Fifty years on, 'O Best Beloved,'
Kipling is making a comeback

Smithsonian, January 1986


Expressive portrait of Cat that Walked by Himself was best of pictures Kipling did for his own books.


IT IS 50 YEARS since Rudyard Kipling died, and close to a century since - hardly more than a boy - he burst like a starshell over the sonorous gloom and decadent filigree of late Victorian literature. Esthetes like Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley had about run their course. Kipling was a new voice. He was brash and he was brilliant, and he wrote like a house afire, both in verse and prose, and readers couldn't get enough of him.

He dropped his aitches artfully and he sang rough songs about common soldiers and told tall tales about subalterns, some apparently able to run a subcontinent single-handed. In an age not noted for candor (or realism) he dealt briskly with war and casual death, cruelty and the cost of discipline, addiction to the Black Smoke (opium) and seasonal seductions in Simla, the summer capital of the British Raj in darkest India. In the world of the young Kipling, a Djinn might come out of a bottle, but a Martini was a rifle and the writer seemed to know all about its action and muzzle velocity. And if the Sahibs he chronicled were not always pukka (true), Kipling still saw in the work of empire the likeness of a noble aspiration.

He was only 23 when he turned out "The Man Who 'Would Be King," a matchless adventure story with a built-in moral. Soon afterward he was rich and revered, and nearly as famous as a modern rock star. In 1901 he brought out Kim, a long, loving and philosophical meditation upon India that masquerades as a tale of espionage and of growing up. It was a masterpiece. In 1907 he became the first Englishman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. A citation noted "primordial imaginative power," celebration of "courage, self-sacrifice and loyalty" and a "feeling for the poetry of nature."

Whole generations of young readers - he addressed them as "0 Best Beloved" - have joyfully learned from Kipling how the First Cat tricked the First Woman into giving it a place near the fire by making the First Baby laugh, and how with help from his insatiable curiosity the elephant's child got his trunk on the banks of the great gray-green, greasy Limpopo River. They know the Law of the Jungle as laid down for Mowgli by Baloo the Bear and Bagheera the Black Panther. Legions of parents pinned "If" to the wall, fondly hoping it would inspire their children (as late as 1937 it was the favorite poem of the graduating class of such a sophisticated place as Princeton University).

Kipling still takes up 13 pages in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, and two columns in Books in Print. He is probably the most quoted (as well as misquoted) writer of his century. He is certainly the last to have sizable chunks of his verse learned by heart. He is also the writer who, for decades, the Higher Criticism consigned to the ash heap of history as a brute, a bully, a jingo imperialist and a committer of vulgar doggerel.

Everyone agrees, however, that this genius of perplexing reputation loved children. At the drop of a hat he would forsake adult company to play with children, listen to them and tell them stories. In all other respects he was an intensely private man, whose personal life and papers were fiercely protected. Kipling regarded curiosity about the private lives of famous people as "the Higher Cannibalism." At the end of his life he begged his readers to let him lie "quiet in that night which shall be yours anon." And for "the little, little span / the dead are borne in mind / Seek not to question other than / The books I leave behind."

It is easy to sympathize.

And yet, and yet. For anyone who has been happily carried away by the roll and thump of Kipling's music hall verses, or by the austere eloquence in poems of sorrow and service, or followed the man in stories from the distant Punjab to the soft green fields of Sussex, which Kipling used as a takeoff point for time travels into English history, it is hard to feel like a cannibal for wanting to know more about the man's life. And the life, like the talent, is an astonishment.

On both sides, Kipling's people were fierce Wesleyite Methodists who believed in hard work as the key to salvation, and the Devil take the hindmost. Kipling often showed what he called his "pulpit streak." But there were other strains as well. His mother, one of the five clever Macdonald sisters, was celebrated in the family for having tossed a treasured lock of John Wesley's hair into the fire, exclaiming "Hair of the dog that bit us!" His father, John Lockwood Kipling, was devoted to learning and skilled at art and design. At age 28 he got a good appointment, to run the Sir Jamset Jeejeebhoy School of Art in Bombay, married Miss Macdonald and moved to India, where Joseph Rudyard Kipling was born December 30, 1865.

Not far away from the Bombay house stood a Tower of Silence on which Parsees exposed their dead, to be dried by the sun and borne away by kites and vultures. One of Kipling's earliest memories was of his mother's distress "when she found a child's hand in our garden and said I should not ask questions about it. I wanted to see that child's hand." Ordinarily Kipling's garden was filled with fine flowering trees and loving servants who spoke in Hindi and seem to have spoiled Ruddy; it is remembered that the unruly boy tossed lumps of clay into the classrooms at the art school. History also records that once, on a visit to England at age three, he chugged down High Street in the town of Bewdley shouting, "Out of the way, out of the way, there's an angry Ruddy coming!"

