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George Orwell > Rudyard Kipling > Essay

Rudyard Kipling


It was a pity that Mr. Eliot should be so much on the defensive in the
long essay with which he prefaces this selection of Kipling's poetry,
but it was not to be avoided, because before one can even speak about
Kipling one has to clear away a legend that has been created by two sets
of people who have not read his works. Kipling is in the peculiar
position of having been a byword for fifty years. During five literary
generations every enlightened person has despised him, and at the end of
that time nine-tenths of those enlightened persons are forgotten and
Kipling is in some sense still there. Mr. Eliot never satisfactorily
explains this fact, because in answering the shallow and familiar charge
that Kipling is a 'Fascist', he falls into the opposite error of
defending him where he is not defensible. It is no use pretending that
Kipling's view of life, as a whole, can be accepted or even forgiven by
any civilized person. It is no use claiming, for instance, that when
Kipling describes a British soldier beating a 'nigger' with a cleaning
rod in order to get money out of him, he is acting merely as a reporter
and does not necessarily approve what he describes. There is not the
slightest sign anywhere in Kipling's work that he disapproves of that
kind of conduct--on the contrary, there is a definite strain of sadism
in him, over and above the brutality which a writer of that type has to
have. Kipling is a jingo imperialist, he is morally insensitive and
aesthetically disgusting. It is better to start by admitting that, and
then to try to find out why it is that he survives while the refined
people who have sniggered at him seem to wear so badly.

And yet the 'Fascist' charge has to be answered, because the first clue
to any understanding of Kipling, morally or politically, is the fact that
he was NOT a Fascist. He was further from being one than the most humane
or the most 'progressive' person is able to be nowadays. An interesting
instance of the way in which quotations are parroted to and fro without
any attempt to look up their context or discover their meaning is the
line from 'Recessional', 'Lesser breeds without the Law'. This line is
always good for a snigger in pansy-left circles. It is assumed as a
matter of course that the 'lesser breeds' are 'natives', and a mental
picture is called up of some pukka sahib in a pith helmet kicking a
coolie. In its context the sense of the line is almost the exact opposite
of this. The phrase 'lesser breeds' refers almost certainly to the
Germans, and especially the pan-German writers, who are 'without the Law'
in the sense of being lawless, not in the sense of being powerless. The
whole poem, conventionally thought of as an orgy of boasting, is a
denunciation of power politics, British as well as German. Two stanzas
are worth quoting (I am quoting this as politics, not as poetry):

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law--
Lord God of hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget--lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word--
Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!

Much of Kipling's phraseology is taken from the Bible, and no doubt in
the second stanza he had in mind the text from Psalm CXXVII: 'Except the
lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it; except the Lord
keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.' It is not a text that
makes much impression on the post-Hitler mind. No one, in our time,
believes in any sanction greater than military power; no one believes
that it is possible to overcome force except by greater force. There is
no 'Law', there is only power. I am not saying that that is a true
belief, merely that it is the belief which all modern men do actually
hold. Those who pretend otherwise are either intellectual cowards, or
power-worshippers under a thin disguise, or have simply not caught up
with the age they are living in. Kipling's outlook is prefascist. He
still believes that pride comes before a fall and that the gods punish
HUBRIS. He does not foresee the tank, the bombing plane, the radio and
the secret police, or their psychological results.

But in saying this, does not one unsay what I said above about Kipling's
jingoism and brutality? No, one is merely saying that the
nineteenth-century imperialist outlook and the modern gangster outlook
are two different things. Kipling belongs very definitely to the period
1885-1902. The Great War and its aftermath embittered him, but he shows
little sign of having learned anything from any event later than the Boer
War. He was the prophet of British Imperialism in its expansionist phase
(even more than his poems, his solitary novel, THE LIGHT THAT FAILED,
gives you the atmosphere of that time) and also the unofficial historian
of the British Army, the old mercenary army which began to change its
shape in 1914. All his confidence, his bouncing vulgar vitality, sprang
out of limitations which no Fascist or near-Fascist shares.

