The Long Recessional:The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling
by David Gilmour
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 351 pp., $26.00
Before Kipling, the art of polemics in poetry had scarcely been practiced in England since the days of Dryden and Pope. Apart from his other achievements in verse and prose, Kipling revived this art, and he transformed it as well. Dryden and Pope were professionals, superb artists in social and political satire who did not bother to believe passionately what they were saying, or to loathe with equal passion what their opponents stood for. Kipling, equally skillful as a writer in action, did both these things. He never laughed or mocked his opponents as Dryden had done—”showing his teeth with a smile,” as Mark Van Doren put it. He hated them, and his hatred was in deadly earnest, often—if he genuinely felt the Empire, or his idea of it, was threatened—to the point of shrillness and hysteria.
Take the famous case of the Marconi Scandal of 1912, which nearly brought down the British government of the time. David Gilmour, always equable and fair-minded about his excitable subject’s often exaggerated reactions to such matters, tells this revealing story of the imperial twilight in a particularly masterful way. Godfrey Isaacs, the managing director of the Marconi Company in Britain, negotiated a contract for wireless stations around the Empire, which would be highly useful in peace and invaluable in war. Kipling, convinced that war—”Armageddon,” as he put it—would come, and come soon, was, as usual, passionately concerned with the protection and welfare of the British Empire. Others, and in high government circles, were more concerned to make money out of the transaction. Three of the Liberal ministers in particular were involved in the furtive bout of insider trading which followed the announcement of the Marconi deal, one of whom was the brother of Godfrey Isaacs, Rufus Isaacs, the attorney-general, not long after to be appointed Lord Chief Justice. (“Thou barely ‘scaped from judgment,/Take oath to judge the land,” as Kipling was to write.)
A great fuss was soon being made, and the offenders were lucky to get away with it, although Kipling bitterly blamed members of the Conservative opposition for not doing more in a case where shady dealings on the government side had been so clearly shown, particularly in the cases of Lloyd George, Alexander Murray, the chief whip, and Rufus Isaacs. The Times, still “The Thunderer” in those days, devoted no fewer than six leaders to the case, while Hilaire Belloc and Cecil Chesterton (brother of G.K.) were not above tapping the old resources of anti-Semitism—the Isaacs brothers came from an assimilated and distinguished Jewish family.
Kipling’s response was, as it had so often been before, to write a poem, and “Gehazi” is one of the most brilliant and mordant pieces he ever produced. English poetic satire had always drawn naturally on the Bible, the Old Testament in particular, for example and precedents; indeed the Church of England’s mythology is virtually based on the model of England as ancient Israel …