What with typhoid, cholera and heat, death did not take many holidays in India. At six, Kipling's parents packed him and his three-year-old sister, Trix, off to England for safety, to board at the house of a woman whose name they got from an ad in the newspapers.

The Bible was his punishment

Trix was made much of. But as everyone knows who has read the sad, fierce story "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep," Kipling was mistreated, unfairly punished, told he was bad and sent off to school wearing on his back a sign that said LIAR. Critics have suggested that the experience explains the cruelty that sometimes appears in his stories, and the high frequency of revenge as a theme. Kipling denied this. He did say that it made him pay attention "to the lies I soon found it necessary to tell: and this, I presume, is the foundation of literary effort." One of his punishments - until his tormentors discovered that he enjoyed it - was to be sent to his room to read the Bible. He had a prodigious memory; the sound of the Old Testament would ring in his writings for a lifetime.

After five years of this, Kipling was sent to an army cram school in Devon for the sons of not-so-well-off officers. He was smallish, nonathletic, with dark beetling brows (Henry James would later describe him as "the little black demon of genius"). His thick, pebble glasses blocked him from any career in the army. But he was tough, funny and clever. He read his head off and made his mark as school wit and versifier. Moreover, he won a permanent role playing the part of Beetle in the genial skirmishing with housemasters and bullies that would become Stalky & Co.

As the time for graduation approached, his worried father wrote the headmaster about Ruddy: "I must confess that it is the moral side I dread a breakdown on. I don't think he has the stuff to resist temptation. Journalism seems to be especially invented for such desultory souls." Lockwood Kipling feared that the impressionable youth might come to grief in sinful, bohemian London. And so it was that in 1882, not yet 17, Ruddy was dispatched to Lahore, to become "50 percent of the staff" of the Civil and Military Gazette, a frontier daily. Lahore was in the Punjab, part of India's northwest frontier confronting Afghanistan. It was standard practice to take 30 grains of quinine in your sherry.  Men and women died all about him, from typhoid and cholera. The night, Kipling wrote, "got into my head," setting off a habit of sleeplessness that plagued him all his life. For relief he prowled the dingy world of all-night liquor shops and opium dens, looking for reportorial color.

He broke down twice from heat and fatigue and disease. But he managed to work ten to 15 hours a day under the rather hellish conditions described at the start of "The Man Who Would Be King." And as an escape from what he called "the horror of the great darkness" he wrote much of what would become his first two books, Departmental Ditties and Plain Tales from the Hills. In the latter was "The Gate of a Hundred Sorrows," a shattering monolog by an opium addict whose subtly orchestrated diminution of will and interest is more familiar to readers today than it was to shocked English audiences in 1888.

He learned to write fast, and short. He traveled as reporter, covering all the constructive work of empire which in the Punjab was largely administered by the army. He would always have an insatiable curiosity about work, how it was done, the men and even the machinery that did it. It was the people, Indian and Briton alike, who, sweating and risking their lives, actually farmed the land, dug the wells, built the dams and bridges, set up medical dispensaries, that he admired all his life. He called them the Sons of Martha (as opposed to the Sons of Mary who did not have to work) and he tended not to include politicians in this useful group. Naturally he was interested in war, too. Though he sometimes showed an infernal, boyish glee in writing about it, there was nothing glorious in the treatment: "When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains / And the women come out to cut up what remains, / Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains, / An' go to your Gawd like a soldier."

He never actually saw a battle, though, the Second Afghan War having ended before his return to India. When he moved on to a job in Allahabad, he found that the newspaper there ran three- and four-thousand­word short stories, often reprints of famous writers like Bret Harte. Why waste money? he asked. I'll write them. And, on top of his full-time job, he did.

After six and a half years he sold all his stories and poems for £250 to a company that had offered them in paperback editions at railway stations in India. Putting all his money together he set out around the world. The house where he took cheap rooms when he reached London, on Villiers Street beside Charing Cross Station, now sports a royal blue medallion saying that he lived there. But in 1889, the cheeky sign he put up read: "To publishers, Classics while you wait."