Kipling spent the later part of his life in sulking, and no doubt it was
political disappointment rather than literary vanity that account for
this. Somehow history had not gone according to plan. After the greatest
victory she had ever known, Britain was a lesser world power than before,
and Kipling was quite acute enough to see this. The virtue had gone out
of the classes he idealized, the young were hedonistic or disaffected,
the desire to paint the map red had evaporated. He could not understand
what was happening, because he had never had any grasp of the economic
forces underlying imperial expansion. It is notable that Kipling does not
seem to realize, any more than the average soldier or colonial
administrator, that an empire is primarily a money-making concern.
Imperialism as he sees it is a sort of forcible evangelizing. You turn a
Gatling gun on a mob of unarmed 'natives', and then you establish 'the
Law', which includes roads, railways and a court-house. He could not
foresee, therefore, that the same motives which brought the Empire into
existence would end by destroying it. It was the same motive, for
example, that caused the Malayan jungles to be cleared for rubber
estates, and which now causes those estates to be handed over intact to
the Japanese. The modern totalitarians know what they are doing, and the
nineteenth-century English did not know what they were doing. Both
attitudes have their advantages, but Kipling was never able to move
forward from one into the other. His outlook, allowing for the fact that
after all he was an artist, was that of the salaried bureaucrat who
despises the 'box-wallah' and often lives a lifetime without realizing
that the 'box-wallah' calls the tune.

But because he identifies himself with the official class, he does
possess one thing which 'enlightened' people seldom or never possess, and
that is a sense of responsibility. The middle-class Left hate him for
this quite as much as for his cruelty and vulgarity. All left-wing
parties in the highly industrialized countries are at bottom a sham,
because they make it their business to fight against something which they
do not really wish to destroy. They have internationalist aims, and at
the same time they struggle to keep up a standard of life with which
those aims are incompatible. We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and
those of us who are 'enlightened' all maintain that those coolies ought
to be set free; but our standard of living, and hence our
'enlightenment', demands that the robbery shall continue. A humanitarian
is always a hypocrite, and Kipling's understanding of this is perhaps the
central secret of his power to create telling phrases. It would be
difficult to hit off the one-eyed pacifism of the English in fewer words
than in the phrase, 'making mock of uniforms that guard you while you
sleep'. It is true that Kipling does not understand the economic aspect
of the relationship between the highbrow and the blimp. He does not see
that the map is painted red chiefly in order that the coolie may be
exploited. Instead of the coolie he sees the Indian Civil Servant; but
even on that plane his grasp of function, of who protects whom, is very
sound. He sees clearly that men can only be highly civilized while other
men, inevitably less civilized, are there to guard and feed them.

How far does Kipling really identify himself with the administrators,
soldiers and engineers whose praises he sings? Not so completely as is
sometimes assumed. He had travelled very widely while he was still a
young man, he had grown up with a brilliant mind in mainly philistine
surroundings, and some streak in him that may have been partly neurotic
led him to prefer the active man to the sensitive man. The
nineteenth-century Anglo-Indians, to name the least sympathetic of his
idols, were at any rate people who did things. It may be that all that
they did was evil, but they changed the face of the earth (it is
instructive to look at a map of Asia and compare the railway system of
India with that of the surrounding countries), whereas they could have
achieved nothing, could not have maintained themselves in power for a
single week, if the normal Anglo-Indian outlook had been that of, say,
E.M. Forster. Tawdry and shallow though it is, Kipling's is the only
literary picture that we possess of nineteenth-century Anglo-India, and
he could only make it because he was just coarse enough to be able to
exist and keep his mouth shut in clubs and regimental messes. But he did
not greatly resemble the people he admired. I know from several private
sources that many of the Anglo-Indians who were Kipling's contemporaries
did not like or approve of him. They said, no doubt truly, that he knew
nothing about India, and on the other hand, he was from their point of
view too much of a highbrow. While in India he tended to mix with 'the
wrong' people, and because of his dark complexion he was wrongly
suspected of having a streak of Asiatic blood. Much in his development is
traceable to his having been born in India and having left school early.
With a slightly different background he might have been a good novelist
or a superlative writer of music-hall songs. But how true is it that he
was a vulgar flagwaver, a sort of publicity agent for Cecil Rhodes? It is
true, but it is not true that he was a yes-man or a time-server. After
his early days, if then, he never courted public opinion. Mr. Eliot says
that what is held against him is that he expressed unpopular views in a
popular style. This narrows the issue by assuming that 'unpopular' means
unpopular with the intelligentsia, but it is a fact that Kipling's
'message' was one that the big public did not want, and, indeed, has
never accepted. The mass of the people, in the nineties as now, were
anti-militarist, bored by the Empire, and only unconsciously patriotic.
Kipling's official admirers are and were the 'service' middle class, the
people who read BLACKWOOD'S. In the stupid early years of this century,
the blimps, having at last discovered someone who could be called a poet
and who was on their side, set Kipling on a pedestal, and some of his
more sententious poems, such as 'If', were given almost biblical status.
But it is doubtful whether the blimps have ever read him with attention,
any more than they have read the Bible. Much of what he says they could
not possibly approve. Few people who have criticized England from the
inside have said bitterer things about her than this gutter patriot. As a
rule it is the British working class that he is attacking, but not
always. That phrase about 'the flannelled fools at the wicket and the
muddied oafs at the goal' sticks like an arrow to this day, and it is
aimed at the Eton and Harrow match as well as the Cup-Tie Final. Some of
the verses he wrote about the Boer War have a curiously modern ring, so
far as their subject-matter goes. 'Stellenbosch', which must have been
written about 1902, sums up what every intelligent infantry officer was
saying in 1918, or is saying now, for that matter.

