Kipling’s poetry: Of soldiers, monarchs and revenue-raising (Column: Bookends XXXI))

By Vikas Datta (14:33)

Gifted novelists have never been confined to a specific genre, or even to a form of literature – for they are adroit in weaving magic with words, using them in sentences of matchless prose or evoking their aesthetic and rhythmic aspects in verse. But somehow their poetic contribution is always overshadowed by their prose corpus. Sir Walter Scott, Hans Christian Andersen, Thomas Hardy, right down to Michael Ondaatje, Alice Walker, Russell Banks, John Updike, Vladimir Nabokov, Erica Jong and their ilk are not exactly more famous as poets. But there was one who strode both spheres with aplomb – and Rudyard Kipling’s art was recognised by conferment of the Nobel Prize for Literature – the first ever to an English writer.

Kipling’s (1865-1936) prose creations – not only the Irish boy drawn into the “Great Game” or the foundling who is raised in the jungle by a wolf-pack, but also from the wider animal kingdom like the faithful mongoose, the intrepid wolf, the wise bear, or the evil tiger have achieved boundless fame for which reader has not come across the names of Kim, Mowgli, Riki-Tiki-Tavi, Akayla, Baloo and Shere Khan?

But, he also penned enduring verse – about the old but brave water bearer Gunga Din, that solemn admonition of duty and stoicism “If”, the epic adventure in “The Ballad of East and West”, and the much-pilloried but as much misunderstood “The White Man’s Burden”.

Kipling’s poetry covered a wide range – history, both European and Indian, nature and the views of animals, and even clever parodies of medieval Persian poets like Omar Khayyam and his “Rubaiyyat” and Hafiz.

Some of his most effective poetry – that will strike a chord even today – is about the treatment of the ordinary soldier – active or retired.

“Tommy”, short for Tommy Atkins, a generic name for a British soldier, ends with a warning: “For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Chuck him out, the brute!’/ But it’s ‘Saviour of ‘is country’ when the guns begin to shoot/An’ it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please/An’ Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool — you bet that Tommy sees!”

Equally distressing is the condition of the Charge of the Light Brigade’s survivors: “There were thirty million English who talked of England’s might/There were twenty broken troopers who lacked a bed for the night/They had neither food nor money, they had neither service nor trade/They were only shiftless soldiers, the last of the Light Brigade.”

A deputation goes to Lord Tennyson, who immortalised them in verse, and makes a plaintive request: “No, thank you, we don’t want food, sir; but couldn’t you take an’ write/A sort of ‘to be conbnued’ and ‘see next page’ o’the fight?/We think that someone has blundered, an’ couldn’t you tell’em how?/You wrote we were heroes once, sir. Please, write we are starving now.”

Kipling could as easily bring episodes of Indian history, real or apocryphal, to vivid life – as in “Akbar’s Bridge” when: “Jelaludin Muhammed Akbar, Guardian of Mankind,/Moved his standards out of Delhi to Jaunpore of lower Hind,/Where a mosque was to be builded, and a lovelier ne’er was planned….”

Wandering along the Gomti at dusk, the emperor tries to help an irate, stranded widow, ferrying her across the river but getting clawed by the woman who has now idea of who he is. He recounts his dolorous adventures to his Viceroy Munim Khan.

“And he ended, ‘Sire of Asses-Capon-Owl’s Own Uncle-know/I-most impotent of bunglers-1-this ox who cannot row-/I-Jelaludin Muhammed Akbar, Guardian of Mankind-/Bid thee build the hag her bridge and put our mosque from out thy mind.”

He could pen heartfelt tributes – as to the larger-than life US President (and hunter-conservationist, war hero, explorer, author, progressive politician and Nobel Peace Prize winner) Theodore Roosevelt in “Great-Heart”.

“….Hard-schooled by long power,/Yet most humble of mind/Where aught that he was Might advantage mankind./Leal servant, loved master,/ Rare comrade, sure guide../ . Oh, our world is none the safer/ Now Great-Heart hath died!”

But Kipling is also a incomparable parodist, using the Rubaiyyat to portray travails of Auckland Colvin, the finance member (1883-87) in the council of Viceroys Ripon and Dufferin in raising resources in India.

“Now the New Year, reviving last Year’s Debt,/The Thoughtful Fisher casteth wide his Net;/ So I with begging Dish and ready Tongue/Assail all Men for all that I can get.” and “Pay — and I promise by the Dust of Spring,/Retrenchment. If my promises can bring/Comfort, Ye have Them now a thousandfold -/By Allah! I will promise Anything!”

The sentiments will be well understood both by finance ministers – and tax payers!

(14.09.2014 – Vikas Datta is a senior assistant editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

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