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1 June 2021

From the NS archive: Rudyard Kipling

25 January 1936: The writer of empire in changing times.

By Rebecca West

In this piece, written a week after the death of Rudyard Kipling, Rebecca West, one of the magazine’s most incisive critics, took a hard look at the great fabulist and poet’s career. “Some of his work was gold; and the rest was faery gold,” she writes. Kim was a great work but by no means all his novels succeeded: “… all his life long Kipling was a better poet than he was a prose writer, though an unequal one”. The reason for Kipling’s fame was that his work was “superbly relevant to its time”, notably “the emphasis on colour in his style, and the vast geographical scope of his subject matter, which made his work just the nourishment the English-speaking world required in the period surrounding the Jubilee and the Diamond Jubilee”. But there were numerous character faults too, thought West, including his blithe patronising of the working man and his rages against changing times. However, Kipling deserved his fame because “he alone among professional writers had travelled widely, and had the trick of condensing his travels into evocative runes which are almost as much magic as poetry”.


The chief tragedy of Rudyard Kipling’s life was summed up in two of the tributes published in newspapers the morning after his death. Major-General Dunsterville, the original of Stalky, boasted: “In three-score years and ten no man’s outlook on life could have changed less than that of Rudyard Kipling.” Sir Ian Hamilton wrote precisely and powerfully: “As one who must surely be about Kipling’s oldest friend, I express my deep sorrow. His death seems to me to place a full stop to the period when war was a romance and the expansion of the Empire a duty.”

Those two sentences indicate the theme of that tremendous and futile drama in which a man, loving everything in life but reality, spent his days loathing intellectuals as soft and craven theorists, and yet himself never had the courage to face a single fact that disproved the fairy tales he had invented about the world in youth; and who, nevertheless, was so courageous in defending this uncourageous position that he had to be respected as one respects a fighting bull making its last stand.

That drama explains why the public regards Rudyard Kipling as one of the most interesting men of our time. He stands among those Laocoon figures who in pride and strength are treading the road to the highest honours, when they are assailed by passions, which seem not to be a part of the victim’s individualities, but to have crawled out of the dark uncharted sea of our common humanity. Such men are judged not by their achievements in action or the arts but by the intensity of the conflict between them and their assailants. Such judgement had to recognise Rudyard Kipling as a memorable man.

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That, in part, explains his fame on the Continent. His warmest admirers would have to admit that that is extravagantly inflated. A short time ago I was present when one of the greatest figures in European literature explained to our most subtle living novelist that it could only be political prejudice which prevented him from recognising Soldiers Three and They as permanent glories of English literature, very near its apex. “You think them very much better than anything Shaw and Wells have written?” “Oh much!” “Better than anything Dickens and Thackeray have written?” “Of course! Much better than anything else in your modern English literature – except Oscar Wilde and Lord Byron!”

The just cataloguing of Rudyard Kipling with two other Laocoon figures suggests that an imperfect knowledge of a language may permit a reader to see the main pattern of a fabric, which a reader of great linguistic accomplishment might lose because of absorption in fine verbal touches. But it does not explain the curious progress of his fame in this country.

That followed a course which it is hard to explain to a postwar generation. Those of us who were born in the first half of the 1890s remember a childhood shadowed by certain historical facts: the gathering trouble in South Africa, the Home Rule question, the Dreyfus Case, the Diamond Jubilee, and the fame of Mr Kipling. These were of not easily differentiated importance; and it must be remembered that Kipling was not 35 till the turn of the century. He enjoyed the celebrity and rewards of Mr Noël Coward and Mr JB Priestley put together, at less than Mr Noël Coward’s present age, with something of the more than merely political, almost priestly, aureole of Mr Stanley Baldwin.

He had laid the foundation of this fame principally with his volumes of short stories, Plain Tales from the Hills, Soldiers Three and Life’s Handicap, his novel, The Light That Failed, and his volumes of poetry, Barrack-room Ballads and The Seven Seas. It will seem to anyone who now takes up these volumes for the first time, or can read them in a state of detachment, that their fame was not deserved. Those books are the work of a preternaturally clever boy in his early twenties, of odd and exciting, but limited experience, and they are just as good as could be expected, and just as bad.