Kipling's romantic ideas about England and the Empire might not have
mattered if he could have held them without having the class-prejudices
which at that time went with them. If one examines his best and most
representative work, his soldier poems, especially BARRACK-ROOM BALLADS,
one notices that what more than anything else spoils them is an
underlying air of patronage. Kipling idealizes the army officer,
especially the junior officer, and that to an idiotic extent, but the
private soldier, though lovable and romantic, has to be a comic. He is
always made to speak in a sort of stylized Cockney, not very broad but
with all the aitches and final "g's" carefully omitted. Very often the
result is as embarrassing as the humorous recitation at a church social.
And this accounts for the curious fact that one can often improve
Kipling's poems, make them less facetious and less blatant, by simply
going through them and transplanting them from Cockney into standard
speech. This is especially true of his refrains, which often have a truly
lyrical quality. Two examples will do (one is about a funeral and the
other about a wedding):

So it's knock out your pipes and follow me!
And it's finish up your swipes and follow me!
Oh, hark to the big drum calling,
Follow me--follow me home!

and again:

Cheer for the Sergeant's wedding--
Give them one cheer more!
Grey gun-horses in the lando,
And a rogue is married to a whore!

Here I have restored the aitches, etc. Kipling ought to have known
better. He ought to have seen that the two closing lines of the first of
these stanzas are very beautiful lines, and that ought to have overriden
his impulse to make fun of a working-man's accent. In the ancient ballads
the lord and the peasant speak the same language. This is impossible to
Kipling, who is looking down a distorting class-perspective, and by a
piece of poetic justice one of his best lines is spoiled--for 'follow me
'ome' is much uglier than 'follow me home'. But even where it makes no
difference musically the facetiousness of his stage Cockney dialect is
irritating. However, he is more often quoted aloud than read on the
printed page, and most people instinctively make the necessary
alterations when they quote him.

Can one imagine any private soldier, in the nineties or now, reading
BARRACK-ROOM BALLADS and feeling that here was a writer who spoke for
him? It is very hard to do so. Any soldier capable of reading a book of
verse would notice at once that Kipling is almost unconscious of the
class war that goes on in an army as much as elsewhere. It is not only
that he thinks the soldier comic, but that he thinks him patriotic,
feudal, a ready admirer of his officers and proud to be a soldier of the
Queen. Of course that is partly true, or battles could not be fought, but
'What have I done for thee, England, my England?' is essentially a
middle-class query. Almost any working man would follow it up immediately
with 'What has England done for me?' In so far as Kipling grasps this, he
simply sets it down to 'the intense selfishness of the lower classes'
(his own phrase). When he is writing not of British but of 'loyal'
Indians he carries the 'Salaam, sahib' motif to sometimes disgusting
lengths. Yet it remains true that he has far more interest in the common
soldier, far more anxiety that he shall get a fair deal, than most of the
'liberals' of his day or our own. He sees that the soldier is neglected,
meanly underpaid and hypocritically despised by the people whose incomes
he safeguards. 'I came to realize', he says in his posthumous memoirs,
'the bare horrors of the private's life, and the unnecessary torments he
endured'. He is accused of glorifying war, and perhaps he does so, but
not in the usual manner, by pretending that war is a sort of football
match. Like most people capable of writing battle poetry, Kipling had
never been in battle, but his vision of war is realistic. He knows that
bullets hurt, that under fire everyone is terrified, that the ordinary
soldier never knows what the war is about or what is happening except in
his own corner of the battlefield, and that British troops, like other
troops, frequently run away:

I 'eard the knives be'ind me, but I dursn't face my man,
Nor I don't know where I went to, 'cause I didn't stop to see,
Till I 'eard a beggar squealin' out for quarter as 'e ran,
An' I thought I knew the voice an'--it was me!

