If we could keep our heads...

We voted for Kipling but we don't understand him, says Geoffrey Wheatcroft
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HAS any poet ever been so misunderstood as Rudyard Kipling, and has any poem been so traduced as "If..."? It has just been chosen in a somewhat dubious poll as the most popular poem of the British public. This produced predictable snorts of derision. Philip Howard in the Times called it a "stiff-upper-lipped and loose-jawed patriotic" poem. George Orwell (of whom more) called it one of Kipling's "more sententious poems".

They are wrong, and there is an illustrious witness for the defence.

Kipling was a great writer, though often a mysterious one. His reputation as the Bard of Empire is obviously true, but it misses the point. So is his reputation as a vulgarian. He has appealed to the most sophisticated readers - TS Eliot edited an anthology of his verse - as well as to the simplest. But if he was an imperialist certainly, and a racist arguably, the one thing he was not was a "Fascist".

He "was further from being one than the most humane or the most 'progressive' person is able to be nowadays", Orwell said in his essay on Kipling. He went on to call him a "Conservative, a thing that does not exist nowadays. Those who call themselves Conservatives are Liberals, Fascists or the accomplices of Fascists." But I don't think that is quite right either. Kipling was not a Tory. He had the greatest contempt for what wasn't then called the Establishment; he refused all honours offered to him, including the Order of Merit; he privately referred to his sovereign, Edward VII, as "a corpulent voluptuary".

He admired men of power - Cecil Rhodes, Theodore Roosevelt - for much the same reason that he admired steamships and trains. But he was never a time-server. Nor was he a reactionary. The cause of Empire was the cause of progress, in his eyes and in the eyes of many of his contemporaries. And, although he admired the exercise of power, he did not worship it as those drawn later to Fascism or Communism did.

Orwell quoted the famous or infamous lines from "Recessional", "Such boastings as the Gentiles use,/Or lesser breeds without the Law", and added in his own wonderfully politically incorrect way that they were still "good for a snigger in pansy-left circles", conjuring up as they did the image of "some pukka sahib in a pith helmet kicking a coolie". This could only be based on a misreading.

As Orwell pointed out, the meaning of "Recessional" is the opposite to what the pansy-left thought. The imperialist Kipling was warning against the dangers of imperial arrogance and hubris, "If, drunk with sight of power, we loose/Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe".

Orwell says the phrase "lesser breeds" refers to the Germans in their own first flush of imperial arrogance a century ago, though I don't think he is quite right here, either. Kipling was a very precise writer. The conjunctive "or" suggests an antithesis. The Gentiles are surely the Germans, the lesser breeds some other braggish new nationalists, the Italians, perhaps. But Orwell is right that the one thing "lesser breeds" cannot mean is Asians or Africans who, in the heyday of empire, by definition could not be "drunk with sight of power".

As for "If...", isn't it, as Lynn Barber has called it, a mixture of "hearty self-congratulation with chippy paranoia"? Well, no. "If..." is one of the most remarkable poems of this century, with a fascinating history. It is only sententious if you have been taught to think so, if you see it as another admonition to play up, play up, and play the game, if you associate it with house-masters and scoutmasters and the sporting spirit. Not for the first time, it is easier to see what it really means if you aren't English.

The poem was inspired by another imperialist, the rascally Dr Jameson who became a crony of Rhodes in South Africa and, almost 100 years ago, led the disastrous Jameson Raid into the Transvaal. He was captured, sentenced to death, but reprieved, and ended as Leander Starr Jameson, prime minister of the Cape Colony. He was undoubtedly an example of someone who had made a heap of all his winnings and risked it at one turn of pitch- and-toss, and lost and started again at his beginnings, as the poem goes, though an unworthy inspiration for a great poem.

But then, if "If..." were no more than an ode to imperial expansion and skulduggery, it would not have survived the Empire, and it would not have travelled abroad. In fact, I have read translations of it in French and German, not to mention Corsican dialect. It was translated into Spanish, and beloved of Juan Primo de Rivera, charismatic leader of the right-wing Falange who was captured and shot by the republicans during the Spanish Civil War. That seems weighty evidence for the prosecution: "If..." is a reactionary poem after all.

But then who should have translated it into Italian but Antonio Gramsci? The leader of the Italian Communists and creator of intelligent neo-Marxism, who was imprisoned by Mussolini in the 1930s, said that it was "a great revolutionary and anti-clerical poem". And I think he was right, though this was something which could only be seen by someone free from our own baggage of imperial guilt.

What he meant isn't hard to see. "If..." might be a lengthy gloss on Gramsci's own famous prescription, "Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will". The lines, "If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew/To serve your turn long after they are gone,/And so hold on when there is nothing in you/Except the Will which says to them 'Hold on!'" might be useful advice for an imperial adventurer. They are better advice still for an imprisoned revolutionary.

It is an anti-clerical poem, because it teaches the self-mastery which can scorn priests and dogma. It is indeed almost an atheistic poem (and Kipling was certainly no conventional Christian).

Goethe's Prometheus rages at the gods who would starve if children and beggars weren't hopeful fools. Kipling tells us likewise not to look for divine help, but to "trust yourself when all men doubt you".

Now that it has won its award, perhaps this wonderful poem could be banned in English and made available only in Gramsci's translation. He understood it as we don't.