The Age of Kipling
edited by John Gross
Simon and Schuster, 178 pp., $12.95
Books on Kipling these days are usually elegant apologia. No one bothers to refute the imperialist assertion—regarded by Kipling as an axiom—that the life of action, of ruling, of imposing political will upon hordes of natives is not so much a noble calling as an inexorable law of nature. Kipling’s imperialism is taken for granted, and his text is then—very properly—combed for all the qualifications and modifications he made of imperialism and for his dire warnings against the folly of hubris. So in this collection of essays which Mr. Gross has edited, Philip Mason points out how ambivalent Kipling was toward the Indian Civil Service; Robert Conquest remarks how Kipling combined romanticism in his verse with colloquial matter-of-fact language; and Eric Stokes reminds us that Kipling’s hatred of white men who exploited natives surpassed his contempt for the inability of the natives to govern themselves.
Kipling was, of course, a curious mixture. In the best essay of the lot, Janet Adam Smith compares what his school days at Westward Ho! were really like with what he turned them into when he wrote Stalky & Co. So much of what he might have been expected to loathe he praised, and the mild aesthetical friend of the family who was his headmaster he transformed into a tremendous swisher and thwacker. Had in fact his own transformation begun there? How did the literary non-games-playing rebel among schoolboys, nurtured in pre-Raphaelite circles, end his last term writing a poem entitled “Ave Imperatrix“? People continue to be puzzled about what he thought.
The puzzlement is not all that surprising. The earliest defenders who attempted to rehabilitate Kipling, like T. S. Eliot in his defense of Kipling’s poetry in 1941, spent much of their time making excuses, and a great many critics remained unconvinced. Lionel Trilling, for instance, lamented that although Toryism is a great tradition honored by Dr. Johnson, Burke, and Walter Scott, “Kipling had none of the mind of the few great Tories.” For years the best-known essay on Kipling, which combined denunciation and praise, was that by Edmund Wilson, who explained how the young writer of such dazzling talent became the repulsive champion of authoritative upper-middle-class rule. According to Wilson, only with the death of his son in the world war that discredited British imperialism and all that Kipling believed in did he rediscover his vocation as an artist and write those compassionate stories—”The Kipling that Nobody Read.”
Unfortunately Wilson’s thesis falls to pieces if you examine the dates of Kipling’s best stories and verse. Those in which he exults in the triumphs of revenge and hatred, and in the impotence and folly of good intentions, are not confined to one period of his life. At all periods they are matched by those that accept the fact that many men are weak, can be over-tried, and need to be healed. Even the most recent criticism, though it is no longer so obsessed with Kipling …