|John Collier's portrait|
of Rudyard Kipling
I can't help it. I'm an old joke, too, and I love Kipling...Rudyard Kipling the man who travelled the world and knew such people as Samuel L. Clemens aka Mark Twain, and Arthur Conan Doyle before he was a Sir, as well as many other fascinating people. I particularly love Rudyard Kipling the poet who could write on demand without benefit of a helpful prompt and immediate follow-up from the Imaginary Garden with Real Toads.
I've been asked by Kerry, our Reigning Toad, to tell you about my favourite poem, but I can't get there without a brief introduction to the way this wordsmith captured my imagination, long before one of his lines captured my...um...well, let's say my heart.
A quick aside, however, before we start: On a trip across Canada by train in 1907, Kipling visited the southeastern part of Alberta where I now live, and he declared the city of Medicine Hat and the town of Redcliff, on the city's western border, had "all hell for a basement" —referring to the large reserves of natural gas found below the prairie here. Both Redcliff and "The Hat" lay their own claim to Kipling's vivid description. Various streets and roads have been named Kipling, but none are called "Hell".
As a precocious child in British Columbia, I didn't read the stories Kipling wrote for children. Somehow I didn't even know about The Jungle Book, but I did know about his poems, and his words painted lasting images in my mind.
One of the most vivid was from his poem Mandalay:
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin'-fishes play,
An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay!
When I was 21, I saw flying fish for the first time, and they did seem to be playing, although I surely anthropomorphized them. They were probably just doing what they do.
I once fancied myself a bit of a sailor (although I'd be hard-pressed to get another sailor to agree with me) so I love this description from L'Envoi:
Then home, get her home, where the drunken rollers comb,
And the shouting seas drive by,
And the engines stamp and ring, and the wet bows reel and swing...
These few lines from Kipling's The Way Through the Woods I associate with my father, an avid trout fisherman as far back as I can remember.
Yet, if you enter the woods
Of a summer evening late,
When the night-air cools on the trout-ring’d pools...
The first two and last two lines of L'Envoi to the Seven Seas are words every artist and poet can understand. (Note: When quoting two stanzas or two couplets from different parts of the same poem, I have used bold ellipses to indicate that there are parts left out.)
When Earth's last picture is painted and the tubes are twisted and dried,
When the oldest colours have faded, and the youngest critic has died, ...
... But each for the joy of the working, and each, in his separate star,
Shall draw the Thing as he sees It for the God of Things as They are!
|HMS Wivern (British Turret Ironclad)|
US Naval Historical Center
Most English-language poets recognize these lines from Recessional:
The tumult and the shouting dies—
The Captains and the Kings depart—
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart. ...
... Far-called our navies melt away—
On dune and headland sinks the fire—
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
The poem If has been printed and re-printed millions of times around the world as inspiration to young people. These two are my favorite stanzas from what is probably Kipling's most widely-read poem.
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!"...
... If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run—
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And—which is more—you'll be a Man, my son!
|Kipling at his|
US home in the 1890s
before he returned
By now you'll have noticed Kipling's penchant for capitalizing words, not quite at random, but somewhat unnecessarily by today's standards. Nevertheless, he was the first English-language poet to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and debate still rages about whether, when, why, and how he declined the Poet Laureateship of England when it was offered. He does not appear in lists of Poets Laureate for the United Kingdom. He was, however, undoubtedly the poet of Queen Victoria's British Empire.
By my quick count, using Poetryloverspage.com, he wrote 524 poems. The website Poemhunter.com says he wrote 544: The ever-so-fallible ask.com says "twenty-four" and I hope it's a typo, but that seems unlikely, as it is in words rather than numbers. There is an excellent (and I hope accurate) biography of Kipling at Wikipedia.
Now we finally get closer to the question of "What is Kay's favourite poem?" with only one more detour. I know there are many people, particularly in India but also in other countries which once formed part of the British Empire and some, like Canada, still in the Commonwealth of Nations, who decry Kipling as a supporter of the whole notion of Empire with a capital E. They use his portrayal of "the white man's burden" to support this idea.
I, on the other hand, always thought of him as the opposite of an Empirical racist. In the poem Gunga Din, his words about the regimental bhisti (water-carrier) who saved a soldier's life but lost his own in so doing, always impressed me:
Though I've belted you and flayed you,
By the livin' Gawd that made you,
You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din!
And I am also impressed with the refrain Kipling used before and after my favorite poem, The Ballad of East and West:
Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God's great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!
The poet T.S. Eliot, who edited the 1941 book, A Choice of Kipling's Verse, agrees with me: Eliot writes "I cannot find any justification for the charge that he held a doctrine of race superiority." Eliot finds instead: "An immense gift for using words, an amazing curiosity and power of observation with his mind and with all his senses, the mask of the entertainer, and beyond that a queer gift of second sight, of transmitting messages from elsewhere, a gift so disconcerting when we are made aware of it that thenceforth we are never sure when it is not present: all this makes Kipling a writer impossible wholly to understand and quite impossible to belittle."
Everything I've written above is true as far as it goes in my love affair with Kipling's work. I used to have the entire The Ballad of East and West memorized perfectly, but can only recite it imperfectly now. However, it is my favourite poem because of one line—the last line in the following excerpt from the story of a young soldier chasing the thief who had stolen his father, the Colonel's, favorite mare. Even now, whether reading, reciting, or recalling it to myself, I love the rhythm and rhyme and pulse of the whole thing, but especially of the last line below. When I was young, impressionable, and just the right age, that line made me feel wonderful in a way I'd never felt before! The following conversation takes place after the younger man's old horse ("a raw, rough dun was he") has fallen, and the thief Kamal has "turned the red mare back and pulled the rider free."
Kamal says to the Colonel's son:
“May I eat dirt if thou hast hurt of me in deed or breath;
What dam of lances brought thee forth to jest at the dawn with Death?"
Lightly answered the Colonel's son: "I hold by the blood of my clan:
Take up the mare for my father's gift—by God, she has carried a man!"
The red mare ran to the Colonel's son, and nuzzled against his breast;
"We be two strong men," said Kamal then, "but she loveth the younger best.
So she shall go with a lifter's dower, my turquoise-studded rein,
My 'broidered saddle and saddle-cloth, and silver stirrups twain."
The Colonel's son a pistol drew, and held it muzzle-end,
"Ye have taken the one from a foe," said he; "will ye take the mate from a friend?"
"A gift for a gift," said Kamal straight; "a limb for the risk of a limb.
Thy father has sent his son to me, I'll send my son to him!"
With that he whistled his only son, that dropped from a mountain-crest—
He trod the ling like a buck in spring, and he looked like a lance in rest.
(But how could I say to the average North American male, "Please tread some ling for me while I see if you look like a buck or a lance"? Couldn't be done. Maybe now, but not when I had what it took to get men to look at me and then look for some ling to tread.)
Kay L. Davies