Modernize the style of this, and it might have come out of one of the
debunking war books of the nineteen-twenties. Or again:

An' now the hugly bullets come peckin' through the dust,
An' no one wants to face 'em, but every beggar must;
So, like a man in irons, which isn't glad to go,
They moves 'em off by companies uncommon stiff an' slow.

Compare this with:

Forward the Light Brigade!
Was there a man dismayed?
No! though the soldier knew
Someone had blundered.

If anything, Kipling overdoes the horrors, for the wars of his youth were
hardly wars at all by our standards. Perhaps that is due to the neurotic
strain in him, the hunger for cruelty. But at least he knows that men
ordered to attack impossible objectives ARE dismayed, and also that
fourpence a day is not a generous pension.

How complete or truthful a picture has Kipling left us of the
long-service, mercenary army of the late nineteenth century? One must say
of this, as of what Kipling wrote about nineteenth-century Anglo-India,
that it is not only the best but almost the only literary picture we
have. He has put on record an immense amount of stuff that one could
otherwise only gather from verbal tradition or from unreadable regimental
histories. Perhaps his picture of army life seems fuller and more
accurate than it is because any middle-class English person is likely to
know enough to fill up the gaps. At any rate, reading the essay on
Kipling that Mr. Edmund Wilson has just published or is just about to
publish [Note, below], I was struck by the number of things that are
boringly familiar to us and seem to be barely intelligible to an American.
But from the body of Kipling's early work there does seem to emerge a vivid
and not seriously misleading picture of the old pre-machine-gun army--
the sweltering barracks in Gibraltar or Lucknow, the red coats, the
pipeclayed belts and the pillbox hats, the beer, the fights, the
floggings, hangings and crucifixions, the bugle-calls, the smell of oats
and horsepiss, the bellowing sergeants with foot-long moustaches, the
bloody skirmishes, invariably mismanaged, the crowded troopships, the
cholera-stricken camps, the 'native' concubines, the ultimate death in
the workhouse. It is a crude, vulgar picture, in which a patriotic
music-hall turn seems to have got mixed up with one of Zola's gorier
passages, but from it future generations will be able to gather some idea
of what a long-term volunteer army was like. On about the same level they
will be able to learn something of British India in the days when
motor-cars and refrigerators were unheard of. It is an error to imagine
that we might have had better books on these subjects if, for example,
George Moore, or Gissing, or Thomas Hardy, had had Kipling's
opportunities. That is the kind of accident that cannot happen. It was
not possible that nineteenth-century England should produce a book like
WAR AND PEACE, or like Tolstoy's minor stories of army life, such as
Sebastopol or THE COSSACKS, not because the talent was necessarily
lacking but because no one with sufficient sensitiveness to write such
books would ever have made the appropriate contacts. Tolstoy lived in a
great military empire in which it seemed natural for almost any young man
of family to spend a few years in the army, whereas the British Empire
was and still is demilitarized to a degree which continental observers
find almost incredible. Civilized men do not readily move away from the
centres of civilization, and in most languages there is a great dearth of
what one might call colonial literature. It took a very improbable
combination of circumstances to produce Kipling's gaudy tableau, in which
Private Ortheris and Mrs. Hauksbee pose against a background of palm
trees to the sound of temple bells, and one necessary circumstance was
that Kipling himself was only half civilized.

[Note: Published in a volume of Collected Essays, THE WOUND AND THE
BOW. Author's footnote 1945]

Kipling is the only English writer of our time who has added phrases to
the language. The phrases and neologisms which we take over and use
without remembering their origin do not always come from writers we
admire. It is strange, for instance, to hear the Nazi broadcasters
referring to the Russian soldiers as 'robots', thus unconsciously
borrowing a word from a Czech democrat whom they would have killed if
they could have laid hands on him. Here are half a dozen phrases coined
by Kipling which one sees quoted in leaderettes in the gutter press or
overhears in saloon bars from people who have barely heard his name. It
will be seen that they all have a certain characteristic in common:

East is East, and West is West.
The white man's burden.
What do they know of England who only England know?
The female of the species is more deadly than the male.
Somewhere East of Suez.
Paying the Dane-geld.

