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.

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