Rudyard Kipling: the misfit poet

Kipling is not at all like his image, which is a good thing, since he is widely regarded as jingoistic, narrow and racist. It is a pity if, for this reason, some never read him.

Kipling was always an outsider, and never a member of the Establishment. He received the Nobel Prize, but refused any honour, including the Order of Merit, that would identify him with a single country.

He wasn’t English, being born in Bombay, 150 years ago, on December 30 1865. A repeated pattern in his life was to turn his back and begin again. He never returned to India after the age of 25. He made a home in Vermont, but, after an almost fatal illness and the death of his daughter Josephine, left America forever in 1899. He pinned his hopes on English rule in South Africa, but, disgusted with the ascendancy of the Boers, left in 1908 and never went back.

In his writings, as if in a recurrent dream, small male groups offer shelter from a hostile world: the schoolfriends of Stalky & Co; Mowgli’s wolf-pack in The Jungle Book; or the Janeites in a short story from the First World War.

As Andrew Lycett points out in a new collection, Kipling and War, the term Janeites, meaning “admirers of Jane Austen”, was invented by Kipling’s friend George Saintsbury.

Who would expect to find them behind the sandbags of the Western Front? But the narrator of the story tells how Macklin, a drunken mess-servant, joins in the officers’ discussion of their heroine.

“Pa-hardon me, gents,” Macklin says, “but this is a matter on which I do ’appen to be moderately well informed. She did leave lawful issue in the shape o’ one son; an’ ’is name was ’Enery James.”

It wasn’t from the First World War that Kipling learnt of life’s brutal horrors, but from a boarding house in Southsea, Hampshire, where he went to live in 1871, aged five, separated from his parents in India and cruelly treated, physically and mentally, by the landlady.

This went on for more than five years, no unusual ordeal for the children of Empire, but for this boy “an avalanche that had swept away everything happy and familiar”.

To these years in the House of Desolation (as he calls it in his story “Baa Baa, Black Sheep”) Kipling attributed his “habit of observation and attendance on moods and tempers”, as he noted in his fragmentary autobiography, Something of Myself.

No doubt also in Southsea was ground into his psyche the sadism that regularly emerges in his work. One story in Stalky & Co, on the torture of two bullies, is too terrible to reread.(Stalky & Co is sometimes mistaken for children’s literature, since its subject is school, but it isn’t, any more than is Kim, the dreamlike tale of a boy in India.)

How Kipling seemed to a brilliant contemporary is shown by the parody “PC X36” in Max Beerbohm’s A Christmas Garland (1912). The narrator’s policeman friend Judlip spotted an old man with “a hoary white beard, a red ulster with the hood up, and what looked like a sack over his shoulder” standing on a rooftop.

Ordering him down to the street, the constable grabbed his collar. “The captive snivelled something about peace on earth, good will toward men. 'Yuss,’ said Judlip.

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