Saturday, June 13, 2015

On the Coffee Table: Rudyard Kipling

Title: If
Author: Rudyard Kipling
via Wikipedia
If is a collection of Rudyard Kipling's poetry, published by Phoenix in 1996.  The poem for which the collection is named is one of his most famous, the British stiff upper lip in verse form.  The Bombay-born Kipling, while certainly a master of letters, has a well-earned reputation for jingoism, colonialism, racism and misogyny, all of which are on full display here.

Reading from a 21st century perspective is definitely a challenge.  "White Man's Burden" is probably the most egregious offender, interpreted by many as a justification of imperialism.  "Gunga Din," the story of an Indian water carrier, fares a little better.  The title character, while much abused, is ultimately hero and martyr.  "The Female of the Species" is the most problematic from a sexual politics perspective.  Basically, the poem asserts that a woman is to be feared because of her motherly, protective instincts.  That in itself wouldn't be so horrible except for Kipling arguing that motherhood is her only meaningful purpose.

"Tommy" is better.  A common soldier, speaking in common vernacular, tells of his woes.  He gets no respect in polite society but is cheered for his bravery when marching off to war.  Alas, some things haven't changed much.

I admire Kipling for his command of language but it's clear he was living in a different world.  For me, it can be difficult seeing past his admittedly typical Victorian attitudes.

21 comments:

  1. I tend to just stick with The Jungle Book (and I love Rikki Tikki Tavi). I don't remember it having those issues, at any rate.

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    1. I love the Jungle Book and would love to read it again sometime. Kim is on my tbr shelf now.

      Kipling has a reputation. I knew that going in. I wouldn't have picked up on it as much as a kid. And as I said, he's hardly the only writer of that era to harbor such attitudes.

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    2. TAS: That's true. And it does bother me when we try to hold people of other time periods to our current standards. I mean, people today barely live up to our current standards. Or don't.

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    3. However, if you look at a world map or scan headlines, it's easy to see how we're all still knee-deep in the aftermath of western colonialism. All of the lines we've drawn between us - race, nation, creed, gender - still often lead to a dehumanizing of "the other." None of this is Kipling's fault, of course, but it can be difficult to stomach when laid out so plainly on the page.

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    4. Oh, yeah, I know. I'm reading Seven Pillars of Wisdom, right now, so I'm kind of knee-deep in all of that stuff. It's amazing how many of our current world issues can be traced back to the aftermath of WWI.

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  2. I have read The Jungle Book when I was a kid but not much else and never thought of the issues these books would raise today. I guess the best is to remember when he wrote the books and where he lived and the politics of the day. This may help so I would not have the feeling of punching him in the mouth since I am a woman

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    1. Historical perspective is essential for evaluating any artist or work, of course.

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  3. Nice summation of those poems.

    As one who has spent my lifetime studying history, I often wonder how future generations will judge us. We do get a notion of how the past generations prior generations. At any rate, I've enjoyed his writings, but I tend to disregard those that do nothing for me.

    However, there is this prayer spoken in behalf of the British Empire, which I find interesting:

    For heathen heart that puts its trust
    In reeking tube and iron shard -
    All valiant dust that builds on dust,
    And, guarding, calls not Thee to guard -
    For frantic boast and foolish word,
    Thy mercy on Thy people, Lord.

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    1. That is an interesting piece. Heathen heart... He has a lot to say about heathens.

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    2. The poem is 'Recessional', and he is speaking of the British. I, too, found it interesting. You always have the most thought-provoking discussions and reviews, and I am going to try to comment more, in keeping with my degree of enjoyment. But, truly, I wonder what future generations will think of us. Each generation is the product of its own time, and developed within the limitations that were set when it came about. Looking back with our 'modern' eyes and our own peculiar biases, many (not on this post) without the learning to know the limits within which the prior generations were forced to grow and work, I wonder how the prior generations would translate into this day and age. I suspect that if they somehow came through the time warp and were translated to our time, they would fit in seamlessly. Plus ca change...

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    3. Kipling's perspective is a bit dated but still relevant. As I commented to Andrew, we are still living with this past. I would imagine that for future generations, it will be the same when they look at us. Some of what we produce in our time will seem crazy but, hopefully, still meaningful for their own era.

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  4. I've tried to read Kiplings but it never goes well and I never finish. I have accepted that I can handle animated interpretations of his work such as The Jungle Book and Rikki Tikki Tavi, knowing that the harsh issues and subjects have been glossed over. Still I like an appreciate your assesment here.

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    1. Thanks. I'm not giving up on Kipling just yet. I still intend to read Kim.

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    1. While the sentiment is decidedly British I love the message in the poem 'If' and hope to pass those virtues into my own sons one day. I haven't read the others but they do sound hilariously outdated.

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    2. "If you can dream - and not make dreams your master"

      Yup, it's good stuff.

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  6. I haven't read Kipling in a while. I do remember If, but I don't think I've read his other poetry. I keep in mind time periods and their common beliefs when I'm reading classics.

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    1. That's probably the most sensible approach.

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  7. I don't think I ever read any Kipling but I did see the movie The Man Who Would be King which was pretty awesome - and of course the Disney Version of Jungle Book. It's interesting to read how people thought then and I expect in the future people will look upon our era as equally backward.

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    1. I certainly would not go so far as to say that we're living in an altogether enlightened age now. In some areas, we have progressed as a world society. In others, we have a lot of work to do.

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