Like flowery fields the nations stand
Pleased with the morning light;
The flowers beneath the mower’s hand
Lie withering ere ‘tis night.
Isaac Watts, Our God, Our Help in Ages Past
The twenty-ninth 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, here, here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here , here , here, here, here and here.
Kipling will always be remembered as a British patriot and a lover of the British Empire. Both of those facts are true enough, although Kipling was not blind to the faults of his nation and its empire, but Kipling also had the ability, shared by some true great artists, to step momentarily outside his time and place to make some imperishable commentary on the human condition. Kipling did it in his poem Recessional, written on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, which rather than a rah, rah celebration of Great Britain, envisages a time when the glory and power of Britain and its Empire will have passed, one with Nineveh and Tyre, and a stark warning for his British contemporaries to use the power they currently possessed responsibly, and prays to God for mercy upon them. This unexpected Jeremiad contains what I have always regarded as the most moving lines of poetry ever written by a secular poet:
The twenty-seventh 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, here, here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here , here , here and here.
Two frequent targets of Kipling’s ire over the years was Kaiser Wilhelm, who Kipling viewed as a buffoon and a menace long before World War I, and anything that smacked of socialism. In the poem An Imperial Rescript (1890), Kipling got to attack both his bête noirs when the Kaiser unveiled a program of social reform to “help” working men. I rather think the Kaiser’s heart was in the right place on this occasion, even if his head was not. Kipling viewed the plan as rubbish since most men, the acolytes of Alfred. P Doolittle (see video above) excepted, work for the well-being of their families, a well-being that he thought governments would prove ill-equipped to preserve, and therefore they would work as hard as they were able for the wife and the kids. It is an arguable point, although Kipling’s view is directly contrary to what passes for the common wisdom of our day, which could mean that Kipling might very well be correct!
Now this is the tale of the Council the German Kaiser decreed, To ease the strong of their burden, to help the weak in their need, He sent a word to the peoples, who struggle, and pant, and sweat, That the straw might be counted fairly and the tally of bricks be set. The Lords of Their Hands assembled; from the East and the West they drew -- Baltimore, Lille, and Essen, Brummagem, Clyde, and Crewe. And some were black from the furnace, and some were brown from the soil, And some were blue from the dye-vat; but all were wearied of toil. And the young King said: -- "I have found it, the road to the rest ye seek: The strong shall wait for the weary, the hale shall halt for the weak: With the even tramp of an army where no man breaks from the line, Ye shall march to peace and plenty in the bond of brotherhood -- sign!" Continue reading
But because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold, not hot, I will begin to vomit thee out of my mouth.
The twenty-sixth 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, here, here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here , here and here. For a man who was not conventionally religious, it is surprising how many of Kipling’s poems deal with religious themes. Here he deals with the fate of the soul of Tomlinson who floated through life and did almost no good and almost no ill. He fits to the full T.S. Eliot’s hollow men and CS Lewis’s chestless men.
CS Lewis in his essay Screwtape Proposes a Toast in 1959 tells us how common this type of individual is in the modern world:
Your dreaded Principal has included in a speech full of points something like an apology for the banquet which he has set before us. Well, gentledevils, no one blames him. But it would be in vain to deny that the human souls on whose anguish we have been feasting tonight were of pretty poor quality. Not all the most skillful cookery of our tormentors could make them better than insipid.
Oh, to get one’s teeth again into a Farinata, a Henry VIII, or even a Hitler! There was real crackling there; something to crunch; a rage, an egotism, a cruelty only just less robust than our own. It put up a delicious resistance to being devoured. It warmed your inwards when you’d got it down.
