08 December 2013

The poet's burden

100 Poems: Old and New by Rudyard Kipling, selected and edited by Thomas Pinney (Cambridge University Press, 2013)

Old favorites and new gems are bound together in the latest selection of poems by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936). From a round figure of 100, a fourth are old poems and the rest appears for the first time in book form. It is a modest cut from the three-volume The Cambridge Edition of the Poems of Rudyard Kipling, published earlier this year and with the same editor, Thomas Pinney. The new are harvested from the more than 550 pieces found in obscure newspapers and magazines and unpublished manuscripts. It is not clear why Kipling left them uncollected. Perhaps they are not what he considered his best.

But the labels old and new might as well be arbitrary. The poems are not actually marked as such in the text, and the distinction is only given in the index of sources at the end of the book. One can assume the titles using the first lines of the poems and enclosed in brackets are the "old" poems. In any case, readers unfamiliar or uninitiated with the poet's work might as well be in for the shock of the new. The poems span more than half a century (1882-1935) of the poet's career. Collectively, they reveal a voice of quiet forcefulness and political controversy. They leave some impressions of an imperialist age, fruits of both wisdom and failing.

The sample also manages to showcase a mix of Kipling's registers and styles: tender, lyric, playful, political. His engagement with the historical developments in his own time is apparent from signature works like "The White Man's Burden". The poem's subject is spelled out below the title: "1899 / (The United States and the Philippine Islands)".

Take up the White Man's burden –
   In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
   And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
   An hundred times made plain,
To seek another's profit,
   And work another's gain.

Take up the White Man's burden –
   The savage wars of peace –
Fill full the mouth of Famine
   And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
   The end for others sought,
Watch Sloth and heathen Folly
   Bring all your hope to nought.

After all these years the myth, and now concept, of "the White Man's burden" still speaks of the moral questions behind invasions, and conquests of nations and territories. The poem can be seen as a moral justification for American imperialism as Kipling's position was supportive of the US policy of "benevolent assimilation" in the Philippine islands. Kipling can't be serious.

And yet the poet appears to satirize his own glum position. With the "burden" of imperialism comes the false burden of a false conscience and the all too recognizable arrogance associated with any colonial design. I will not go so far as to call Kipling 'racist' – as others have done with regard to this poem – when there's an alternative, and more damning, reading of it. An interesting poem, after all, has two or more faces. Kipling may be expressing this very idea when he wrote in another poem, "Do I write jestingly? Believe me no – / Between the lines a deeper meaning lies".

Less problematic is his poem about the loss of a son in wartime. "My Boy Jack" almost condenses the whole World War I enterprise into a narrative of loss and mourning. Its subtitle "1914-18" says as much about the poem's emblematic rendering of the cost of war coincident with the "last" years of his son who went missing in 1915.

"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!

It is a very personal poem and yet it is also a poem of the age, seeming to bottle up parental sorrows in the world. The empty consolation of pride is not enough compensation for lost children in the war. But there's a quiet dignity in grieving. I can't think of more fitting lines to commemorate the 100th year of the war next year.

Elsewhere, the poems use a freer, looser slang language. In poems like "The Irish Conspiracy", one hardly needs to strain hard to catch the drift of the slang. The poet's strong ear for the gossip of suspected conspiracy actually makes for a suspenseful reading. Some poems feel like military marching songs; others are almost like children's poems with an unsettling theme and rhythm. The following lines are examples of the latter:

[from "The Dedication":]

Time has whirled the spade away,
    Turned to slang the baby-speech,
And the child of yesterday
     Hunts, alone, a flinty beach –
Catches starfish as of old,
Gives 'em not for Love but gold.

[from "As One Who Throws Earth's Gold Away in Scorn":]

Wherefore, while each new day brings some new thought
    And life's chain sparkles, golden link by link
Write quickly; good or evil, all is fraught
    More deeply than you think.

And then there are the fickle, mischievous lines. "New Year Resolutions" is so heartfelt and true it bests the promise of every smoker not to light a smoke the whole year. One can safely bet the promise will not go up in flames.

I am resolved – throughout the year
    To lay my vices on the shelf;
A godly, sober course to steer
    And love my neighbours as myself –
Excepting always two or three
Whom I detest as they hate me.


I am resolved – to flirt no more,
    It leads to strife and tribulation;
Not that I used to flirt before,
    But as a bar against temptation.
Here I except (cut out the names)
x perfectly Platonic flames.

