Benedict XV, Rudyard Kipling, John Bunyan and G. K. Chesterton

 The cheapest and most childish of all the taunts of the Pacifists is, I think, the sneer at belligerents for appealing to the God of Battles. It is ludicrously illogical, for we obviously have no right to kill for victory save when we have a right to pray for it. If a war is not a holy war, it is an unholy one — a massacre.

                                                                                  G.K. Chesterton, October 23, 1915

The eighth in my ongoing series examining the poetry of Rudyard Kipling.   The other posts in the series may be read here, here , here , herehere , here and here.   Kipling wrote quite a few poems during his lifetime.  Some are world-famous, most are not, and some are today almost completely forgotten.  We are going to at one of the poems today in the final category, that is today one of Kipling’s most obscure ones, but caused something of a stir when he wrote it in Advent during 1917.  The Holy War:

 

A tinker out of Bedford,
A vagrant oft in quod,
A private under Fairfax,
A minister of God–
Two hundred years and thirty
Ere Armageddon came
His single hand portrayed it,
And Bunyan was his name!_

He mapped, for those who follow,
The world in which we are–
 ’This famous town of Mansoul’
That takes the Holy War
Her true and traitor people,
The gates along her wall,
From Eye Gate unto Feel Gate,
John Bunyan showed them all.

All enemy divisions,
Recruits of every class,
 And highly-screened positions
For flame or poison-gas,
The craft that we call modern,
The crimes that we call new,
John Bunyan had ‘em typed and filed
In Sixteen Eighty-two

Likewise the Lords of Looseness
That hamper faith and works,
The Perseverance-Doubters,
 And Present-Comfort shirks,
With brittle intellectuals
Who crack beneath a strain–
John Bunyan met that helpful set
In Charles the Second’s reign.

Emmanuel’s vanguard dying
For right and not for rights,
My Lord Apollyon lying
 To the State-kept Stockholmites,
 The Pope, the swithering Neutrals,
The Kaiser and his Gott–
 Their roles, their goals, their naked souls–
He knew and drew the lot.

Now he hath left his quarters,
 In Bunhill Fields to lie.
The wisdom that he taught us
Is proven prophecy–
One watchword through our armies,
One answer from our lands–
 ’No dealings with Diabolus
 As long as Mansoul stands.

_A pedlar from a hovel,
The lowest of the low,
The father of the Novel,
Salvation’s first Defoe,
Eight blinded generations
Ere Armageddon came,
He showed us how to meet it,
And Bunyan was his name!_

At one level the poem is a fairly straight-forward paean to John Bunyan, the English writer who penned Pilgrims’s Progress, which every school child used to read back in days when schools spent far more time on academics and far less time on political indoctrination and fake subjects like “Consumer Ed”.  He also wrote quite a few other books and pamphlets, perhaps the best known of which is The Holy War, which portrays a war for the City of Mansoul between the good defenders and the evil besiegers.  I need not spell out the allegorical meaning of the work when the city’s named is rendered as Man Soul.  Kipling had been a devotee of Bunyan since his childhood, and I suppose that part of his motivation in writing the poem was to pay back a literary debt.

A tinker out of Bedford,
A vagrant oft in quod,
A private under Fairfax,
A minister of God–
Two hundred years and thirty
Ere Armageddon came
His single hand portrayed it,
And Bunyan was his name!_

Kipling tells us a bit about Bunyan at the beginning of the poem.  Bunyan was of very humble origins and began life as an itinerant tinker.  At the age of 16 he enlisted in the Parliamentarian Army in the English Civil War and served from 1644 to 1647.  With Parliament prevailing in that conflict he returned to civilian life.  Resuming his tinker trade, he married and began raising a family.  He went through a period of spiritual turmoil during this period.  In 1655 he began to write and to preach, his themes always being the love of God and sin and redemption. He began to achieve notoriety and frequently ran afoul of the authorities being accused, among other things, of being a Jesuit, a highway man and a witch.  He was merely a simple man who eloquently wrote and preached a simple message based on the Gospels.  Under Charles II he was frequently in jail for his preaching.  The Merrie Monarch, a closet Catholic, had not a persecuting bone in his body, but his Cavalier followers were of a different mindset, and they vigorously persecuted  Protestant Nonconformists like Bunyan just as they persecuted Catholics.  Bunyan was treated with respect by the openly Catholic James II, and his last years were peaceful, dying on August 31 in 1688. 

