Tuesday, July 9, 2013

A Toad's Favo(u)rite ~ "I don't know, I've never kippled."

Re: my post title. Old joke. "Do you like Kipling?"

John Collier's portrait
of Rudyard Kipling
circa 1891

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
to Britain

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


Susan said...

Kay, you continue to surprise me! This essay, so well-researched and publishable, makes me look again at the lines Kipling was able to slide into my head forever because of rhythm, rhyme, image, dialect and action. I have dismissed him for a long time, so thank you for making me take a second look--and for the personal connections you show to loved lines.

Kerry O'Connor said...

I have always considered Kipling to be too much the colonialist (even jingoist)and now Eliot's words put me on the spot!
But I have always admired his Just So Stories and Jungle Books. Your detailed feature, with many well-chosen examples, has allowed me to read his poetry with fresh eyes. There is certainly a beauty of form and sound, and subjects very pertinent to the era in which he lived. Thanks for sharing your love of poet and word with us today.

TCPC said...

Thanks Kay! I was not aware of such a wonderful collection to the credit of Kipling but, of course, for the Jungle book!

Sherry Blue Sky said...

I enjoyed this, Kay, recalling some of the lines that have run counterpoint through my life (especially "If you can keep your head...) My heart lifted as a child, too, at the words "On the road to Mandalay". I often quote "You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din!" Great essay!

Maude Lynn said...

Outstanding article, Kay! I enjoyed this tremendously.

Margaret said...

Ah, if only poetry were taught thus in school! Nicely done and I learned quite a bit!

Grace said...

Thank you so much for the lovely post Kay ~ I now appreciate his words and place in literature ~

A gift for a gift, I love that part of the story ~ Thanks again ~

Anonymous said...

Kay! Kipling was my father's favorite poet... he could recite "Gunga Din" and some of the Barrack Room Ballads by heart. I also remember his Jungle Books fondly. I actually began to recite "The Ballad of Gunga Din" before being cut off by the teacher (I think it was the fourth grade), who asked me to pick another poem. I said I'd do anything but "Trees."

Rebel, rebel. My dad's English heritage had a lot to do with his devotion to Kipling. He would have LOVED your research and the fact that you quoted most of his favorites. Have often wondered if there is a woman's version of "If" out there! Thanks, Kay. Amy

Marian said...

wow, wow, Kay. you are simply amazing. this is pure pleasure to read and read again. as a girl, i loved many verses from Kipling but haven't read or thought about him for a long time.

fascinatingly enough, your essay made me realize that a poem of my grandmother's (maybe you know that i've been working with some of her very early writing) is probably a reflection or response to L'Envoi, and so now i go to look up the full text. wow. thank you!

Susie Clevenger said...

Kay this is such a beautifully constructed essay on Kipling. I must admit I have read little of his work, but you have inspired me to do more of it. Thanks so much for sharing!

Ella said...

I love how you shared his language with us. Amazing and insightful to read~ I too haven't read him for a long time! You have inspired me to do so! Thank you for this gift!

hedgewitch said...

Kay, I would have pegged you for a Kipling fan just by reading your verse--you have that wonderful rhythm, like soldiers marching, or wave succeeding wave, that he put into everything. I've read and loved all his novels and stories, but am less knowledgeable about his poetry. Thanks for correcting some of that(and sharing your passion for ling-treading young bucks with us, as well. ;_))

grapeling said...

I don't know what a ling is, Kay, but I absolutely appreciate and admire your depiction. Now I'm inspired to get my two sons, 12 and 14, to read - and me, too, it's been decades. Thank you. ~ M