BOOK REVIEW / Lines from a separate star: Godfrey Hodgson on an intelligent study of Kipling's noble and honest poetic talent: 'Kipling the Poet' - Peter Keating: Secker & Warburg, 25 pounds
Saturday 29 January 1994
More interesting, he was the victim of his own facility. Precisely because he possessed in magical abundance all the gifts of a traditional poetic talent, he was suspect to a modernist generation that identified worth with difficulty of access.
It is high time for Kipling to be restored to his rightful place as one of the very greatest poets to have written in English in this century. Indeed, the restoration has long been under way. Peter Keating's sympathetic and intelligent study should just about finish the job; for Kipling's enemies are by now in full flight.
Keating does not overstate his case. He acknowledges that a great deal of Kipling's verse is hopelessly dated, much uninspired, some unpleasantly sentimental, chauvinistic and even occasionally undeniably racist.
He does make the point that Kipling was welcomed to the company of poetry by two of the very greatest of his successors, the conservative T S Eliot and W H Auden on the left, so that it can hardly be said that his rehabilitation is the result of swings in the prevailing political climate. Indeed, Keating abstains from a formal reassessment of Kipling's gift or his achievement.
What he does do is to draw attention to the sheer imaginative range and power of Kipling's poetry. Kipling could and did write poems for adults and for children; about soldiers and sailors, but also about high politics and religion. He used verse in an intricate (and highly experimental) way to illuminate short stories and other prose writing.
Sometimes he wrote public poems in the blaring, trumpet mode of a poet laureate. But he also used poetry to respond in a highly personal way to public issues. Keating reminds us that if he was the poet of imperialism, he was also the prophet who saw clearly and warned loudly against the onset of fascism.
His greatest gift was perhaps the most important single cause of the suspicion, if not downright contempt, with which he was regarded by so many serious people. That was his sheer gift for versification, the tripping, beautifully balance six- and seven-foot lines, the internal rhymes, and the fresh-minted, all-too-memorable phrases.
We should not be ashamed to roll them off our tongues. Hackneyed they may be to the absolute verge of inanition. But dead as language, astonishingly, after nearly a hundred years of overuse and misuse, and after the world that evoked them has almost vanished, they are emphatically not.
Take these lines, for instance: 'And what should they know of England who only England know?' 'The colonel's lady an' Judy O'Grady are sisters under the skin]' 'The flannelled fools at the wicket or the muddled oafs at the goals'.
It was a prodigious talent, to spin off phrases that could be read in the study or sung from the music hall stage. The closest to it in our century, perhaps, was poor Bertolt Brecht, and the laureate of imperialism and the troubadour of revolution have this in common, that they both dipped deep into the rhythms of popular song and the language of the street and
But Kipling was not only, not mainly, a music hall poet, a stamper out of shiny little discs of language. No one could construct a poem more tightly so that the structure reinforced the rhythms and the bright glinting of the chosen words. Few poetic artists have tamed a natural gift, not out of fear of where it might lead, but to make it serve great gifts of speculative intellect.
Peter Keating analyses, not because he singles it out as a masterpiece or even as a specially interesting poem, the changes Kipling made in a poem he originally dashed off to accompany a series of travel articles in a newspaper. It deserves quoting, both because of its charm, and because it illustrates how, even when he was far from at the peak of his moral range, Kipling could take a simple idea and transform it as a conscious artist into a wholly accessible, but at the same time authentically poetic defence of the once much despised tradition of realism:
When Earth's last picture is painted and the tubes are twisted and dried
When the oldest colours have faded, and the youngest critic has died,
We shall rest, and, faith, we shall need it - lie down an aeon or two
Then the Master of all Good Workmen shall put us to work anew.
And those that were good shall be happy: they shall sit in a golden chair;
They shall splash at a ten-league canvas with brushes of comets' hair.
And only The Master shall praise us, and only The Master shall blame;
And no one shall work for money,
and no one shall work for fame,
But each for the joy of working, and each, in his separate star,
Shall draw the Thing as he sees It for the God of Things as They are]
Readers, I suspect, have always, instinctively, loved work like that, and the many, many finer things that Kipling wrote. They were persuaded that they ought to be ashamed of loving it. There never was any reason to be ashamed. The critics and the poets they preferred are both on the farther shore, gesticulating faintly and in vain, like the shades in Virgil's underworld.
Kipling's voice, like few others, still comes loud and honest from that time that has gone by, insistent and unmistakeable, often vulgar and sometimes noble. Now we are free to love him as the best of him deserves.
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