Underrated: Poet, patriot: The case for Rudyard Kipling
Wednesday 02 March 1994
The standard charge is that Kipling could be racist, jingoistic, near-fascist and philistine. But Kipling was far more patriotic than jingoistic. Few writers have described so sensitively this land and this people. He wrote with admiration about the old sweats of the imperial armies because he hated that such men were despised in peacetime and cheered when they went out to die. He also hated those men's careless brutality towards the girls they got pregnant and deserted: 'I want the name - no more / The name, an' lines to show, / An' not to be an 'ore . . .'
Let's set against the charge of 'racism' the loved and longed-for 'neater, sweeter (Burmese) maiden' in Mandalay. And against 'low-browism' the witty send-up of philistines in The Conundrum of the Workshops: 'But the Devil whoops, as he whooped of old: 'It's clever, but is it Art?' '
The worst error of some of Kipling's critics is to assume that his narrative voice is always his own voice, a true bearer of his views. As in Mary Postgate, where the elderly, genteel English woman relishes allowing a downed German airman to die untended at the bottom of the garden, Kipling was sometimes making us face a terrible truth about atrocities of which many of us could be capable.
Kipling's powers are denied simply because not all his views are ideologically acceptable. But the gift of language falls on the just and the unjust. Time, as Auden remarked, 'Worships language and forgives / Everyone by whom it lives'. It is odd on the grounds of political correctness to deny exceptional talent to one who has lodged so many images in the English consciousness (he merits 21 columns in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations). Verbal gifts apart, the heart of the case for Kipling rests on two characteristics. He is, first, exceptionally responsive to the poetry of ordinariness, the radiance which the most vulgar detail can emit. Second, he moves up and out from such earthy stuff to - for many English readers - the most embarrassingly large truths. He speaks of love and passion, of courage and loyalty, of pity, of great virtues and great vices, often in unregarded people.
Kipling was a willing outsider: vastly intelligent but not an 'intellectual'. He breaks moulds and rejects the high / middle / low distinction which still pervades our attitudes to class and to culture. To understand this is to test our own relationship both to 'ordinary' people and to our literature.
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