Rudyard Kipling
Rudyard Kipling; drawing by David Levine

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. Dryden presented Charles II and his court in the guise of David and the Jewish Kingdom. Himself from god-fearing Yorkshire stock, Kipling knew his Bible backward, and the story of Gehazi and Elisha might have been made for his hand.

After Elisha has cured the Syrian captain Naaman of his leprosy, and refused all reward, his servant Gehazi runs after Naaman and says his master has changed his mind and will accept a gift of money after all. Elisha questions Gehazi on his return, and finding out the truth, curses him and his seed with leprosy for ever.

The marvelous passage from the Bible that begins with Elisha’s question “Whence comest thou, Gehazi?” is made good use of by Kipling in the opening stanza of this superbly vitriolic poem:

“Whence comest thou, Gehazi,

So reverend to behold,

In scarlet and in ermines

And chain of England’s gold?”

“From following after Naaman

To tell him all is well,

Whereby my zeal hath made me

A Judge in Israel.”

Gehazi “went forth a leper as white as snow,” and at the end of his poem Kipling imagines the same figurative fate for the Lord Chief Justice, whom he would no doubt have wished to see as an outcast, disgraced in the eyes of decent society. The poem has of course been labeled anti-Semitic, a charge that Gilmour rebuts in this case, and rightly, although Kipling puts a venom into his lines, based as they are on an old Hebrew story familiar to generations of devout English churchgoers, which would have fitted less well for the other delinquents in the case (a Welshman and a Scot as it happened). The thrust of the poem is in its satire on corruption in high places, and as Gilmour observes, “its characters were evoked not because they were Jewish,” but because, as the case of Elisha and Gehazi, they could be used as a moral precept to illustrate the good and the bad.


Kipling was typical of his time and class in having Jewish friends but being, as it were, cheerfully anti-Semitic in an unreflecting way. But, as Dickens had done, he portrays both good and bad Jews in his tales and fictions, as if to show that he has no hard feelings, and some of his characters, like the old Jewish moneylender in Puck of Pook’s Hill, who inadvertently help to lay the foundations of imperial justice, are vividly and memorably evoked. So is young Glass, in a late story celebrating the Scout Movement, who is no good at doing whatever Scouts are supposed to do, but who can at least cook for them and cook brilliantly. So although “Gehazi” is one of Kipling’s most trenchant and dynamically savage poems, and Gilmour is surely right to single it out to illustrate these violent tendencies in its author, he is also right when he says that the poem “has often been condemned as evil and anti-Semitic. It is neither.”

Coincidentally, although Gilmour does not mention it, Kipling wrote another poem a good deal later which also makes use of the story of Naaman and Elisha, and which also cannot fairly be called anti-Semitic. Kipling loathed the exploitation of the early film industry—which with his usual interest in technological advances he hoped might be useful for the spread of education at home and throughout the Empire—by the film moguls of Hollywood who were indeed mostly of Jewish origin:

And here is mock of faith and truth, for children to behold;

And every door of ancient dirt reopened to the old;

With every word that taints the speech, and show that weakens thought;

And Israel watcheth over each and—doth not watch for naught….

“Naaman’s Song”

In view of this, Naaman decides to give Jordan a wide berth and wash in the waters of Damascus, “whose strength is from on high/And if they cannot cure my woes, a leper will I die.” The poem has little of the rhetorical fire and intensity of “Gehazi,” but both show not only Kipling’s agility and strength as a polemicist in verse but his determination to use them on behalf of his own particular and often idiosyncratic vision of England and Empire.

