Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling is a divisive figure in British History. In the age of Empire, he was one of the most popular writers in England. But, as the Empire declined, his tag ‘the prophet of British Imperialism’ (George Orwell) became something of an insult. Although the debate rages over the interpretation of his work, the merit of the writing is somewhat without question.

I grew up on the Just So Stories and the Jungle Book. They should be well known, to my British readership at least. In this post I wish to talk about two of Kipling’s poems, My Boy Jack and Common Form.

I know, I know; rarely will you find Kipling’s poetry lauded. Indeed I have never really got along with in general. These two stand out because I can sense the raw emotion behind the writing in such a way as is rare to an uneducated heart like mine.

Kipling wrote both poems about his son, John. As soon as the First World War began, John tried twice to enlist in the military, but was rejected both times on the grounds that his eyesight was too poor. Apparently they were picky in the beginning. Kipling, believing war to be a fine enterprise where one learned how to be a man, and thoroughly enthusiastic about the whole thing, just so happened to be life-long friends with Lord Roberts, commander-in-chief of the British Army, (as you do). He pulled a few strings and ensured that John was accepted into the Irish Guards.

John was sent into the carnage at Loos (September 1915). He was last seen stumbling through the mud blindly, screaming in agony after an exploding shell ripped his face apart. A body identified as his was not found until 1992. Kipling never forgave himself.

Here are the poems he wrote about the loss. I hope they leave an impression on you as they have done on me.

Common Form

If any questions
why we died,
Tell them,
because our fathers lied.

My Boy Jack

‘Have you news of my boy Jack?’
Not this tide.
‘When d’you think that he’ll come back?’
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

‘Has anyone else had word of him?’
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
Not with this wind blowing and this tide.

‘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!

Note: although this poem was doubtlessly written with John in mind, it describes a drowning sailor, hence the mention of wind and tide. Before I knew this I always imagined a young man sinking in the mud, with shells falling, and the tide of History swirling around him.


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10 Comments

Filed under Beyond The Grave, Real War Poetry

10 responses to “Rudyard Kipling

  1. I’ve just begun reading a book about World War I that begins by talking about the causes. It mentioned nationalism, for one, and the idea that war was something manly and grand. It also mentioned Kipling as part of that nationalism. You’re right about the emotional effect of the two poems. The second reveals Kipling’s self-indictment in his son’s death and it’s sad to see what he lived with after his son’s death. Thanks for posting them.

    • I thought I’d take a leaf out of your book this time. Nationalism is one of the most fascinating aspects of the First World War (and, to a lesser extent the Second World War). The fact that England could muster 1.5 million volunteers at a time where the rest of the European powers had conscripted armies entirely beggars belief.

  2. I’ve read a lot of Kipling’s short stories and his poems, he’s one of my favourites. The left don’t like Kipling, or anyone else who disagrees with their ideology, but personally I can’t stand the left.

  3. The terrible, raw personal devastation is palpable, particularly in the second poem.

    I loved the ‘Just So Stories’ and ‘Jungle Book’ when I was a child.

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  5. I wish political leanings could be left out of literature. The best writers, of whatever extremes or the middle, politically, strive to present themes that go to the “human condition” or human tendencies rather than political manipulation of readers. I think this is why anyone blotting out Kipling must have a not yet developed view of literature or a mind closed to any beliefs not their own, which means a locked mind. Every reader is far more than political views, and best writers are far more than that, too.

  6. Correction: I intended to say that I wish political leanings could be left out of literary interpretations (by readers, critics, et al.).

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