Orwell on Kipling
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.
Orwell's essay on Rudyard Kipling in the Letters and Essays is both more favorable and more perceptive than one would expect of a discussion of Kipling by a British left-wing intellectual c. 1940. Orwell recognizes Kipling's intelligence and his talent as a writer, pointing out how often people, including people who loath Kipling, use his phrases, sometimes without knowing their source. And Orwell argues, I think correctly, that Kipling not only was not a fascist but was further from a fascist than almost any of Orwell's contemporaries, left or right, since he believed that there were things that mattered beyond power, that pride comes before a fall, that there is a fundamental mistake in
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,
But while there is a good deal of truth in Orwell's discussion of Kipling it is mistaken in two different ways, one having to do with Kipling's view of the world, one with his art.
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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.
There are passages in Kipling, not Loot, the poem Orwell quotes but bits of Stalky and Company, which support the charge of a "strain of sadism." But the central element which Orwell is misreading is not sadism but realism. Soldiers loot when given the opportunity and there is no point to pretending they don't. School boys beat each other up. Schoolmasters puff up their own importance by abusing their authority to ridicule the boys they are supposed to be teaching. Life is not fair. And Kipling's attitude, I think made quite clear in Stalky and Company, is that complaining about it is not only a waste of time but a confession of weakness. You should shut up and deal with it instead.
A more important error in Orwell's essay is his underestimate of Kipling as an artist, both poet and short story writer. Responding to Elliot's claim that Kipling wrote verse rather than poetry, Orwell claims that Kipling was actually a good bad poet:
What (Elliot) 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.
I am left with the suspicion that Orwell is basing his opinion almost entirely on Kipling's best known poems, such as the two he cites here, both written when he was 24. He was a popular writer, hence his best known pieces are those most accessible to a wide range of readers. He did indeed use his very considerable talents to tell stories and to make simple and compelling arguments, but that is not all he did. There is no way to objectively prove that Kipling wrote quite a lot of good poetry and neither Orwell nor Elliot, unfortunately, is still alive to prove it to, but I can at least offer a few examples:
The Mary Gloster: This is Kipling's version of a Browning monolog, and I think better than any of Browning's.
Hymn of Breaking Strain: A modern poem in a sense in which most modern poetry isn't; the central metaphor is the table of breaking strains at the back of an engineering handbook.
The Palace: Kipling's modest account, if I read it correctly, of the function of his own art. "After me cometh a builder. Tell him, I too have known."
Sestina of the Tramp Royal: In a sestina every verse has the same end words with the order permuted. Writing one and not being obvious about it is a non-trivial project. Kipling makes it look effortless.
The Song of the Men's Side: The story this accompanies, The Knife and the Naked Chalk, is told by a member of a tribe of stone age shepherds who bought for his people the knowledge of how to make bronze knives with which to defend themselves and their sheep — and paid for it with an eye. The poem is the same story from the point of view of the tribe. In both, the central point is that the real cost is not the loss of his eye but the loss of his status as a human being; his fellows now regard him, and treat him, as a god.
And, for an example of technical virtuosity in the use of rhythm, these lines from The Last Suttee:
We drove the great gates home apace: White hands were on the sill: But ere the rush of the unseen feet Had reached the turn to the open street, The bars shot down, the guard-drum beat -- We held the dovecot still.
The stories discusses in the essay are the early ones that first made Kipling famous, many written before his 22nd birthday. He shows no sign of having read the works of Kipling with which one would expect him to be most in sympathy, the short stories about English history in Puck of Pook's Hill and Rewards and Fairies. Stranger still, Orwell not only does not mention Kim, Kipling's one really successful novel, he does not know that it or Captains Courageous were ever written, since he refers to The Light that Failed as Kipling's "solitary novel."
Kipling died in 1936, Orwell published the essay in 1942; every work of Kipling’s that Orwell mentions in the essay, with one exception, was published before 1903. His evaluation of Kipling as an artist is based on work much of which, in a less talented author, would count almost as juvenilia.1
There is one other thing that Orwell gets wrong:
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.
Orwell’s view of the economics of empire has a testable implication, that if Britain abandoned the empire the British standard of living would drop sharply.
India, the most important of the colonies, became independent in 1947. By 1966 all of Britain’s African colonies were independent. The average real wage in the UK did not drop substantially at any point during the process and by 1966 was fifty percent higher than when Orwell wrote.
While Orwell had no access to future economic statistics he could observe contemporary conditions in different countries. Switzerland in 1938, which had no colonies, was richer than England. Denmark, with no significant ones, was almost as rich as England, Portugal, with an enormous African empire, much poorer.2 Orwell was an admirably independent thinker, as demonstrated by the essay on Kipling, but here and elsewhere he badly overestimated his understanding of economics.
He writes, about Kipling in the years after WWI:
He could not understa
nd 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.
It is not clear which view of imperialism was more nearly correct.
When I posted an earlier version of this post on my blog, there was one perceptive comment:
Meaning no disrespect to your examples of Kipling's good poetry, most of which are also favorites of mine, I think that "Danny Deever" has more real merit than Orwell recognizes. The verse structure has an effect much like that of traditional ballads, with the question/answer alternation and the repetitiveness (compare "Edward, Edward," for example). Some of the emotional points are made in an interestingly understated way: For example, the hardened old sergeant explaining, first, that the rear ranks are breathing hard because of the cold, and then, then the front ranks are fainting because of the hot sun—suggesting that he himself is shaken enough not to notice that he's talking nonsense. And the hint at the supernatural at the end, with the whimper of Danny's departing soul, adds to the emotional effect. Kipling was a more skillful artist in that poem than Orwell is prepared to notice. He's seldom a romantic poet, but classical restraint has its own intensities. (William H. Stoddard)
“Gods of the Copybook Headings” (1919) is the only work Orwell mentions published after 1903.
There is a complete list of Kipling’s poetry in order of publication online. The first poem on the list that I was already familiar with was written when he was eighteen. There were four more, one famous — “The Ballad of East and West” — written when he was nineteen. Looking up the list instead of down, the last of my favorite poems was published in 1935, the year before Kipling died.