“Gehazi” and “Naaman’s Song” were not the only poems in which Kipling made a natural and instinctive use of Bible stories, and the more dramatic they were, the better. Gilmour is right to single out for its powerful economy an early verse written in India which makes pungent use of the tale of Bathsheba and Uriah the Hittite. Desiring the beautiful Bathsheba, King David ordered her husband Uriah to be placed in the forefront of the battle, where he is duly killed. In imperial India, hints Kipling, the same thing was happening all the time. The poem tersely relates how Jack Barrett was dispatched to an unhealthy station in Baluchistan by a senior civil servant with a partiality for his pretty wife. Jack Barrett goes, of course—as a servant of Empire he can do no other—leaving his wife in the salubrious hill station of Simla on “three fourths his monthly screw,” and of course attended by her senior admirer. Jack Barrett “died at Quetta ere his next month’s pay he drew.” For the poet, as in the Bible, there will nonetheless come, one day, a day of judgment:

When Quetta graveyards give again

Their victims to the air

I shouldn’t like to be the man

Who sent Jack Barrett there.

By way of postscript I remember once being assured by an old Anglo-Indian hand, who was amused by the poem, that the climate of Quetta is actually a particularly good one—healthy, even bracing. But it was a place and a word that served Kipling’s turn, and the journalist in him always knew how to make the best use of a graphic idea. His knowledge of India was indeed considerable as well as varied, but it was always the kind of knowledge that can be used for immediate literary effect, rather than the kind which goes deep and sees all sides of a question. As in the case of many of the “Departmental Ditties” which made Kipling’s reputation in Anglo-India, the real facts about Jack Barrett were indeed known, if only to a few, and the story had a basis in stark reality, as had many of the tales and episodes which Kipling put into his even more successful prose collection of the time, Plain Tales from the Hills.

Because he felt more at home with them, and because they supplied most of the best recruits for the native army of the Raj, Kipling preferred Muslims to Hindus. Although a heroic Babu plays his part in Kim in the spy service of the Raj, and the immortal Gunga Din, the regimental water carrier of Barrack Room Ballads, is from his name clearly a Hindu, Kipling disliked and distrusted both the Brahmins and the educated Babu class of Bengal. A part of the long recessional in Kipling’s eyes was the way in which Indians were taking over, and were being trained by the English of the civil service to take over, the running of the Raj. In common with almost all the other English in India Kipling was outraged when the viceroy, Lord Ripon, approved a bill which for the first time made provision for English plaintiffs or wrongdoers to be tried in a court presided over by an Indian judge or magistrate.


This was in 1883, not much more than thirty years after the great Indian uprising, and the English were peculiarly sensitive to the possibility that their women might be tried by an Indian judge, supporting their prejudices by the argument that Indians treated their own women very badly, often keeping them in the virtual imprisonment of purdah. By 1923, when E.M. Forster wrote A Passage to India, the issue was virtually a dead letter, and the brilliantly dramatic trial scene in the novel, which shows that an Indian can successfully preside as a judge, had become distinctly anachronistic.

Kipling, Gilmour tells us, scornfully referred to Lord Ripon as a “circular and bewildered recluse of religious tendencies.” On the whole he took a poor view of viceroys and civil service high-ups, preferring, as he claimed to do in almost all circumstances, the humble man on the spot who actually does the work, or the woman on the spot, like his character Mrs. Hauksbee in Plain Tales from the Hills, who knows how things are done, and knows how to arrange them. The book of stories was by then becoming highly successful in England as well as in Anglo-India, and Oscar Wilde referred to it admiringly as giving him the feeling that he was sitting “under a palm-tree reading life by superb flashes of vulgarity.”

When Kipling returned to England after his long spell as a working journalist he might have behaved like any other promising and ambitious young writer. He might have mingled with his fellows, sought a metropolitan reputation in the daringly fashionable magazines like The Yellow Book, hob-nobbed with Oscar Wilde and Frank Harris and a whole gang of up-and-coming London writers. His reputation for literary brilliance and originality was already so great that the best magazines clamored for his articles; the editor of the St. James’s Gazette wondered in print if he might become yet greater than Dickens. All seemed set, Gilmour writes, for what Kipling himself now called “that queer experience known as a literary career.”