Plain Tales from the Hills are just the stories a young writer of parts will write when he is mastering the bare elements of the storyteller’s craft; when he is teaching himself to get down on paper the crude sequence of events, the mere mechanical movements of people in and out of rooms and up and down stairs. Soldiers Three, for all they have stamped the imagination of a people, are anecdotes, told with too much gusto and too little invention. Life’s Handicap contains better stories, for in them Kipling has perfected the art of hooking a reader’s attention as neatly as an accomplished salmon-fisher casting a fly. I cannot believe that a young officer and his Hindu mistress would converse so exclusively in the manner of conscientious members of the Chelsea Babies’ Club as is represented in Without Benefit of Clergy, but I shall not forget that story till I die.

As for The Light That Failed, it is a neat, bright, tightly painted canvas, but it falls far short of deserving to cause a sensation. Dick Heldar is a boy’s idea of an artist and a man; Maisie is a boy’s idea of a woman; Bessie Broke is a boy’s idea of a drab; Torp is a boy’s idea of an adventurer.

The verse is naturally better. Poetic genius makes a qualitative demand on experience; fiction makes a quantitative test as well. And indeed all his life long Kipling was a better poet than he was a prose writer, though an unequal one. In his verse he was a fusion of Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Adelaide Proctor, Alfred Noyes and George R Sims (Gunga Din is as bad as that), with a militarist AP Herbert, one of the grander Scottish hymnal-writers and a pure and perfect lyrist, who could distil a day of alien weather in a verse as bright and clear as a dewdrop. But it must be doubted whether an age that recited Gunga Din and The Absent-minded Beggar at the top of its voice was really swayed by admiration for that shy and delicate lyrist in its estimate of Kipling’s genius.

Yet there was nothing at all fortuitous about Kipling’s success. It could not be called a fluke. To begin with, his work then and all through his life had the curious property of seeming better than it disclosed itself after a few years. Some of his work was gold; and the rest was faery gold. Moreover, it had rare qualities which made it superbly relevant to its time. The first two were the emphasis on colour in his style, and the vast geographical scope of his subject matter, which made his work just the nourishment the English-speaking world required in the period surrounding the Jubilee and the Diamond Jubilee. I do not find that the postwar generation realises what marvellous shows these were, or how they enfranchised the taste for gorgeousness in a population that wore dark clothes, partly from a morbid conception of decorum and partly because cleaning was so expensive, and lived in drab and smoky times. Of the Jubilee I cannot speak; but of the Diamond Jubilee I have enchanting memories of such feasts for the eye as I do not think I knew again until the Russian ballet came to dip the textiles of Western Europe in bright dyes.

London was full of dark men from the ends of the earth who wore glorious colours and carried strange weapons, and who were all fond of small children and smiled at them in the streets. I remember still with a pang of ecstasy the gleaming teeth of a tall bearded warrior wearing a high headdress, gold earrings and necklaces, a richly multicoloured uniform, and embroidered soft leather boots. There were also the Indian troops in Bushey Park, their officers exquisitely brown and still, and coiffed with delicately bright turbans, the men washing their clothes at some stretch of water, small and precise and beautiful. They came from remote places and spoke unknown tongues. They belonged to an infinite number of varied races. They were amiable, they belonged to our Empire, we had helped them to become amiable by conquering them and civilising them.

It was an intoxicating thought; and it was mirrored in the work of Rudyard Kipling and nowhere else, for nobody could match his gift of reflecting visual impressions in his prose, and he alone among professional writers had travelled widely, and had the trick of condensing his travels into evocative runes which are almost as much magic as poetry. Hence he could restore confidence to a population that had slowly lost touch with their traditional assurances throughout the 19th century and give them a new sense of glorious destiny. Since they were subjects of the British empire they were members of a vast redemptory force.

And, indeed, that belief produced some not-at-all poisonous results. One night, when I was some years older, my mother returned from an expedition to town, and with flashing eyes described how she had come upon a vast crowd standing round a hotel and raising cheer after cheer. Presently there appeared at the lighted window the stiff head and beard of Botha, woodenly bowing acknowledgments. The crowd had gathered to cheer the South African generals, come to London to settle the peace, not (as one of the postwar generation startled me by assuming the other day on hearing this anecdote) because they were pro-Boer, but because they were full of the spirit of parcere subjectis. Uglier things have happened in history.

The third quality which made Kipling the presiding genius of his time was his passion for machinery. He assured the slaves of a mechanised world that what they tended were civilising forces; that the task of tending them was a discipline and high achievement, and that the humblest who performed that task worthily could hold up his head among kings. Again, he brought a sense of religious destiny back into a disorganised world. He was able, in fact, to render an immense service to his age, and it is no wonder that in his later years, when it became apparent that that age had passed for ever, he refused to recognise the change, and raised a disgruntled pretence that nothing was happening save an outburst of misconduct on the part of the intellectuals and the lower classes.