In less than two years he was a celebrity, praised by everyone from Oscar Wilde to Henry James. Magazines and newspapers clamored for his stories and poems. No one since Dickens had had such a rapid rise, such a lightning facility with words. Perhaps partly as an attempt to exorcise the experience of falling in love with the wrong woman, a bachelor girl named Flo Garrard, he tried a novel, with Flo as the prototype for Maisie, an artist-heroine who won't agree to marry. The Light that Failed came with two endings, one in which boy gets girl, one in which boy loses girl - plus his sight and his life as well - but, except perhaps for love-sick youths longing for romance and adventure, modern readers are likely to find it a fizzle either way. Kipling's later poem, "The Vampire," may have gone straighter to the mark:

A fool there was and he made his prayer
   (Even as you and I!)
To a rag and a bone and a hank of hair
   (We called her the woman who did not care)
But the fool he called her his lady fair
   (Even as you and I!)

He was not much happier about some of the literary company his new fame made him keep: "I consort with long-haired things / In velvet collar-rolls, / Who talk about the Aims of Art, / And 'theories' and 'goals,' / And moo and coo with womenfolk / About their blessed souls." In 1890, suffering from something like a nervous breakdown, Kipling quit London, setting out on a soothing voyage.

He would always say how fortunate he was that life had dealt him the cards it did, that all he had to do was play them as they lay: the two childhoods, East and West, that gave him two worlds; the journalism that taught him his trade and gave him the whole dazzling tapestry of India to work on. But beginning in 1890, fate or chance seemed to jerk him crankily about. After his sea voyage he made friends with a young American, Wolcott Balestier. He met Balestier's sister Caroline, and soon was collaborating with him on The Naulahka, another romantic novel featuring another girl, an American this time, who wouldn't say "Yes." Except for spots of brilliant writing about the intrigue in a petty Rajah's palace, The Naulahka is best forgotten. Kipling took to the seas again, but during the voyage Wolcott Balestier died suddenly. Kipling was called back. On January 18, 1891, just eight days after he reached England, he and Caroline were married. No other Kiplings were there. But Henry James gave the bride away.

They settled in Vermont where the fates pursued Kipling once more. He was looking for a home, and space, outside of England - which he called "my favorite foreign country" - and he took to the New England landscape around Brattleboro where his wife's family lived. Surrounded by snow in a rented cottage in 1892, he wrote the first Jungle Book, his imagination dreaming backward to India and the green mysteries of the Seeonee Hills and steamy Waingunga River. Then he built a large house and wrote the Just So Stories and Captains Courageous, the latter filled with characteristically careful reporting about the work and rigging of a Gloucester fishing schooner.

Teddy Roosevelt and "reeking bounders"

Kipling liked many Americans, one of them being Theodore Roosevelt. But he was far from diplomatic. "I never got over the wonder," he wrote, after a visit to the Smithsonian, "of a people who, having extirpated the aboriginals of their continent more completely than any modern race had ever done, honestly believed that they were a godly little New England community, setting examples to brutal mankind." When he explained this to TR., "he made the glass cases of Indian relics shake with his rebuttals."

New York he saw as "the shiftless outcome of squalid barbarism and reckless extravagance." And though many Americans in the time of Grover Cleveland agreed with his description of Washington, D.C., as a place of "reeking bounders," some did not appreciate the judgment coming from a 27-year-old English visitor, even if he was a genius.

Unfortunately, America outraged one of Kipling's deepest convictions, his belief in the Law. By the word he did not mean a set of statutes, or even legal justice.  He meant an agreed-upon and widely held conviction of the need for self-discipline in behavior, and more or less fair dealing in public and private affairs. After his experience in India, he considered such law the only hope of holding natural disorder at bay in a world essentially inclined to chaos. The United States, he said, had "unlimited and meticulous legality, but of law abidingness, not a trace."

As if to illustrate the point, his brother-in-law Beatty Balestier, a charming deadbeat given to easy anger, got into a smoldering argument over the use of some land, and one day in a fit of rage, threatened to kill Kipling. A foolish lawsuit against Beatty, which Kipling won, gave the American papers a field day.  In 1896 the Kiplings packed up and went back to England.

Three years later, when they ventured back, at least as far as New York, Beatty threatened a countersuit. He had no case, but could promise more frightful publicity. Just at that moment Kipling came down with pneumonia. Besieged by the press, which treated the story as front-page news, his wife and Frank Doubleday, his U.S. publisher and lifelong friend, stood round-the-clock watch. He finally recovered. What they could not tell him, as his own life hung in the balance, was that during his illness his daughter Josephine, seven, the "0 Best Beloved" for whom he told the Just So Stories, had died of fever.