Instead of this, what have we had tonight? There was a municipal authority with Graft sauce. But personally I could not detect in him the flavour of a really passionate and brutal avarice such as delighted one in the great tycoons of the last century. Was he not unmistakably a Little Man — a creature of the petty rake-off pocketed with a petty joke in private and denied with the stalest platitudes in his public utterances — a grubby little nonentity who had drifted into corruption, only just realizing that he was corrupt, and chiefly because everyone else did it? Then there was the lukewarm Casserole of Adulterers. Could you find in it any trace of a fully inflamed, defiant, rebellious, insatiable lust? I couldn’t. They all tasted to me like undersexed morons who had blundered or trickled into the wrong beds in automatic response to sexy advertisements, or to make themselves feel modern and emancipated, or to reassure themselves about their virility or their “normalcy,” or even because they had nothing else to do. Frankly, to me who have tasted Messalina and Cassanova, they were nauseating. The Trade Unionist stuffed with sedition was perhaps a shade better. He had done some real harm. He had, not quite unknowingly, worked for bloodshed, famine, and the extinction of liberty. Yes, in a way. But what a way! He thought of those ultimate objectives so little. Toeing the party line, self-importance, and above all mere routine, were what really dominated his life.
And then the triumph. We are tempted to say that such souls — or such residual puddles of what once was soul — are hardly worth damning. Yes, but the Enemy (for whatever inscrutable and perverse reason) thought them worth trying to save. Believe me, He did. You youngsters who have not yet been on active duty have no idea with what labour, with what delicate skill, each of these miserable creatures was finally captured.
The difficulty lay in their very smallness and flabbiness. Here were vermin so muddled in mind, so passively responsive to environment, that it was very hard to raise them to that level of clarity and deliberateness at which mortal sin becomes possible. To raise them just enough; but not that fatal millimetre of “too much.” For then, of course, all would possibly have been lost. They might have seen; they might have repented. On the other hand, if they had been raised too little, they would very possibly have qualified for Limbo, as creatures suitable neither for Heaven nor for Hell; things that, having failed to make the grade, are allowed to sink into a more or less contented subhumanity forever.
Kipling wrote Tomlinson in 1891 and unfortunately his Tomlinson was a forerunner of a type all too common today. God did not bring us into this world so we could spend our days in indifference and ennui, wasting both our time and our lives. The poem has a comedic tone, but I have always regarded it as perhaps Kipling’s most damning indictment of his time and ours.
Now Tomlinson gave up the ghost in his house in Berkeley Square,
And a Spirit came to his bedside and gripped him by the hair –
A Spirit gripped him by the hair and carried him far away,
Till he heard as the roar of a rain-fed ford the roar of the Milky Way:
Till he heard the roar of the Milky Way die down and drone and cease,
And they came to the Gate within the Wall where Peter holds the keys. Continue reading
(Reposted from 2012.)
He leads for aye the advance,
Hope’s forlorn-hopes that plant the desperate good
For nobler Earths and days of manlier mood;
James Russell Lowell
Memoriae Positum, memory laid down. The Latin phrase is a good short hand description of what History accomplishes. In 1864 the poet James Russell Lowell wrote a poem entitled Memoriae Positum in tribute to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw who died heroically at age 25 leading the unsuccessful assault of the 54th Massachusetts, one of the first black Union regiments, on the Confederate stronghold of Fort Wagner at Charleston, South Carolina on July 18th, 1863. The poem predicts that Shaw’s memory will live forever and feels sorrow only for those, unlike Shaw, who are unwilling or unable to risk all for their beliefs. It is a poem completely out of step with the predominant sentiments of our day which seem to value physical survival and enjoyment above everything else. Here is the text of the poem: Continue reading
The twenty-fifth 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, here, here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here and here. Kipling often wrote in his poems about the British Army and celebrated the courage and endurance of the average British soldier. However, he never romanticized war, viewing it as a dirty, albeit often necessary, business. Few poems have better illustrated the endless tedium and ennui of war better than the poem Boots written in 1903 after the Boer War had concluded. The use of repetition in the poem skillfully conveys an endless and exhausting march. Ironically, it was set to music and a poem about the tedium of military service became a music hall favorite. Continue reading
The twenty-fourth 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, here, here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here, here , here and here. Published in 1918, Hail Liberty! Hail! is a translation by Rudyard Kipling, of the first few stanzas of the poem that is the basis of the Greek National Anthem. It was written by him at the request of the Greek Ambassador to England D. Kaklamanos.
The original poem consisted of 158 stanzas written by Dionysios Solomos in 1823 during the Greek War of Independence.