There are various others, including some that have outlived their context
by many years. The phrase 'killing Kruger with your mouth', for instance,
was current till very recently. It is also possible that it was Kipling
who first let loose the use of the word 'Huns' for Germans; at any rate
he began using it as soon as the guns opened fire in 1914. But what the
phrases I have listed above have in common is that they are all of them
phrases which one utters semi-derisively (as it might be 'For I'm to be
Queen o' the May, mother, I'm to be Queen o' the May'), but which one is
bound to make use of sooner or later. Nothing could exceed the contempt
of the NEW STATESMAN, for instance, for Kipling, but how many times
during the Munich period did the NEW STATESMAN find itself quoting that
phrase about paying the Dane-geld[Note, below]? The fact is that Kipling,
apart from his snack-bar wisdom and his gift for packing much cheap
picturesqueness into a few words ('palm and pine'--'east of Suez'--'the
road to Mandalay'), is generally talking about things that are of urgent
interest. It does not matter, from this point of view, that thinking and
decent people generally find themselves on the other side of the fence
from him. 'White man's burden' instantly conjures up a real problem, even
if one feels that it ought to be altered to 'black man's burden'. One may
disagree to the middle of one's bones with the political attitude implied
in 'The Islanders', but one cannot say that it is a frivolous attitude.
Kipling deals in thoughts which are both vulgar and permanent. This
raises the question of his special status as a poet, or verse-writer.

[Note: On the first page of his recent book, ADAM AND EVE, Mr. Middleton
Murry quotes the well-known lines:

There are nine and sixty ways
Of constructing tribal lays,
And every single one of them is right.

He attributes these lines to Thackeray. This is probably what is known as
a 'Freudian error.' A civilized person would prefer not to quote Kipling
--i.e. would prefer not to feel that it was Kipling who had expressed his
thought for him. (Author's footnote 1945.)]

Mr. Eliot describes Kipling's metrical work as 'verse' and not 'poetry',
but adds that it is 'GREAT verse', and further qualifies this by saying
that a writer can only be described as a 'great verse-writer' if there is
some of his work 'of which we cannot say whether it is verse or poetry'.
Apparently Kipling was a versifier who occasionally wrote poems, in which
case it was a pity that Mr. Eliot did not specify these poems by name.
The trouble is that whenever an aesthetic judgement on Kipling's work
seems to be called for, Mr. Eliot is too much on the defensive to be able
to speak plainly. What he does not say, and what I think one ought to
start by saying in any discussion of Kipling, is that most of Kipling's
verse is so horribly vulgar that it gives one the same sensation as one
gets from watching a third-rate music-hall performer recite 'The Pigtail
of Wu Fang Fu' with the purple limelight on his face, AND yet there is
much of it that is capable of giving pleasure to people who know what
poetry means. At his worst, and also his most vital, in poems like 'Gunga
Din' or 'Danny Deever', Kipling is almost a shameful pleasure, like the
taste for cheap sweets that some people secretly carry into middle life.
But even with his best passages one has the same sense of being seduced
by something spurious, and yet unquestionably seduced. Unless one is
merely a snob and a liar it is impossible to say that no one who cares
for poetry could get any pleasure out of such lines as:

For the wind is in the palm trees, and the temple bells they say,
'Come you back, you British soldier, come you back to Mandalay!'

and yet those lines are not poetry in the same sense as 'Felix Randal' or
'When icicles hang by the wall' are poetry. One can, perhaps, place
Kipling more satisfactorily than by juggling with the words 'verse' and
'poetry', if one describes him simply as a good bad poet. He is as a poet
what Harriet Beecher Stowe was as a novelist. And the mere existence of
work of this kind, which is perceived by generation after generation to
be vulgar and yet goes on being read, tells one something about the age
we live in.

There is a great deal of good bad poetry in English, all of it, I should
say, subsequent to 1790. Examples of good bad poems--I am deliberately
choosing diverse ones--are 'The Bridge of Sighs', 'When all the world is
young, lad', 'The Charge of the Light Brigade', Bret Harte's 'Dickens in
Camp', 'The Burial of Sir John Moore', 'Jenny Kissed Me', 'Keith of
Ravelston', 'Casabianca'. All of these reek of sentimentality, and yet--
not these particular poems, perhaps, but poems of this kind, are capable
of giving true pleasure to people who can see clearly what is wrong with
them. One could fill a fair-sized anthology with good bad poems, if it
were not for the significant fact that good bad poetry is usually too
well known to be worth reprinting.

