My favourite Rudyard Kipling Poems

When I began this blog I never thought poetry would play such a prominent role in the content.

Despite my occasional dabbling, I am not a poet; I feel ill-equipped to speak with authority on the merits of poets or their work. I have no formal training in the appreciation of English literature. I often have difficulty in conveying why somethings stay with me and others do not. Still, I have done my best to make this blog about things that I find interesting and that I believe will be just as relevant in a year as in the day to day. Poetry –what I perceive as good poetry, anyway– is timeless and speaks to people on an individual level. Today I want to highlight three poems by Rudyard Kipling that make me think long and hard on their subject and the way they were conceived and composed. I can’t say categorically that these are his best poems, as I’m a long way from an exhaustive familiarity with his work, but these three should be a fair sampling of his style.

One note on context: Just as Robert Frost conjured his prose from the perspective of a New England yeoman, Rudyard Kipling wrote during the high-water mark of the British Empire: His worldview held the Anglo-Saxon race to be God’s chosen people, gifted with intellect and industry above other men and so responsible for the well being of the rest of humanity. At the same time, Kipling took a long look at the people the British ruled, and he found much to admire. This is the man who wrote the Jungle Book, Kim, and the Barrack Room Ballads. Kipling had no problem casting the ‘noble native’ in a positive light. With that in mind, let’s get started.

Harp Song of the Dane Women
by Rudyard Kipling

What is a woman that you forsake her,
And the hearth-fire and the home-acre,
To go with the old grey Widow-maker?
She has no house to lay a guest in—
But one chill bed for all to rest in,
That the pale suns and the stray bergs nest in.

She has no strong white arms to fold you,
But the ten-times-fingering weed to hold you—
Out on the rocks where the tide has rolled you.

Yet, when the signs of summer thicken,
And the ice breaks, and the birch-buds quicken,
Yearly you turn from our side, and sicken—

Sicken again for the shouts and the slaughters.
You steal away to the lapping waters,
And look at your ship in her winter-quarters.

You forget our mirth, and talk at the tables,
The kine in the shed and the horse in the stables—
To pitch her sides and go over her cables.

Then you drive out where the storm-clouds swallow,
And the sound of your oar-blades, falling hollow,
Is all we have left through the months to follow.

Ah, what is Woman that you forsake her,
And the hearth-fire and the home-acre,
To go with the old grey Widow-maker?
I wanted to start off with something the reader casually acquainted with Kipling may have missed. I came across this in the frontispiece of The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson, and I was deeply impressed. This isn’t a poem of martial pride or great adventure. It’s a lament about the cost of wanderlust; the shared experience of centuries of women forced to share their menfolk with the dangers of storm and sea and sword and spear. How many women watched their brothers and fathers, husbands and sons sail away –gone a-viking– for a season, or for years, or forever? What must they have thought of their loved ones, themselves, and the cruel ocean? I think Kipling’s done a beautiful job of capturing a deep ache in the hearts of women dead long before he was born. Almost all people of English ancestry have  some Danish blood in them from the Viking and Norman invasions, so this is also the story of Kipling’s many-times great-grandmothers. Mine, too, for that matter.

by Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with wornout tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
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 talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
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!

There aren’t too many poems where I can categorically state the date of my first experience, but I know for a fact I heard an abbreviated rendition of If delivered by Abe Simpson in the Simpsons episode Old Money on March 28, 1991.  It occurs to me that was more than 20 years ago now, and that makes me feel positively ancient, but I can distinctly remember hearing Abe Simpson speak his piece –ending with the last line– and Homer Simpson cutting his towering proclamation short by responding that he’d be a bonehead. I had only the haziest notion at the time that this must be based on something, and when I did eventually learn that it was based on If by Rudyard Kipling, I was so disappointed that the poem was so damned long (children have no patience).

I have since heard and read this poem a number of times in the last two decades, and the thing that always strikes me as how it captures in a creed the Gilded Age. If Kipling had been born an American, this poem would be engraved on Teddy Roosevelt’s headstone. This is the oath of the self-made man, of railroad tycoons, of the men who crossed oceans to build new worlds with nothing to their name but their hands and their wits and a set of bootstraps they expected to pull themselves up with. I am not a man, as defined by this poem. I think even the Great Generation would have a tough time meeting the bar set by this piece of prose. Still, it’s something that stays with me, makes me judge my problems from the perspective of how I would prefer to master them than be mastered by them, and that’s worth commemorating.

Gunga Din
by Rudyard Kipling

You may talk o’ gin and beer
When you’re quartered safe out ‘ere,
An’ you’re sent to penny-fights an’ Aldershot it;
But when it comes to slaughter
You will do your work on water,
An’ you’ll lick the bloomin’ boots of ‘im that’s got it.
Now in Injia’s sunny clime,
Where I used to spend my time
A-servin’ of ‘Er Majesty the Queen,
Of all them blackfaced crew
The finest man I knew
Was our regimental bhisti, Gunga Din.

