipling felt threatened by India and the Indians and accepted the moral justification of imperialism: “introducing a sane and orderly administration into the dark places of the earth.” His two great themes were the need to defend civilization against brute nature and barbarian people and the stoic self-sacrifice of the British officials who devoted their lives to the welfare of the native population. His virtues throughout life were “courage, loyalty, obedience, self-control, leadership and endurance.”
Like most Anglo-Indian children, Kipling was educated in England because it was “‘inexpedient’ to create little orientalized pashas . . . enervated by the climate and thinking of India as ‘home.’” But the harrowing maltreatment he suffered in a Southsea boarding house engendered a streak of cruelty in his work. His first, teenage job was at the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore (now in Pakistan). Fluent in Hindi, he loved to pick up useful information by wandering through Lahore’s labyrinthine alleys, bazaars, and opium dens. The journalist’s job, he felt, was alerting the public and the government to “the problems of a particular district and hammering away at them until something was done.”
Kipling’s first volume of stories, Plain Tales From the Hills (1888), taught “the English something of the world outside England” and created the English image of India. It gave Oscar Wilde, his literary antithesis, the sensation of sitting “under a palm-tree reading life by superb flashes of vulgarity.” Both his stories and poems were honed by high craftsmanship and an economy of implication. Gilmour gets to the core of the work in only a few sentences. He rapidly covers Kipling’s career and shrewdly places it in its political context.
In Kipling’s poignant and relentlessly rhythmic “Arithmetic on the Frontier,” the tragic fate of a British officer, cut down by a long-barreled Afghan match-lock, symbolizes the collision of medieval and modern civilizations, where highly trained soldiers with the latest weapons are defeated by a ruthless enemy with nothing to lose:
A scrimmage in a Border Station–
A canter down some dark defile—
Two thousand pounds of education Drops to a ten-rupee jezail.
Often inspired by the Bible, ballads, and hymns, Kipling introduced more memorable phrases into English than any writer since Shakespeare. “Recessional” (the retirement of clergy and choir at the end of a service) is one of the most famous poems in the language. It appeals “to God for his mercy and to his people for repentance,” and contains many impressive lines:
Beneath whose awful Hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine . . .
The tumult and the shouting dies;
The captains and the kings
depart . . .
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre! . . .
as well as the notorious:
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the law . . .
“In the Neolithic Age” contrasts the laxity of the East with the strict morality of the West: “And the wildest dreams of Kew are the facts of Khatmandhu, / And the crimes of Clapham chaste in Martaban.” I remembered these lines when I took the ferry in Burma from Moulmein to Martaban. But in that swampy, sleepy village, I saw no signs of prodigious depravity or sexual corruption. In “Mándalay,” Kipling made an uncharacteristic mistake. To the west of Moulmein, across the bay, is the coast of central Burma; to the east, across the land, is Siam. So the dawn does not come up “like thunder outer China ’crost the Bay!” For China, even Indochina, is nowhere near Moulmein or its bay.
Kipling, who assumed the prophetic role, had the uncanny ability to anticipate, express, and encourage public sentiment “just before it became apparent.” He had no illusions and correctly predicted the dangers of “the Boers and apart-heid, the Kaiser and a war, Hitler and
another war, the Hindu-Muslim strife whenever Britain decided to withdraw from India.” After the Boer War and the advent of a Liberal government in 1905, however, his role changed: “No longer the apostle whom everyone wanted to hear, he was consigned to the role of Cassandra, condemned to utter prophecies that no one would heed.”
Kipling admired strong conquerors and, like Shaw and Churchill, at first praised Mussolini—though he later came to regard him as an irrational megalomaniac. But Kipling himself was a tame and docile husband, completely under the thumb of his old dreadnought of a wife. One friend described his married life as “‘one of complete surrender. He had handed himself over bodily, financially and spiritually to his spouse,’ obeying her commands without ‘any signs of murmuring or even of incipient mutiny.’” Carrie, a cross between a possessive nanny and a prison matron, would interrupt him, finish his stories, and, when he became too lively after a few bottles of wine, order him to bed. It is surprising that she allowed him to refuse all official posts and distinctions, including a knighthood and the highly coveted Order of Merit. She constantly threatened to jump out of the window if he did not do exactly as she wanted, and it is a great pity that he never took her up on the offer.
Speaking of reactionary authors in his elegy on Yeats, Auden wrote that time pardoned Kipling and Claudel—pardoned them for writing well. Despite current political cant, there is no longer any need to pardon Kipling for glorifying imperialism. For all its economic exploitation, Britain laid the permanent foundations of medicine, education, justice, administration, transport, and industry in all the countries it ruled. It provided quinine and vaccinations, built roads, railways, and canals. It maintained the peace, protected minorities, and prevented people from dying of disease and starvation. Brit-ish administrators brought feudal societies into the modern world and maintained a standard of honesty that has com-pletely disappeared from the tropical countries of what once was the British Empire.
[The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling, by David Gilmour (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux) 351 pp., $26.00]