All his life Kipling had suffered from "deep melancholy and self-distrust," a sort of free-floating angst. His child's death was a specific wound, the first of two that he would never recover from. He lived for 37 more years. For decades to come in America, Kipling was a leader on the Doubleday sales list. But he never set foot in the United States again.

He had long attacked his own countrymen for their sneering treatment of British soldiers and their families, and for "making mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep": "For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy it's that, and 'Chuck him out, the brutel! / But it's 'Saviour of 'is country' when the guns begin to shoot." People back home didn't understand the real England ("What should they know of England, that only England know?"). He, at least, saw England not as a remote, indifferent little island, but as a worldwide community aimed at gradual progress. Now, near the turn of the century, two poems appeared that would later draw violent criticism, but defined his view of imperialism and foreshadowed his growing distress at Britain's increasing failure to live up to the responsibilities of empire. One was written as a warning to Teddy Roosevelt, then embarking on what Kipling correctly feared might be frivolous colonial adventures in the Philippines: "Take up the White Man's burden / Send forth the best ye breed / Go bind your sons to exile / To serve your captives' need."

The second was "Recessional." A great hymn, whatever its sentiments, it was taken as a paean of praise to the British Empire and to Queen Victoria on her Diamond Jubilee. But it is something else, a warning written out of deep misgivings, about the brevity of power and the dangers of its arrogant misuse:

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!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
   Lest we forget - lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
   Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boasting as the Gentiles use,
   Or lesser breeds without the Law -
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
   Lest we forget - lest we forgetl

For more than 30 years Kipling would watch, and often protest in silly ways, as his country, in the name of peace but actually through fecklessness and failure of will, grew weak, abandoned its responsibility to the people of its empire and stumbled, unprepared, toward three wars.

The first, against the Boers, was so ineptly conducted that it cost England 22,000 unnecessary casualties. Kipling complained in polemical verses, and raised £250,000 for the relief of common soldiers. On the scene in South Africa, along with reporting, he helped see that the wounded got medical care. Afterward, when Old Boys and generals did not seem to learn from their mistakes, an angry Ruddy struck out at them, "The flannelled fools at the wicket / The muddied oafs at the goals."

In the second war Kipling lost his son John, just 18, killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915, as a subaltern in the Irish Guards. His father had used army connections to help get the boy a commission. Mostly he spared others his grief. But one, poem mercilessly said it all, for himself and all parents: "That flesh we had nursed from the first in all cleanness was given / To corruption unveiled and assailed by the malice of Heaven / By the heartshaking jests of Decay where it lolled on the wires / To be blanched or gay-painted by fumes - to be cindered by fires."

He would be asked to write a history of the Irish Guards and to become a commissioner of England's 750,000 war graves. With painful care he did both, and worked as he always had on behalf of veterans.

But if he had spoken for everyone's grief and patriotism during the war, after the war he was at odds with prevailing values, and an avalanche of critical scorn now fell upon him.

The fiercest attacks came from the literary left. England was exhausted from war. English liberals especially were strongly pacifist, hoping the way to untroubled rest lay through appeasement. Many of them, touched by fashionable Marxism, liked to feel that any future hope for international fairness and order lay with the communist experiment. They could see in Kipling's imperial vision only pure hypocrisy or economic exploitation. But Kipling was outraged by what was going on in the Soviet Union. Like Churchill, he also understood that another war with Germany would come unless England and France were strong, and he called for rearmament.

He had made fun of liberals all his life and once slightingly referred to "brittle intellectuals who crack beneath the strain." He still spoke of heroism, duty, courage and sacrifice, words tarnished by their use to incite the young to face the horrors of trench warfare. Some attacks were genial enough, like this spoof of Kipling and his friend H. Rider Haggard, the' author of She and King Solomon's Mines

'Every Bolsh is a blackguard,'
Said Kipling to Haggard
- 'And given to tippling,'
Said Haggard to Kipling
'And a blooming outsider,'
Said Rudyard to Rider.
- Their domain is a bloodyard,'
Said Rider to Rudyard.

Some attacks were not. He found himself labeled a warmonger and a fascist. His writing was dismissed as sadistic and shallow, drenched with bourgeois sentimentality. Besides, wasn't he patronizing the working class, writing all those soldier poems in dialect?

For two decades, according to British historian Paul Johnson, critics and educationists on both sides of the Atlantic assailed him. "This attempted effacement of a great writer," Johnson notes, "is without parallel in any country this side of the Iron Curtain." Critic Edmund Wilson would put it more simply. Kipling, he wrote, "had been dropped out of modern literature."