He was “Din! Din! Din!
You limpin’ lump o’ brick-dust, Gunga Din!
Hi! slippery hitherao!
Water, get it! Panee lao!
You squidgy-nosed old idol, Gunga Din.”

The uniform ‘e wore
Was nothin’ much before,
An’ rather less than ‘arf o’ that be’ind,
For a piece o’ twisty rag
An’ a goatskin water-bag
Was all the field-equipment ‘e could find.
When the sweatin’ troop-train lay
In a sidin’ through the day,
Where the ‘eat would make your bloomin’ eyebrows crawl,
We shouted “Harry By!”
Till our throats were bricky-dry,
Then we wopped ‘im ’cause ‘e couldn’t serve us all.

It was “Din! Din! Din!
You ‘eathen, where the mischief ‘ave you been?
You put some juldee in it
Or I’ll marrow you this minute
If you don’t fill up my helmet, Gunga Din!”

‘E would dot an’ carry one
Till the longest day was done;
An’ ‘e didn’t seem to know the use o’ fear.
If we charged or broke or cut,
You could bet your bloomin’ nut,
‘E’d be waitin’ fifty paces right flank rear.
With ‘is mussick on ‘is back,
‘E would skip with our attack,
An’ watch us till the bugles made “Retire”,
An’ for all ‘is dirty ‘ide
‘E was white, clear white, inside
When ‘e went to tend the wounded under fire!

It was “Din! Din! Din!”
With the bullets kickin’ dust-spots on the green.
When the cartridges ran out,
You could hear the front-files shout,
“Hi! ammunition-mules an’ Gunga Din!”

I shan’t forgit the night
When I dropped be’ind the fight
With a bullet where my belt-plate should ‘a’ been.
I was chokin’ mad with thirst,
An’ the man that spied me first
Was our good old grinnin’, gruntin’ Gunga Din.
‘E lifted up my ‘ead,
An’ he plugged me where I bled,
An’ ‘e guv me ‘arf-a-pint o’ water-green:
It was crawlin’ and it stunk,
But of all the drinks I’ve drunk,
I’m gratefullest to one from Gunga Din.

It was “Din! Din! Din!
‘Ere’s a beggar with a bullet through ‘is spleen;
‘E’s chawin’ up the ground,
An’ ‘e’s kickin’ all around:
For Gawd’s sake git the water, Gunga Din!”

‘E carried me away
To where a dooli lay,
An’ a bullet come an’ drilled the beggar clean.
‘E put me safe inside,
An’ just before ‘e died,
“I ‘ope you liked your drink”, sez Gunga Din.
So I’ll meet ‘im later on
At the place where ‘e is gone —
Where it’s always double drill and no canteen;
‘E’ll be squattin’ on the coals
Givin’ drink to poor damned souls,
An’ I’ll get a swig in hell from Gunga Din!

Yes, Din! Din! Din!
You Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din!
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!

My final selection is Gunga Din, and I think you would be hard-pressed to find a poem that better encapsulates Kipling’s body of work.  At its core it is about admiring a man who common custom said should have been beneath the notice or concern of his betters. While Kipling certainly was on both sides of the argument when it comes to jingoism –I’m thinking particularly of The White Man’s Burden— he could make a powerful argument that the rulers were not really above the ruled. India captured the imagination of Great Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries in a way that is difficult to appreciate today. Here we have an Indian bhisti –a water boy– who is the equal to any and the superior of most British soldiers in terms of heroism and humanity. Mark how Kipling chooses to praise Gunga Din, though:

An’ for all ‘is dirty ‘ide
‘E was white, clear white, inside
When ‘e went to tend the wounded under fire!

Gunga Din gets promoted up to the equal of a white by being white on the inside. That has always made me grit my teeth. That’s my go-to example of how cultures only become more liberal through generational change. This was considered radical and progressive for its time, so much so that it became one of the British Empire’s most acclaimed man of letters’ definitive works. Like a fly trapped in amber we see the distance between five generations ago and today. Women didn’t have the vote. The colour of a man’s skin mattered so much that the strength of his character was only enough to be promoted up to an equal footing with a WASP. Equality was a completely alien concept. To be a British man was to find yourself at the top of a pyramid, with the rest of humanity crouched below you. What a thought!

What will my great-grandchildren think of my worldview? When I was a boy, AIDS was considered a plague on gay people. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was passed in my teens, and it is only being repealed as I approach 30. I consider myself an open-minded person, a moderate, but one day my descendants will wince at at my attempts at political correctness. They will be born into a more accepting world than my own. The idea fascinates me, and it is spurred on by this poem. That’s what I take away from this. What do you think?

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