Friday, December 6, 2019

Not of This Tide

Rudyard (may I call you Rudy?) Kipling was a most celebrated writer around a hundred years ago. He was esteemed by Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle, Freud, William James and his brother Hank. William J. compared him to Shakespeare. Even Edward Said, fierce opponent of colonialism, admired his work along with Salman Rushdie. In 1907 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first English-speaking author. The next was W.B. Yeats sixteen years later.

Kipling was honored in consideration of the power of observation, originality of imagination, virility of ideas and remarkable talent for narration which characterize the creations of this world-famous author."

In 1916 he wrote this very moving poem conflating his son’s death with that of a British sailor during W. W. I.

“Have you news of my boy Jack?”
Not this tide.
“When d’you think that he’ll come back?”
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

“Has anyone else had word of him?”
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

“Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?”
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind —
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.

Then hold your head up all the more,
This tide,
And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!


Rudy’s star has been in the descendant for the past 75 years. He is not of this tide. He got it all wrong. The White Man’s burden is nonsense. Manifest Destiny is bull shit. Along with his friend, Theodore Roosevelt, he was an architect of imperialism. He loved the idea of building up man’s body with a good war. Even his beautiful poem damning war couldn’t help itself in the end by holding your head up high as if the folly of that Great War were not a crime against humanity.

Kipling lived in Vermont for about 18 months where he wrote some of his finest stories and began his novel, Kim. Here’s an example of his account of a railroad magnate, having procured an entire train for his personal use, traveling across the country during a great recession of 1892.

At night the bunched electrics lit up that distressful palace of all the luxuries…. swinging on through the emptiness of abject desolation. Now they heard the swish of a water-tank and the click-clink of hammers that tested the Krupp steel wheels, the oath of a tramp chased off the rear platform, now the solid crash of coal shot into the tender and now a bearing back of noises as they flew past a waiting train. Now they looked into the great abyss, a trestle purring beneath their tread or up to the rocks that barred out half the stars…..  

He wrote with poetic immediacy, drive and cadence as he suggests an unrest in the heartland. Yet for all that I regard Kipling as the finest last gasp of the 19th century. He was, for the most part, on the wrong side of history.

Even in his well-known verse, East is East and West is West / and never the twain shall meet..
there are two lines to follow which somehow are seldom noted... But there is neither East nor West / nor borders, breed nor birth / When two strong men stand face to face.

Can we separate the poet from the poem, the writer from his words or any artist from his art? I would like to believe creativity issues forth from the center of the creator but it seems not to be so. Consider Picasso’s womanizing, Eliot’s antisemitism. Rudy Kipling is one of those lost voices well worth a re-hearing. Genius is a gift not to be so easily dismissed. It is one of those conundrums I can live with.  

For anyone whose appetite has been whetted I recommend Christopher Benfey’s 2019 book about Kipling called, If, Penguin Press. By his account Kipling was a conflicted man with opposing voices moderating his view of war and imperialism. In his Epitaphs of the War, he spoke with regret
assuming the words of the dead,

If anyone question why we died,
Tell them becaause our fathers lied.

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