Kipling and the Yanks
The tenth in my ongoing series examining the poetry of Rudyard Kipling. The other posts in the series may be read here, here , here , here, here , here ,here, here and here. Rudyard Kipling had an intensely ambivalent attitude towards America and Americans. His wife was an American and he and she after their marriage resided in Vermont from 1892-1896. The Kiplings loved Vermont, Rudyard Kipling especially loving the rugged natural beauty of the Green Mountain State. but eventually returned to England due to a now forgotten diplomatic squabble between the US and Great Britain over the boundary between Venezuela and British Guiana and which led to the last talk of war between those two nations, and a family squabble involving some of Kipling’s wife’s relatives.
Kipling admired American energy and inventiveness, but hated traditional American antipathy to Britain and what he regarded as a boorishness that afflicted many Americans. This ambivalence is well reflected in the poem American Rebellion which appeared in A School History of England (1911) by C. R. L. Fletcher and Kipling. The poem is in two strikingly different sections. Here is the first section:
- TWAS not while England’s sword unsheathed
- Put half a world to flight,
- Nor while their new-built cities breathed
- Secure behind her might;
- Not while she poured from Pole to Line
- Treasure ships and men–
- These worshippers at Freedom’s shrine
- They did not quit her then!
- Not till their foes were driven forth
- By England o’er the main–
- Not till the Frenchman from the North
- Had gone with shattered Spain;
- Not till the clean-swept oceans showed
- No hostile flag unrolled,
- Did they remember what they owed
- To Freedom–and were bold.
Here Kipling reflects a traditional English view of the American Revolution which can be summarized as follows: “Why those ungrateful snots! We take Canada from the French, allowing the Americans to live in peace with a whole continent to expand into, and the next thing we know those back-stabbing ingrates stab us in the back and rebel!’
The American rejoinder to this would have been that America supplied quite a bit of blood and treasure to drive the French from Canada during the French and Indian War, and that earlier American efforts to fight the French, such as the successful New England siege of Louisbourg in 1745, were often thrown away by the British, as occurred with Louisbourg when the British returned it to the French, over loud objections which rang throughout the New England colonies, pursuant to the terms of the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, in exchange for Madras, in 1748. The Americans would also have pointed out that prior to the end of the French and Indian War, the British had wisely had overall a policy of benign neglect of the colonies, a policy which ended along with the ending of that war.
Thus Kipling and the Americans are at loggerheads in this part of the poem. Then Kipling in the next section of the poem makes a complete transformation:
The snow lies thick on Valley Forge,
The ice on the Delaware,
But the poor dead soldiers of King George
They neither know nor care.
Nor though the earliest primrose break
On the sunny side of the lane,
And scuffling rookeries awake
Their England’s spring again.
They will not stir when the drifts are gone,
Or the ice melts out of the bay:
And the men that served with Washington
Lie as still as they.
They will not stir though the mayflower blows
In the moist dark woods of pine,
And every rock-strewn pasture shows
Mullein and Columbine.
Each for his land, in a fair fight,
Encountered, strove, and died,
And the kindly earth that knows no spite
Covers them side by side.
She is too busy to think of war;
She has all the world to make gay;
And, behold, the yearly flowers are
Where they were in our fathers’ day!
Golden-rod by the pasture wall
When the columbine is dead,
And sumach leaves that turn, in fall,
Bright as the blood they shed.
Gone is all snark. Kipling instead praises both Washington’s men and King George’s soldiers, all now dead, who engaged each other in a fair fight. He contrasts the mortality of men with the bounty and beauty of nature, making this poem one of Kipling’s rare attempts at writing a pastoral. It makes sense, as I think what Kipling, at least on an emotional level, found most appealing about America was the grandeur of its natural beauty. In the face of that marvel of nature he puts aside, at least for the moment, all bitterness for a lost portion of his beloved Empire. For much more of Kipling and his views on America and Americans, his book American Notes, is highly recommended by me.