He mapped, for those who follow,
The world in which we are–
‘This famous town of Mansoul’
That takes the Holy War
Her true and traitor people,
The gates along her wall,
From Eye Gate unto Feel Gate,
John Bunyan showed them all.

Now we get into the meat of the poem.  The city of Mansoul in Bunyan’s The Holy War was besieged by a diabolical army.  They were aided in their campaign by the Lords of Looseness within the city.  Although the term was not coined until 19 years later during the Spanish Civil War, this was a classic “Fifth Column” situation and that theme of enemies within is the main point Kipling is making in this poem.

All enemy divisions,
Recruits of every class,
And highly-screened positions
For flame or poison-gas,
The craft that we call modern,
The crimes that we call new,
John Bunyan had ‘em typed and filed
In Sixteen Eighty-two

The saying that there is nothing new under the sun is usually completely accurate in regard to the affairs of Man, outside of technological innovations, and Kipling regards Bunyan as a prophet of the then current apocalypse, the Great War, that Kipling and his contemporaries were drearily enduring.  I am very fond of the couplet: ” The craft that we call modern, The crimes that we call new,” which is an ironic commentary on the historical amnesia in which most people view current events, including, alas, frequently those at the helm of great nations.

Likewise the Lords of Looseness
That hamper faith and works,
The Perseverance-Doubters,
And Present-Comfort shirks,
With brittle intellectuals
Who crack beneath a strain–
John Bunyan met that helpful set
In Charles the Second’s reign.

Kipling was an ardent supporter of the War.  His only son, Jack Kipling, died fighting at Loos in 1915.  He viewed the Prussian militarism that ran Imperial Germany as a mortal threat to Great Britain, and he had no sympathy for pacifists, and other anti-war activists then active in Britain.  He had special scorn for self-proclaimed intellectuals,  the Bloomsbury set were typical of this group, who sat out the War in comfort and heaped scorn on the war effort.  Kipling compares them to the court dandies who surrounded Charles II.  The phrase “helpful set” is a very concise way to convey contempt elegantly.

Emmanuel’s vanguard dying
For right and not for rights,
My Lord Apollyon lying
To the State-kept Stockholmites,
The Pope, the swithering Neutrals,
The Kaiser and his Gott–
Their roles, their goals, their naked souls–
He knew and drew the lot.

Now Kipling gets down to naming names.  The “state kept Stockholmites” was a reference to a motion made by some members of the infant Labor Party in the House of Commons for Great Britain to take part in a socialist sponsored international peace conference in Stockholm at the end of 1917.   The proposal went down in flames, losing by some 600 votes in the Commons. The idea of a compromise peace had become popular among leftists and pacifists in England.  It was a complete delusion.  Germany from the outset had planned to hold on to its conquests in Belgium, almost the entire country, and Northern France.  The German government had no intention of withdrawing from these areas to bring about peace, especially in 1917.  Russia was in revolutionary chaos, and the German government was busy shifting most of its eastern divisions to the West for a grand offensive in 1918 to end the War in a military victory for the Reich.  The Germans, with their new stosstruppen (stormtrooper) tactics which allowed them to implement the long sought for breakthroughs in trench warfare, came tantalizingly close to achieving such a victory in 1918.  They were in no mood for any peace which did not recognize their conquests and the Allies could never agree to that.  Kipling also pours his ire out on the neutral powers, the Kaiser, and Pope Benedict XV.

Poor Giacomo Paolo Giovanni Battista della Chiesa, I am sure the last thing he ever wanted was to be Pope during a conflagration like World War I, but his entire papacy was consumed by World War I and its aftermath.  Born on November 21, 1854, he early wished to become a priest, but his father insisted on him becoming a lawyer.  (Foolish, foolish father!)  He obtained a doctorate of law at the age of 21.  Now being of legal age to make his own decisions about his future, he still sought his father’s blessing to become a priest and forsake the legal trade.  His father reluctantly agreed.

Studying in Rome he was ordained to the priesthood on December 21, 1878.  From 1878-1883 he studied at the Papal Academy in Rome, obviously destined for rapid advancement in the Church.  Here he came to the notice of Mariano Cardinal Rampolla, Secretary of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith.  Recognizing the very keen mind of the young priest, Rampolla facilitated his entry into the Vatican diplomatic service.  Rampolla became Vatican Secretary of State and made Father Chiesa his private secretary.  His mother being extremely ambitious for her son complained to Rampolla that her boy was not getting the advancement that he deserved.  Rampolla supposedly replied that her son would take only a few steps but that they would be great ones.   He became under-secretary of state in 1901.  When Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val became Secretary of State, one of the most effective in the history of the Papacy in my estimation, under Pope Pius X, he kept Father Chiesa on as under-secretary. 