He died in 1936. The year of Stalin's purges. The year when, unopposed by the British and French, Adolf Hitler marched into the Rhineland.

This spring seminars and ceremonies will mark the half century since Kipling's death. Partly because of that, partly because the copyright on all his work is running out, there will be a rush of new collections and studies. Fortunately for students, and readers generally, a process of critical reassessment has long been under way. It has helped turn the emphasis away from polemics to Kipling's art, to his chameleon poet's skill as a writer.

The reassessment started in the 1940s, most notably with George Orwell and poet-critic T. S. Eliot. Because he came from the political left, Orwell's comment had political impact. Kipling might sometimes be "morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting," Orwell granted, but he was no fascist. And no capitalist exploiter, either, since he saw British imperialism not as a "money-making concern" but as "a sort of forcible evangelising." Orwell noted that the line "Lesser breeds without the Law" did not refer to benighted natives, but mainly to the lawlessness of the Germans. The term "white man's burden," Orwell suggested, "instantly conjures up a real problem, even if one feels that it ought to be altered to black man's burden." He pointed out the deep feeling and beauty of some of the soldier poems.

A consummate craftsman himself, Eliot praised Kipling's immense skill at verse, his concern for poetic craftsmanship. Noting his music and "remarkable" rhythmic innovations he cited the "Harp Song of the Dane Women" as an example: "What is a woman that you forsake her / And the hearth fire and the home acre / To go with the old grey Widow-maker?"

More important, as one of the high priests of modern criticism, Eliot lent weight to an obvious point: Kipling's verses, written in a long and honorable tradition, were often sneered at simply because the tradition had gone out of style. Just before World War I, rhyme schemes, heavy metrics and poetic language had given way to free verse and Ezra Pound's order "to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome." The new poetry aimed at capturing the exact curve of intricate private experience, and sought the complexities that have made poetry, once widely understood and read aloud, inaccessible to the general public. Accustomed to regard obscurity in a poem as proof of its seriousness, modern critics tended to be "contemptuous of poetry which they understand without effort." Kipling's ballads were aiming at something older and more generous: a poetry of direct statement, written in order to stir a "response from all readers, and only the response which they can make in common."

The relation between serious criticism and commercial publishing, or the public acceptance of a writer, is fairly tenuous. But biographies and studies proliferate, and within the past decade there has been something of a Kipling boom.

Opinion is still divided, but on different (and more favorable) terms. Some think Kipling's real claim to a place in history owes most to the early writing on India, and soldier stories like "Black Jack" and" On Greenhow Hill." Others prefer the less well-known later stories, notably "An Habitation Enforced" and "The Wish House," mostly set in England and often intricate, abstruse, layered in meaning.

The number of visitors who journey down to Sussex to Bateman's, Kipling's spacious house, has lately jumped from about 5,000 to more than 55,000 a year. Once there they can buy books and see the dam and brook that figure in such later stories as "Under the Mill Dam" and "Friendly Brook." In 1983 in England, as a result of relaxed restrictions on the use of Kipling's letters, out came 0 Beloved Kids, a selection of his letters to his children - no doubt a shocking invasion of privacy, but funny and touching and full of marginal sketches and fond exhortation.

For the past two years actor Alec McCowen has been touring with a compelling, cranky and eloquent stage portrait of Kipling, grumping because people "half quote" him to suit "their prejudices," but gradually quoting himself correctly to explain his life.

What emerges is no political thinker, but a stoic man of genius and surpassing literary charm, a gentle­violent man full of affection and knowledge, who took refuge from inner and outer darkness by praising and holding to his idea of the Law, doggedly following duty and work and loyalties outside himself - even as you and I. Fortunately, he could write about, seem to inhabit, and speak for, all manner of animals, people, places and moments in history, recreating for anyone willing to read, a vision of Victorian India and the England of his dreams.

"If you really want to know what I thought, read the books," McCowen says at the show's end, slamming his hand down on the pile of books on his desk. Pause to glare at the audience. Then he adds scornfully, "But you won't."

Perhaps so. But this would be an appropriate year to prove him wrong.


Additional reading:

  • A Choice of Kipling's Verse , selected by T.S.Eliot, Faber and Faber, 1983
  • The Life of Rudyard Kipling by C.E. Carrington, Doubleday,1955
    The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling by Angus Wilson, Viking 1977
  • The Portable Kipling , edited by Irving Howe, Viking-Penguin, 1982
  • Something of Myself by Rudyard Kipling, Macmillan, 1937
  • Puck of Pook's Hill by  Rudyard Kipling, Macmillan, 1981