What he might have written in that case is anybody’s guess, but it is an odd fact that he never found his métier and his subject in the sense that Dickens had done, and that his friend Henry James was doing. His one young man’s novel, The Light that Failed, was itself a failure; it is significant that the best bits in it, about the campaign against the Mahdi in the Sudan, show a hankering for the life of a war correspondent, and the dread of failure as an artist through choosing the wrong things to write about. From then on Kipling abandoned the idea of form and the chef d’oeuvre, and—in verse, stories, articles, a general mix of literary enterprises—found his material wherever he needed it, wherever he happened to be, and wherever his natural restlessness took him. By mingling not with writers but with men who had jobs—jobs of any and every kind—he became what C.S. Lewis, although he detested Kipling’s outlook and personality, rightly and admiringly called “the poet of work.” Some of his best tales take up this theme in the early collection of stories he called “The Day’s Work.”

C.S. Lewis also wrote an essay called “The Inner Ring,” expressing abhorrence of an atmosphere of secretive authority in what are nowadays called the corridors of power, and implying that Kipling’s passion for all things imperial arose from his lust as an outsider to be accepted, and to belong, in those circles where power really lay. Gilmour does not refer to this essay, but his subtle and gradual unfolding of Kipling’s developing attitudes shows effectively how unfair is the charge that Lewis brought. The Long Recessional is in this context a perfect title, for Kipling was indeed haunted all his adult life by a sense of the hollowness of power, and the fragility and brevity of all imperial dreams:

Cities and Thrones and Powers,

Stand in Time’s eye,

Almost as long as flowers,

Which daily die.

The famous “Recessional,” writes Gilmour, was published in The Times, in 1897, “on the same page as a message from Queen Victoria expressing her gratitude for the spontaneous outburst of loyalty and affection that had greeted her sixty years on the throne.” The two effusions were jointly awarded a leading article in which the newspaper commended the note of “moral responsibility” ringing out “as clearly in the simple grandeur of the Queen’s message as in Mr. Kipling’s soul-stirring verses.” The combination of royalty and poetry with political and national uplift and fervor was unique at the time, and produced a reaction—“the deepest response of our race,” Kipling wrote—which, for better or worse, had never been seen before and never since. No wonder that when the rhetoric of Mussolini and Hitler came along in the Twenties and Thirties of the twentieth century, the bien pensants thought they had once recognized in the imperial Kipling the same signs of Fascist tendencies.

But to do Kipling justice the tone was as different as the message. The fervor of “Recessional,” while not exactly defeatist, strikes a note of solemn warning. Its eloquence really amounts in the end to saying, “As a people and as an Empire we are trying to do too much, and it can’t last.”

Far-called, our navies melt away;

On dune and headland sinks the fire:

Lo, all of our pomp of yesterday

Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

Underneath the rhetoric is the note of a somber insurance policy—better watch out, and take precautions while you can. But more moving than the message is the high quality of the medium. Kipling the strident or semi-facetious versifier can abruptly become the poet who can produce the unexpected magic of lines like “On dune and headland sinks the fire.”

Kipling certainly saw America as the emergent and deserving power to whose keeping Britain would hand on the imperial torch. Americans were usually not pleased about this, although Teddy Roosevelt was the exception. He became a friend of Kipling’s and was deeply admired by him. Nonetheless Roosevelt showed judgment in remarking that Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden” was “rather poor poetry.” It came out in America in McClure’s Magazine, as Gilmour tersely notes, “on the day the Filipino revolt broke out, and a day before the American Senate voted as Kipling had urged them” to

Take up the white man’s burden—

The savage wars of peace…

Roosevelt may have been right about the sentiments and the shrill tone of the poem, and yet it is hard to fault technically: it contains some of the poet’s most effective and enduring epigrams, and as we know to our cost “the savage wars of peace” are still very much with us today. The characteristically dry and droll American comic awareness was soon very busy with Kipling’s effusion, however, and, as Gilmour tells us, “newspapers from the Buffalo Express to the Iowa State Register competed to publish parodies with titles such as ‘The Black Man’s Burden,’ ‘The White Woman’s Burden,’ and even ‘The Old Maid’s Burden.’ One assiduous collector of Kiplingiana pasted over eighty such parodies into his scrapbook.”