Abandoning its neutrality, Greece had entered World War I on the side of the Allies in 1917. Conflict between Greeks favoring neutrality, led by King Constantine, and those favoring Allied intervention led by Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos. Eventually the forces favoring intervention won out, and King Constantine was forced to abdicate in favor of his son King Alexander. This all turned out to be disastrous after the War as Venizelos, a Cretan by birth, was a strong proponent of the Big (Megale) Idea which proposed Greek control of the regions in Asia Minor along the Mediterranean Sea that had Greek majorities. After the War the Greeks seized Smyrna in Asia Minor which led to the disastrous, for Greece, Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922. The Greeks were resoundingly defeated by the Turks under Kemal Ataturk, and 1.5 million Greeks were expelled from lands in Asia Minor that they had occupied since the beginnings of Greek recorded history. A half million Turks and muslim Greeks were expelled from a Greece that they had lived in for almost half a millenium. The sentiments of the poem are quite high minded, but it serves as an example that high minded sentiments are not a substitute for wisdom in governmental policy.
WE knew thee of old,
Oh divinely restored,
By the light of thine eyes
And the light of thy Sword.
From the graves of our slain
Shall thy valour prevail
As we greet thee again—
Hail, Liberty! Hail!
Long time didst thou dwell
Mid the peoples that mourn,
Awaiting some voice
That should bid thee return.
Ah, slow broke that day
And no man dared call,
For the shadow of tyranny
Lay over all:
And we saw thee sad-eyed,
The tears on thy cheeks
While thy raiment was dyed
In the blood of the Greeks.
Yet, behold now thy sons
With impetuous breath
Go forth to the fight
Seeking Freedom or Death.
From the graves of our slain
Shall thy valour prevail
As we greet thee again
Hail, Liberty! Hail! Continue reading
The twenty-third 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, here, here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here, here and here. In his poems Kipling was fond of the theme of education. In several poems he tied in education with another great theme of his poetry, the British Army, Kipling being fascinated by the rough and ready process by which soldiers learned how to be soldiers.
One feature of the British Army that has helped make it such a formidable force over the centuries is the pride in regimental history taken by officers and men. In the poem The Men That Fought at Minden a sergeant, or perhaps a corporal, is using the battle of Minden as an example to tell new recruits what to expect as they learn how to be soldiers.
On August 1, 1759 an Anglo-German army won a striking victory over a larger French army at the battle of Minden in Germany. The victory was one of the numerous victories won by the British in 1759, the Annus Mirabilis, which included the taking of Quebec. The following British regiments fought at Minden and are known as Minden regiments: 12th of Foot, 20th Foot, 23rd of Foot, 25th of Foot, 37th of Foot and 51st Foot. Minden Day is still observed on August 1, when the men of these regiments wear roses in their caps. Lord George Sackville was cashiered from the British Army due to cowardice that day. As Lord George Germain he would serve as George III’s Secretary of State during the American Revolution, contributing greatly to the British loss in that War. The Marquis de Lafayette’s father died at the battle, and sparked in Lafayette a strong desire for revenge on the British that he brought to fruition in the aid that he brought to the American cause in the Revolution. Continue reading
The twenty-first 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, here, here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here, here , here and here. Kipling throughout his literary career had two great loves: his love for England and his love for the British Army that guarded England. A variant on these two themes is displayed in The Roman Centurion’s Song which Kipling wrote for A Child’s History of England in 1911. This is the lament of a Roman Centurion who has served forty years in Britannia. His cohort, circa 300 AD, has been ordered back to Rome and the Centurion does not want to go. After forty years Britannia has become his home and he wishes to stay.
Kipling once famously wrote in his poem The ‘Eathen, that the backbone of an army is the non-commissioned man. That was certainly the case with the Roman Legions. The centurions were an interesting combination of sergeant major and captain. They were long service men, almost all risen from the ranks. They normally commanded 60-80 men, although senior centurions, at the discretion of the Legate in charge of the Legion, could command up to a cohort, 500-1,000 men. Each centurion had a place in the chain of command with the primus pilus being the head centurion of a legion. The military tribunes and legates who led the legions were Roman aristocrats, most of whose military experience was much less than the centurions under them. If they were wise, they left the day to day management of their legion up to the centurions and paid heed to their advice in combat situations. In the contemporary histories that have come down to us, the centurions are normally treated with great respect. This is reflected in the movie Spartacus where Senator Gracchus notes that if the Senate punished every commander who ever made a fool of himself, there would be no one left in the Legions above the rank of centurion.