It is no use pretending that in an age like our own, 'good' poetry can
have any genuine popularity. It is, and must be, the cult of a very few
people, the least tolerated of the arts. Perhaps that statement needs a
certain amount of qualification. True poetry can sometimes be acceptable
to the mass of the people when it disguises itself as something else. One
can see an example of this in the folk-poetry that England still
possesses, certain nursery rhymes and mnemonic rhymes, for instance, and
the songs that soldiers make up, including the words that go to some of
the bugle-calls. But in general ours is a civilization in which the very
word 'poetry' evokes a hostile snigger or, at best, the sort of frozen
disgust that most people feel when they hear the word 'God'. If you are
good at playing the concertina you could probably go into the nearest
public bar and get yourself an appreciative audience within five minutes.
But what would be the attitude of that same audience if you suggested
reading them Shakespeare's sonnets, for instance? Good bad poetry,
however, can get across to the most unpromising audiences if the right
atmosphere has been worked up beforehand. Some months back Churchill
produced a great effect by quoting Clough's 'Endeavour' in one of his
broadcast speeches. I listened to this speech among people who could
certainly not be accused of caring for poetry, and I am convinced that
the lapse into verse impressed them and did not embarrass them. But not
even Churchill could have got away with it if he had quoted anything much
better than this.

In so far as a writer of verse can be popular, Kipling has been and
probably still is popular. In his own lifetime some of his poems
travelled far beyond the bounds of the reading public, beyond the world
of school prize-days, Boy Scout singsongs, limp-leather editions,
pokerwork and calendars, and out into the yet vaster world of the music
halls. Nevertheless, Mr. Eliot thinks it worth while to edit him, thus
confessing to a taste which others share but are not always honest enough
to mention. The fact that such a thing as good bad poetry can exist is a
sign of the emotional overlap between the intellectual and the ordinary
man. The intellectual is different from the ordinary man, but only in
certain sections of his personality, and even then not all the time. But
what is the peculiarity of a good bad poem? A good bad poem is a graceful
monument to the obvious. It records in memorable form--for verse is a
mnemonic device, among other things--some emotion which very nearly
every human being can share. The merit of a poem like 'When all the world
is young, lad' is that, however sentimental it may be, its sentiment is
'true' sentiment in the sense that you are bound to find yourself
thinking the thought it expresses sooner or later; and then, if you
happen to know the poem, it will come back into your mind and seem better
than it did before. Such poems are a kind of rhyming proverb, and it is a
fact that definitely popular poetry is usually gnomic or sententious. One
example from Kipling will do:

White hands cling to the bridle rein,
Slipping the spur from the booted heel;
Tenderest voices cry 'Turn again!'
Red lips tarnish the scabbarded steel:
Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne,
He travels the fastest who travels alone.

There is a vulgar thought vigorously expressed. It may not be true, but
at any rate it is a thought that everyone thinks. Sooner or later you
will have occasion to feel that he travels the fastest who travels alone,
and there the thought is, ready made and, as it were, waiting for you. So
the chances are that, having once heard this line, you will remember it.

One reason for Kipling's power as a good bad poet I have already
suggested--his sense of responsibility, which made it possible for him
to have a world-view, even though it happened to be a false one. Although
he had no direct connexion with any political party, Kipling was a
Conservative, a thing that does not exist nowadays. Those who now call
themselves Conservatives are either Liberals, Fascists or the accomplices
of Fascists. He identified himself with the ruling power and not with the
opposition. In a gifted writer this seems to us strange and even
disgusting, but it did have the advantage of giving Kipling a certain
grip on reality. The ruling power is always faced with the question, 'In
such and such circumstances, what would you DO?', whereas the opposition
is not obliged to take responsibility or make any real decisions. Where
it is a permanent and pensioned opposition, as in England, the quality of
its thought deteriorates accordingly. Moreover, anyone who starts out
with a pessimistic, reactionary view of life tends to be justified by
events, for Utopia never arrives and 'the gods of the copybook headings',
as Kipling himself put it, always return. Kipling sold out to the British
governing class, not financially but emotionally. This warped his
political judgement, for the British ruling class were not what he
imagined, and it led him into abysses of folly and snobbery, but he
gained a corresponding advantage from having at least tried to imagine
what action and responsibility are like. It is a great thing in his
favour that he is not witty, not 'daring', has no wish to ÉPATER LES
BOURGEOIS. He dealt largely in platitudes, and since we live in a world
of platitudes, much of what he said sticks. Even his worst follies seem
less shallow and less irritating than the 'enlightened' utterances of the
same period, such as Wilde's epigrams or the collection of
cracker-mottoes at the end of MAN AND SUPERMAN.

Index Index

  • Other Authors:    
> Charles Darwin
> Charles Dickens
> Mark Twain
> William Shakespeare

George Orwell. Copyright 2003,
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