Nonetheless the United States did become involved in Cuba and in the Philippines, although Kipling himself could hardly take the credit for those first reluctant steps in what some saw as imperial business. Kipling’s own enthusiasm for America, boundless at first, had been diminished, if only temporarily, by the row he had had with his brother-in-law, Beatty Balestier, when the Kipling family had been living at Brattleboro in Vermont. More serious, though again only in the short run, was the crisis of 1895, when Britain and the United States appeared to be on the brink of war over the Venezuelan boundary dispute, of which Gilmour gives a sardonic account.

Gold had been discovered in the disputed area on the border of British Guiana; and the British prime minister, Lord Salisbury, had remarked rather tactlessly that the Monroe Doctrine was all very well, but that Guiana had belonged to the British crown before Venezuela (and by implication the US) had been born or thought of. American Anglophobia rose to a frenzy, and the secretary of state, Richard Olney, instructed his ambassador to tell the British government that the United States “was practically sovereign on this continent,” which, as Gilmour points out, must have been news to Canadians, Mexicans, and South Americans generally.

The storm in the teacup soon abated, of course, helped by a tum-ble on the New York stock market when British investments looked as if they were being withdrawn, but Kipling’s naive idea in his new book of poems, The Five Nations, of an Anglo-American condominium over half the world had left its author’s enthusiasms somewhat diminished. He had scarcely improved matters by his playful suggestion that the new anthem or marching song of this super-country “should combine ‘The British Grenadiers,’ ‘Marching Through Georgia,’ and other songs to create ‘the greatest song of all, The Saga of the Anglo-Saxon all round the earth.'” Tact, as Gilmour observes, was never his strong point, and for so intelligent a man he remained as innocently unaware as a child about the feelings and prejudices of other people and other nations. Anyone who thought that the marching song of Sherman’s army would inspire universal enthusiasm in the States must have been naive indeed, or very ill-informed.

Undoubtedly Kipling became a wiser man as time went by and the Great War, in which he lost his only son, shattered any of his latter-day hopes of imperial expansion and peace between the nations. His last stories—“The Kipling Whom Nobody Read,” as Edmund Wilson called them—are intricate and often mysterious, but technically of great interest, and worthy at their best of Henry James. Many of his poems of the Twenties and Thirties are somber warnings of another and even more horrific war to come. His later work shows an interest in the unseen world and in God, who, as Gilmour says, “had played a minor and intermittent role in his life,” but whom he knew “did not abandon His people at the end of their days.”

He had suffered dangerously and painfully for years from a peptic ulcer and was rushed to the hospital in 1936, with his last book, a terse, brilliant, and reticent memoir he called Something of Myself, still unfinished. King George V, with whose stiff, philistine personality Kipling had always felt at home, died two days after him, bringing the long recessional of Empire almost to its end. “The King has gone,” so it was said at the time, “and taken his trumpeter with him.” Gilmour’s considerable achievement is to show just how and why Kipling and his writings were so important and influential in their own time. Today he is most read not for this imperial message but because everything he wrote, from the Indian stories to Sbalky & Co., is unputdownable.

In her book of family history, Bowen’s Court, Elizabeth Bowen records an occasion during the early “troubles” when her house was occupied by the IRA. She was astonished to find several fervent young nationalists sitting in her library, spellbound by the stories of Kipling, who detested everything they stood for. But, as Auden wrote in his elegy on Yeats, time is not interested in the convictions of personalities but will pardon “Kipling and his views” because it “worships language and forgives/Everyone by whom it lives.” In that sense Kipling’s words are still very much alive.

This Issue

July 18, 2002