Sunday, February 26, 2017

Oh! / The differential gear! - that huge mass of Kipling poems

Maybe one more day of incomprehension, to finish off the week.  A different kind of bafflement, though.  I completed, in the page-turning sense, the Verses: Definitive Edition (1940) of Rudyard Kipling, the books that was until very recently served as the 800 page collected poems of Kipling.  It is a strange book, and I am not sure how to use it, other than read it.

The only Table of Contents is alphabetical by title.  The poems themselves are organized, I believe by Kipling, in an order that must have meant something to him but confused me.  Departmental Ditties (1885) starts things off, good, first book, lead spot, but the next book, Barrack-Room Ballads (1892) does not appear for over 300 pages.  In between are chronologically wide-ranging selections with some thematic organization – lots of poems about ships, lots of poems about the Boer War.  But not all of them in one place.  New subjects appear, then it is back to South Africa.  I cannot believe how many poems Kipling wrote about the Boer War.

Kipling was among the world’s best-loved poets.  Did his best readers find this organization useful?  They knew the titles, the subjects – they knew where to look for a poem?

I cannot believe, still, the thirty-page chunk titled The Muse among the Motors, a series of poetic parodies in which the poems, in the style of Horace, Chaucer, etc. are all about automobiles and driving.  Wordsworth:

The Idiot Boy

He wandered down the mountain grade
    Beyond the speed assigned –
A youth whom Justice often stayed
    And generally fined.

He went alone, that none might know
    If he could drive or steer.
Now he is in the ditch, and Oh!
    The differential gear!

I picked one of the more thumping ones, just to make things obvious, but some of them, like the Stevenson / Child’s Garden parody, are sad and lovely, they are all ingenious, and some are perhaps funny, including the fifteen-page Shakespeare parody, “The Marrèd Drives of Windsor” (sample stage direction: Enter FALSTAFF, habited as a motorist).

What amazed me the most, I guess, is that Kipling had time for all of this throwaway verse amidst a production of prose fiction and non-fiction that is itself so vast I do not grasp it.  His sheer facility with verse must have been as great as anyone alive at the time.  And this is what he did with it!  Motoring parodies.

No, he did everything with it.  His short stories are invariably accompanied by poems, often only cryptically related to the story, because the composition of verse was part of how he thought.

I thought the best group of poems were the Barrack-Room Ballads, in which Kipling blends the voices of ordinary servicemen in India with music-hall verse.  They were an unusual invention:

I’ve a head like a concertina, I’ve a tongue like a buttonstick,
I’ve a mouth like an old potato, and I’m more than a little sick,
But I’ve had my fun o’ the Corp’ral’s Guard; I’ve made the cinder’s fly,
And I’m here in the Clink for a thundering drink and blacking the Corporal’s eye.  (from “Cells”)

Kipling’s politics, consistent over his life, are always firmly on the side of the soldier, sailor, and engineer, whatever they might be doing, and deeply skeptical of any decisions made much higher up the chain.  The value he puts on the lives of soldiers – and not just British soldiers – is humane and often moving, although politically a source of its own problems.  Kipling does not look like much of an imperialist to me at this point.  But he always supports the troops.

Not that several hundred pages of ironic, obscure poems are that much help with this question.  Some help.


  1. I hope in your Kipling meanderings that you glean some insight into why Kipling won the Nobel but Hardy did not. Certainly time has been kinder to Hardy than to Kipling; and their ashes are nestled side by side (minus Hardy's heart, of course) next to the full casket of the towering Dickens at Poets' Corner.

  2. Honestly, time has not done such a good job with Kipling. Time has perhaps been a little too quick to swallow political arguments against Kipling without checking them against the writings, the extraordinary short stories, especially.

    As for the Nobel, Hardy was not even nominated until 1910, so someone else has Hardy's Nobel, not Kipling. Kipling appears to have the prize that rightly belonged to Angelo de Gubernatis, or Borden Parker Bowne (Literature, 1907 in the menus).

    I mean, when you take a look at the list of the first the first twenty or so winners - prizes are crazy.

  3. "Prizes are crazy" is a good observation since so many prizes for literature, especially in the last half century, are not based on literary merit but some other PC considerations.

    As for your Kipling posting more generally, I am impressed that you navigated through 800 pages; you are a better man that I Gunga Din.

    Let me end with a question (i.e., I have an obsessive-compulsive need to ask questions): what are your favorite Kipling stories?

  4. Prizes are completely crazy and not to be relied on at all. I must thank you, Tom, for this post, for the lines

    Now he is in the ditch, and Oh!
    The differential gear!

    made me laugh out loud, because holy cow what a line. I'm sending that to my mom, she will die.

  5. Jean, you get it, you see the most horrifying part of the motoring poems - that they are funny.

    I don't know what my favorite Kipling stories might be. Every book of Kipling stories, going back to his little stunt in 1888 when he published six books at once, contains masterpieces. Almost every story that is not a masterpiece contains something extraordinary.

    The one where the horses discuss American labor politics can be skipped. But not the one where the horses describe a polo match. Even though both sound like terrible ideas.

    Maybe somebody else can answer. I still have four Kipling collection to go. When I read those, and then do some re-reading, I'll have an answer.

    Any Kipling Selected Stories is a sure thing.

  6. Kipling does not look like much of an imperialist to me at this point.

    Perhaps because I grew up on this history (my father is Indian), I tend to see a lot more imperialism and racism in his work than you do. It would have been an extraordinary person not to have been affected by the atmosphere of imperialism and racism of the era.

