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.
If any questions
why we died,
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,
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.