Overall, the 100 Poems selection distills the poetic works of Kipling in an accessible, balanced volume. His poems on empire, wars, and human nature are still potent pieces for reflection and debate. The new and old throw a new light on the poet and his times. Culled from the trenches of a life, the poems still carry the burden of their meanings.

I received a NetGalley copy of the book from the publisher.


  1. I don't cotton much to Kipling because his writing seems very second-rate to me, save for a few short-stories here and there. But I think the man gets a very bad rep on account of a poem that I think everyone's been misreading for decades. The two stanzas you post don't even begin to show his pessimism about the missionary side of imperialism. Let's the the complete poem:

    Take up the White Man's burden--
    Send forth the best ye breed--
    Go, bind your sons to exile
    To serve your captives' need;
    To wait, in heavy harness,
    On fluttered folk and wild--
    Your new-caught sullen peoples,
    Half devil and half child.

    - What he's saying is that the empire is going to sacrifice its best in this mission, they're going to have to live in exile and deplorable conditions ('heavy harness') to help 'sullen' people (sullen about what? Being helped or being colonised?)

    Take up the White Man's burden--
    In patience to abide,
    To veil the threat of terror
    And check the show of pride;
    By open speech and simple,
    An hundred times made plain,
    To seek another's profit
    And work another's gain.

    Take up the White Man's burden--
    The savage wars of peace--
    Fill full the mouth of Famine,
    And bid the sickness cease;
    And when your goal is nearest
    (The end for others sought)
    Watch sloth and heathen folly
    Bring all your hope to nought.

    - Here he clearly calls the civilizational mission a 'savage war,' and predicts all the colonial's efforts to come to nothing.

    Take up the White Man's burden--
    No iron rule of kings,
    But toil of serf and sweeper--
    The tale of common things.
    The ports ye shall not enter,
    The roads ye shall not tread,
    Go, make them with your living
    And mark them with your dead.

    - again the idea that people are sacrificed, a ruling class that has but the power of civil servants, and apparently an illusory power too.

    Take up the White Man's burden,
    And reap his old reward--
    The blame of those ye better
    The hate of those ye guard--
    The cry of hosts ye humour
    (Ah, slowly!) toward the light:--
    "Why brought ye us from bondage,
    Our loved Egyptian night?"

    - He can't be more straightforward in saying that all the white men's efforts are doomed, and in one fell swoop he foresaw post-colonial studies.

    Take up the White Man's burden--
    Ye dare not stoop to less--
    Nor call too loud on Freedom
    To cloak your weariness.
    By all ye will or whisper,
    By all ye leave or do,
    The silent sullen peoples
    Shall weigh your God and you.

    - This stanza is particularly modern: indeed, Freedom will be shouted in order to disguise true intentions, but above all to appease the conscience of the white man who suspects the pointlessness of his efforts. And no matter what they do, in the end the 'sullen' people will judge them, and it doesn't seem Kipling thinks positively.

    Take up the White Man's burden!
    Have done with childish days--
    The lightly-proffered laurel,
    The easy ungrudged praise:
    Comes now, to search your manhood
    Through all the thankless years,
    Cold, edged with dear-bought wisdom,
    The judgment of your peers.

    - the 'lightly-proffered laurel,' the easy praise, the white man will pat himself on the back on the job well done, but he can't help being judged by those he tried to better. And note the peculiar word Kipling uses: peers, not inferior or savage. When the Other comes to judge him, it will be as the white man's equal.

    I just can't see this poem as the work of a racist imperialist. He may have been one, I don't know his life well enough to judge, this poem doesn't support it.

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, Miguel. It's a good interpretation of a historically and culturally loaded poem. I actually want to read it that way, with all the ironic touches. That's what I meant by the 'alternative, damning reading'. But it can still go both ways I think, depending on the reader's point of view. If the online sources are correct, the circumstances behind RK's writing of the poem do not seem to advance the more sympathetic reading. The poem was even used by some imperialists of the time as a boost to their 'noble' cause of seeing through their heavy burden to the end.

  3. A writer isn't to blame for how his work ends up appropriated by others; Nietzsche is not to blame for the Nazis; and even Fernando Pessoa's Message was considered by the dictatorship a poem praising its nationalistic doctrines.

    I prefer to follow D.H. Lawrence's dictum, believe the story, not the storyteller.

  4. Totally. The writer, especially dead ones, can't control the responses to and reception of their work. But it's worth investigating Kipling's own intentions regarding his poem.