    Off the top of my head, a minor example from Kim:
    " Somebody laughed at the little tattered figure strutting on the brickwork plinth under the great tree. Where a native would have lain down, Kim's white blood set him upon his feet."

    And this bit, which left a sour taste in my mouth, the English presented as guarantors against corruption.

    "'He took a label from a bottle of belaitee-pani [soda-water], and, affixing it to a bridge, collected taxes for a month from those who passed, saying that it was the Sirkar's order. Then came an Englishman and broke his head. Ah, brother, I am a town-crow, not a village-crow!'"

    Or the confederation of Indian kings who "have no business to be confederating" according to the narrator
    Or the angle from which he chooses to deal with the Rebellion/Mutiny.

    That's not even getting into whether or not he supported Dyer (who shot protestors at Amritsar) because I can't make head or tail of the sources on that.

    I am not trying to pick a fight or to denigrate Kipling as a writer (Kim is great), just to argue that his critics are not without justification.

  7. "not to have been affected"! No, of course not. Take all of this as relative. Be glad that many of our favorite authors of earlier times did not write about the relevant issues. Many of them would look much less thoughtful than Kipling.

    The Kim narrator is such an ironist - how do you separate the irony? "who had no business to confederate" is an elaborate point-of-view joke, with a lot of assumptions under it. It is not clear to me who the narrator is.

    "his critics are not without justification" - the specific set of critics who have swallowed Said whole without reading Kipling themselves have made an error. That's the group that galls me - that's the group that led me astray for many years.

  8. Not having read Said, I can't comment on that group of critics. I'm sorry they apparently misrepresented the texts to you, it's always annoying when that happens.

    Many writers would have been less thoughtful than Kipling, but the Dyer support (which I have since looked into more, and it's genuine) marks him a more extreme imperialist than even Winston Churchill, who had serious qualms about Dyer's actions and imo correctly compared them to Communist methods. I'm not sure authors of earlier times would have been much worse. That Auden poem was right on Kipling's views.

    IMO the assumptions under "who had no business to confederate" are backed up within the text by the role of a local ruler in the final Great Game spy plot.

  9. I did not know anything about Dyer - 1919, I see! The Dyer support looks like an example of Kipling's radical militarism, not of his imperialism.

    I'm trying to distinguish among ideologies here. Kipling's "the troops are always right" attitude, led him into a number of mistakes, more of them the older he got.

    What is the Auden poem?

  10. The Dyer support looks like an example of Kipling's radical militarism, not of his imperialism.

    Fair enough. I probably haven't read enough of his stuff to distinguish between the two.

    The Auden poem is the original version of In Memory of W.B. Yeats, with these amazing verses which Auden cut in later publications:

    "Time that is intolerant
    Of the brave and innocent,
    And indifferent in a week
    To a beautiful physique,

    Worships language and forgives
    Everyone by whom it lives,
    Pardons cowardice, conceit,
    Lays its honors at their feet.

    Time that with this strange excuse
    Pardoned Kipling and his views,
    And will pardon Paul Claudel,
    Pardons him [Yeats] for writing well."

    I find it astonishing that Auden cut these lines, as they're both true and on a philosophical level terrifying.

  11. I find it astonishing that Auden cut these lines

    Astonishing and awful, and excellent evidence for the view that posterity should not kowtow to writers' afterthoughts about their writings. An author has every right to change their mind about their earlier work, and they can omit whatever they like from their later selected/collected works, but to my mind they should avoid rewriting earlier work if they possibly can, and if they can't, OK, but they shouldn't expect the rest of us to pretend it didn't exist. After you kick the bucket, we're going to read whatever versions we like!

    Those wonderful stanzas are the first bit of Auden I memorized as a wee lad suddenly confronted with the vastitude of English poetry in high school (my family home, though warm and comfortable, was not awash with literature), and when I learned that he had rejected them I was appalled and contemptuous. What kind of poet must one be not to understand one's own greatness? With age I have become more understanding and tolerant of the foibles of great writers, but I have never changed in my veneration of those lines.

  12. I should add that I consider the very idea that poetry, or any form of artistic literature, should convey some sort of scientific/philosophical "truth" about the world absurd, and Auden guilty of a childish category error in deleting lines about whose truth value he had changed his mind. (I adduce in evidence the Babbage-Tennyson correspondence.) I have strong feelings on this matter!

  13. I am sympathetic. Auden should have written a new poem that argued with his old poem.

    I am so much of a historicist that I don't like it when rock bands remaster their albums. I don't care if the bass is "too low." It should sound the way it sounded!

  14. Of the many racist English people from Kipling's time, he must been the one who loved India and Indian things the most, in his own conflicted, imperfect and inconsistent way.

    For example, when speaking about the uses of reading to help us lead a good life, Kipling chose as examples Beowulf, Chaucer, Walter Raleigh, Horace, Plato and Ranjitsinhji:
    [By reading the best books] we can arrive at a state of mind in which, though we cannot re-express the same idea in any adequate words, we can realise and feel and absorb the idea. To put it in this way. No one can play cricket like Ranji at his best. But to appreciate Ranji’s play; to pick up enough from it to try and improve your own with; you must have played cricket for more than two terms.

  15. I am the proud owner of Prince Ranjitsinhji's The Jubilee Book of Cricket (1897), with a dramatic frontispiece captioned "K. S. Ranjitsinhji hooking a short-pitched ball on the wicket." (Well, technically my wife is the owner, having inherited it from her grandfather, but she doesn't care about sports and it's on my shelf.)

  16. I am learning so much, in a sense. Reading The Jubilee Book (via the Google scan) is like reading a book of spells. That photo is on p. ii.