In 1907 Pope Benedict elevated Chiesa to be Archbishop of Bologna.  As Archbishop Chiesa emphasized pilgrimages to Lourdes and Loretto, cleanliness in churches and saving money in Church operations and giving the savings to the poor.  On May 25, 1914, on the cusp of World War I, he was elevated to the Cardinalate.  On September 3, 1914 he was elected Pope, his years of diplomatic experience considered a plus as Europe plunged into the abyss of war.

Pope Benedict viewed World War I as the suicide of Europe.  He proclaimed the neutrality of the Vatican, called for a Christmas truce in 1914, and was ceaseless in working for a negotiated peace throughout the War.  He nearly bankrupted the Vatican in humanitarian relief efforts during the War which saved millions of lives, especially those of children who were of special concern to him.  He hammered out agreements between the warring powers allowing for exchanges of prisoners of war, better treatment for prisoners of war, and the evacuation of some civilians living in occupied territories.  On August 1, 1917 he proposed a seven point peace plan which may be read here.  Great Britain, which enjoyed excellent relations with the Vatican, responded favorably.  Imperial Germany, which had no formal diplomatic relations with the Vatican, rejected it out of hand.  President Wilson also rejected it, stating that although he had great respect for the proposal of the Pope he thought that there was no prospect for peace until the present German government was overthrown.  Wilson’s later 14 point proposal to end the war made in 1918 demonstrates much borrowing from the Pope’s proposal.   It was doubtless this peace proposal of the Pope that aroused Kipling’s ire, Kipling believing that the War had to continue until the German militarists were vanquished and disarmed. 

Catholics in Great Britain, and especially in America, quickly rose to the defense of the Pope.  Cardinal O’Connell of Boston noted acidly that, “This is not the first time that Kipling’s abnormality has led him to prostitute a noble gift to a base purpose.”  The comment about abnormality was cryptic, but probably was a reference to Kipling’s long-standing opposition to Irish Home Rule.

However, Kipling was not alone in criticizing the Pope.  Although forgotten now, the neutrality stance of the Pope during World War I was highly controversial.  Protestant Germany thought that the Pope was totally on the side of the Allies and completely mistrusted him, even coming up with the absurd allegation that the Pope had egged on Austria to attack Serbia in order to hamper Germany with a useless ally!  (This is a monument to people believing what they wanted to believe.  Benedict XV wasn’t Pope when the fateful decisions were being made by Austria to attack Serbia in revenge for the assassination at Sarajevo.  The Catholic Church played no role in any of this.  It was the Kaiser who ensured the start of a general European war by giving the Austrians a carte blanche in regard to his support for their actions against Serbia.)  Catholic Germans and Austrians tended to mistrust the Pope due to his failure to support, as they saw it, their noble defense of Europe from onrushing Tsarist Russian hordes. 

On the side of the Allies, the Catholic Church in Belgium played a key role in the heroic resistance of the Belgians to a brutal German occupation.  There was a fair amount of grumbling that the Pope’s neutrality was a poor help to Belgian Catholics suffering at the hands of a largely Protestant power.  The same sentiments were prevalent in France where the clergy enlisted en masse, often serving as combat soldiers, and where a third of France was under German occupation.  In England, although there was a fair amount of anti-war sentiment, most Brits looked upon their war as a noble crusade.  This view was typified not only by Kipling but also by G.K. Chesterton who was an ardent advocate of the British War effort.  Chesterton’s opposition to the Boer war is well known among contemporary Chesterton enthusiasts, his vigorous support for British involvement in World War I far less so.  Chesterton’s brother Cecil died on the Western Front, and Chesterton was convinced he died in a just war.  Although doubts about World War I began to arise in the early thirties , Chesterton who died in 1936 never expressed any doubts as to the necessity of Great Britain fighting in World War I.

