BOOK REVIEW / His country needed him: 'Kipling the Poet' - Peter Keating: Secker, 25 pounds

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RUDYARD KIPLING, Peter Keating says in the opening chapter of this impressive study, 'has become a poet of memorable fragments'. And everyone, to be sure, will experience a flicker of recognition when they hear phrases like 'the female of the species' and countless others. What we don't remember, or don't much remember, beyond knowing that he wrote The Jungle Book, is the life behind the fragments.

Born in Bombay in 1865 and sent at the age of six to foster parents in Southsea, Kipling had a pretty loathsome time as a child. Only reading provided an escape. But he was not destined to become a poet of the ivory tower (like the contemporary aesthetes he hated so much) or even of the garret. This was reading, his autobiography records, 'as if for life'. After returning to India to work for a while as a journalist, he began writing poems based on the daily lives of those who served the Empire: civil servants, soldiers, sailors, clergymen and traders. The poems, many of them ballads or dramatic monologues, provided him with a springboard, back in England, to take a public stance on the issues of the day: the Boer War, the Suffrage movement, Irish Home Rule, the Bolshevik menace, the German menace - and many other menaces besides. Astonishingly prescient about the course of events, he became the most widely read poet of his era, the darling of the middle classes.

This drawing-room hero's life and poetry are seamlessly drawn together by Peter Keating. As well as paying close attention to individual poems, he gives a broad outline of the phases of Kipling's poetic career, and his movement away from specific topics (India, the army, the sea, America, South Africa) towards the more nebulous subject of 'Englishness' - which has been one of the cornerstones of poetry in this country ever since.

Given that the title of this book is Kipling the Poet, the prose (the classic children's tales, the vast number of short stories, the four novels), which for many is Kipling's greater achievement, does not come into Keating's remit. However, perhaps the most interesting chapter, in scholarly terms at least, is one that shows how poetry was an integral part of almost everything Kipling wrote. As well as interpolating poems and songs within the narrative, he would use chunks of his own poetry as epigraphs or chapter headings. The relationship of these to the main story is often quite perplexing, sometimes completely at odds. No one else at the time, Keating explains, was really doing this: Kipling's contemporaries were either obsessed 'with French theories of organic form' that eschewed such apparent frippery or - like Joyce and Woolf - were busy 'incorporating the lyrical and emotive qualities traditionally associated with poetry into their prose styles'.

Yet it is not Kipling's working methods that nowadays mark him out, but his politics - and especially his role in the making of all our malign isms: racism, imperialism, jingoism, sexism. Does time pardon 'Kipling and his views' with the 'strange excuse' of his literary gift, as Auden memorably wrote? Keating seems to think so, and provides a persuasive array of reasons why he should be regarded as a good poet. T S Eliot, a lifelong admirer, accorded him the status of 'nearly great'.

Though no one would doubt Kipling's technical skill, the way his poems can entertain and inform, or the hallucinatory power of prose works such as Kim, with all their strange fantasy of interpenetration with the alien race, few could nowadays feel totally comfortable about a writer who set out to promulgate such determined political ideas. Not that his views were consistent. The truth is that his attitude to 'the Establishment' was far more complicated and evolving than any rattle-bag of quotations can suggest, as is the continuing question of his literary value. As he puts it in one poem: 'The Gold I gather / Comes into England / Out of deep Water.'

But his work can make us ask what we want poetry itself to do. Constantly published in newspapers (though more in the way of editorials or leaders than as poetry per se), Kipling's verse had as direct an effect on the affairs of the nation, the 'dread issues of power', as television does today. No poet in our time could boast as much. What might be called the 'weak policy' of much contemporary verse - its concern to take in all sides, its refusal to take up a position - would leave Kipling dismayed, were he alive.

But he became dismayed in his own lifetime anyway, by politicians as much as poets. After years in the wilderness (like Churchill, whom he in fact distrusted) preaching the dangers of complacency about Germany following the First World War and the need to maintain a professional army, he was taken ill and died on January 18, 1936. Hitler's troops reoccupied the Rhineland two months later, breaking the Locarno non-aggression treaty. The government, led by Stanley Baldwin, Kipling's cousin, was powerless to stop them. The prophet had been proved right again.

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