It is no wonder that he should want to do so, human nature being as frail as it is; but it is surprising that the writer of the masterpiece Kim should have found himself able to do so. It was partly the consequence of a real incapacity for handling general ideas and grasping the structure of the world in which he lived. He was full of contempt for his character “Pagett M.P.”, the radical English politician who came out to India for a few months and then laid down the law to administrators who had known the country for a lifetime. But Sir Edmund Gosse, that wavering convert to the conventional, who could never be trusted not to lapse into dangerous penetration and sincerity, once pointed out that whenever Kipling wrote about England – or any place but India – he was simply a Pagett M.P. turned inside out. This was partly due to his Indian childhood, but it must also be laid to the charge of the kind of education which England provides for its governing classes.

It is interesting to turn back to his very early travel book, From Sea to Sea, if only to see how carefully he hammered out that descriptive style which has had even more influence in France than here, since it is the foundation of the best in le grand reportage; but it is interesting also as an indication of just how well Stalky & Co were taught. It begins with a chapter of jeers at a wretched young man from Manchester on a trip through India, who had bought some silly sham antiques, and failed to understand the working of some wells on the plains. But in the later chapters Kipling himself travels through the western states, only 50 years after the forty-niners, with not the faintest appreciation of what the settlement of the country meant. He gets off the train at Salt Lake City and has no word of reverence for that miracle of statesmanship which set a noble city and a stable state on a trackless and waterless desert. Merely he complains that the Book of Mormon is illiterate, that the Tabernacle is not pretty, and that polygamy is shocking. Could any young man from Manchester do worse? Surely the United Services College should have taught him better than that?

But the same wonder regarding the value of our English system of education arises when we look round at Kipling’s admirers among the rich and the great. He was their literary fetish; they treated him as the classic writer of our time; as an oracle of wisdom; as a Shakespeare touched with grace and elevated to a kind of mezzanine rank just below the Archbishop of Canterbury. But he was nothing of the sort. He interpreted the mind of an age. He was a sweet singer to the last. He could bring home the colours and flavours of many distant places. He liked the workmanship of many kinds of workers, and could love them as long as they kept their noses to their work. He honoured courage and steadfastness as they must be honoured. But he was not a faultless writer. His style was marred by a recurrent liability to a kind of two-fold vulgarity, a rolling overemphasis on the more obviously picturesque elements of a situation, whether material or spiritual, and an immediate betrayal of the satisfaction felt in making that emphasis.

It is not a vice that is peculiar to him – perhaps the supreme example of it is GK Chesterton’s Lepanto – but he committed it often and grossly. Furthermore, his fiction and his verse were tainted by a moral fault which one recognises most painfully when one sees it copied in French books which are written under his influence, such as M de St Exupéry’s Vol de Nuit, with its strong, silent, self-congratulatory airmen, since the French are usually an honest people. He habitually claimed that any member of the governing classes who did his work adequately was to be regarded as a martyr who sacrificed himself for the sake of the people; whereas an administrator who fulfils his duties creditably does it for exactly the same reason that a musician gives a masterly performance on his fiddle or a house-painter gives a wall a good coat of varnish, because it is his job and he enjoys doing things well.

But the worst of all was the mood of black exasperation in which Kipling thought and wrote during his later years. He had before him a people who had passed the test he had named in his youth – the test of war; and they had passed it with a courage that transcended anything he can have expected. Yet they had only to stretch out a hand towards bread or peace or power, or any of the goods that none could begrudge them in this hour when all their governors’ plans had broken down, for Kipling to break out in ravings against the greed and impudence of the age.

Was this a tragedy to deplore or a pattern to copy? Perhaps the rich and the great admired Kipling for retiring into rage and shutting his eyes against his times, because they were obscurely conscious of the dilemma that must have faced him had he left them open. Supposing that one has pledged one’s imagination before the war to the ideal of a Great Power which would ruthlessly spread its pattern of civilisation over all conquerable lands so far as it could reach, without tenderness for its executives or the conquered peoples; which would count the slaves of the machines as the equal of kings, provided they performed their tasks with competence, and far superior to the intellectuals who are infatuated with the notion of freedom; which asked of its children discipline, and discipline, and then discipline, and stood proudly to meet the force of the world with force – what power would claim one’s allegiance after the war, every year more surely? It has often seemed fantastic that the author of MacAndrew’s Hymn should have feared and loathed the aeroplane. Perhaps he felt that, had he given his passion for machinery its head, that and the rest of his creed might have led him straight to Dnieprostroi.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) 

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