In looking back at all this there is a curious aspect to the fact that Pope Benedict was a controversial figure during the War due to his adherence to strict neutrality.  Pius XII, on the other hand, during World War II, although he kept the Church officially neutral, was regarded by his contemporaries in the Allied countries as a hero who was opposed to Hitler, who spoke out against Nazi atrocities, and was doing his best to save as many victims of Hitler’s terror as possible.  Now in our own day, no controversy surrounds Pope Benedict who our present Pope Benedict regards as a model, while Pope Pius XII is reviled in many circles as a coward who was silent or, even, a collaborator of Hitler.  The charges against Pius XII are ahistoric rubbish, but this is a prime example of how historical reputations can alter over time.

Now he hath left his quarters,
In Bunhill Fields to lie.
The wisdom that he taught us
Is proven prophecy–
One watchword through our armies,
One answer from our lands–
‘No dealings with Diabolus
As long as Mansoul stands.

The War had gone badly for the Allies in 1917.  The War on the eastern front had ended with the collapse of Russia.  The offensives on the Western Front by the French and the British had all ended in bloody failure.  America had entered the War, but there was much doubt whether sufficient American troops would arrive in France in 1918 to stem the tide of German reinforcements from the now vanished eastern front.  1918 looked to be quite a grim year for the Allies, and this poem was Kipling’s call for Great Britain to fight the War no matter how bitter current prospects looked.

_A pedlar from a hovel,
The lowest of the low,
The father of the Novel,
Salvation’s first Defoe,
Eight blinded generations
Ere Armageddon came,
He showed us how to meet it,
And Bunyan was his name!_

A beautiful tribute to Bunyan ends the poem.  The poem is an example of how ephemeral most literary work is, even when written by a writer of genius.  When a work is tied to contemporary events, it becomes even more ephemeral, soon to be of interest in most cases only to people who love to wander down the byways of history.

10 Responses to Benedict XV, Rudyard Kipling, John Bunyan and G. K. Chesterton

  • Katherine says:

    An interesting poem, and a most useful, perceptive commentary.

    As for Benedict XV, in fact, Merry del Val was replaced as Secretary of State soon after Benedict’s election, and appointed secretary of the Holy Office. Benedict’s Secretary of State was Pietro Gasparri, the architect of the 1929 Lateran Treaty and the 1917 Code of Canon Law.

    I have always figured that Pius XII’s caution during WW II was partly the result of his experiences while serving as a papal diplomat under Benedict, and witnessing how Benedict’s much-maligned neutrality was ultimately vindicated.

  • Dale, Kipling wrote the following poem in regard to the American entry into the War. I have always regarded it as a dreadful piece of drek and one of the worst poems ever written by Kipling.

    Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)
    THE CHOICE

    1917

    The American Spirit speaks:

    To the Judge of Right and Wrong
    With Whom fulfilment lies
    Our purpose and our power belong,
    Our faith and sacrifice.

    Let Freedom’s land rejoice!
    Our ancient bonds are riven;
    Once more to use the eternal choice
    Of Good or Ill is given.

    Not at a little cost,
    Hardly by prayer or tears,
    Shall we recover the road we lost
    In the drugged and doubting years.

    But, after the fires and the wrath,
    But, after searching and pain,
    His Mercy opens us a path
    To live with ourselves again.

    In the Gates of Death rejoice!
    We see and hold the good—
    Bear witness, Earth, we have made our choice
    For Freedom’s brotherhood!

    Then praise the Lord Most High
    Whose Strength hath saved us whole,
    Who bade us choose that the Flesh should die
    And not the living Soul!

    To the God in Man displayed—
    Where’er we see that Birth,
    Be love and understanding paid
    As never yet on earth!

    To the Spirit that moves in Man,
    On Whom all worlds depend,
    Be Glory since our world began
    And service to the end!

  • Hmmm, based upon this I can see why Merry del Val was not kept as Secretary of State!

    “Reportedly Della Chiesa had been elected by one vote. According to the rules in force at the time, the ballot papers had a numbering on the reverse side, so that, if the election was decided by only one vote, it could be checked whether or not the elected person had voted for himself, in which case the election would be void. According to that account, Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val, who had been Pius X’s Secretary of State, insisted that the ballots be checked to ensure that Della Chiesa had not voted for himself – he had not. When the cardinals offered their homage to the new pope, Benedict allegedly said to Merry del Val, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” To which the unabashed Merry del Val replied with the next verse of Psalm 118: “This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.”"

Follow TAC by Clicking on the Buttons Below
Bookmark and Share
Subscribe by eMail

Enter your email:

Recent Comments
Archives
Our Visitors. . .
Our Subscribers. . .