It was not uncommon for centurions to become quite fond of the people and the foreign lands they were stationed in for lengthy periods. We see this with the Centurion Cornelius and his encounter with Peter described in Acts 10:
 And there was a certain man in Caesarea, named Cornelius, a centurion of that which is called the Italian band;  A religious man, and fearing God with all his house, giving much alms to the people, and always praying to God.  This man saw in a vision manifestly, about the ninth hour of the day, an angel of God coming in unto him, and saying to him: Cornelius.  And he, beholding him, being seized with fear, said: What is it, Lord? And he said to him: Thy prayers and thy alms are ascended for a memorial in the sight of God.  And now send men to Joppe, and call hither one Simon, who is surnamed Peter: Continue reading
C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre! (It is magnificent but it is not war!)
Comment of French Mashal Pierre Bosquet on the charge of the light brigade
The nineteenth 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, here, here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here and here. Kipling throughout his career always had a soft spot in his heart for the common British soldier. Soldiers in Kipling’s youth were regarded at worst as common criminals and at best a necessary evil: to be cheered as heroes in time of peril and left to rot in penury in peace time when they were too old to serve. By his poems pointing out the rank ingratitude of this treatment meted out to men who fought for Queen and country, Kipling played a large role in changing civilian attitudes toward the military and improving the lives of the “Tommys”.
One of his most searing poems on this subject was The Last of the Light Brigade.
The British have produced some of the great captains of History, Marlborough and Wellington quickly come to mind. However, a more common theme in British military history is the courage of common soldiers redeeming with their blood the mistakes of their generals. Few conflicts better exemplify this than the Crimean War. Fought between 1853-1856, the war consisted of France, Great Britain, the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Sardinia (prior to it growing to encompass all Italy) against Russia. The causes of the war boiled down to the fact that the Ottoman Empire was in a state of rapid decay and France and Russia were squabbling about which power would have predominance as “protecting power” of the Holy Places in the Holy Land, with the traditional antipathy of Catholics and Orthodox lending fuel to the fire. This fairly meaningless squabble eventually led to war between the Ottoman Empire and Russia with Great Britain and France rallying to The Sick Man of Europe as the Turks were called. Continue reading
The eighteenth 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, here, here, here, here , here, here, here , here and here. Kipling had a very distinctive style, a style which has produced endless poems imitating him. It occasionally amused Kipling to do a poem in the style of some other poet. Between 1904 and 1929 he did a series of short poems in the style of various poets. The subject of the poems was the new horseless carriage. Kipling loved cars, although it is unclear whether he ever drove one himself. Here are a few of the poems in his series The Muse Among the Motors. I will leave to the readers in the comboxes to guess the poet being copied. We will start out with an easy one:
The Justice’s Tale
With them there rode a lustie Engineere
Wel skilled to handel everich waie her geere,
Hee was soe wise ne man colde showe him naught
And out of Paris was hys learnynge brought.
Frontlings mid brazen wheeles and wandes he sat,
And on hys heade he bare an leathern hat.
Hee was soe certaine of his governance, That, by the
Road, he tooke everie chaunce.
For simple people and for lordlings eke
Hee wolde not bate a del but onlie squeeke
Behinde their backes on an horne hie
Until they crope into a piggestie.
He was more wood than bull in china-shoppe,
And yet for cowes and dogges wolde hee stop,
Not our of Marcie but for Preudence-sake–
Than hys dependaunce ever was hys brake. Continue reading
This seemed appropriate on a weekend when Neil Armstrong died. The poem was written by 19 year old John Gillespie Magee, Jr. an American serving as a pilot with the RCAF in World War II in England, prior to the entry of America into the War. A few months after he wrote the poem he was killed in a mid-air collision. Continue reading
AS I PASS through my incarnations in every age and race,
I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market Place.
Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.
We were living in trees when they met us. They showed us each in turn
That Water would certainly wet us, as Fire would certainly burn:
But we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind,
So we left them to teach the Gorillas while we followed the March of Mankind.
We moved as the Spirit listed. They never altered their pace,
Being neither cloud nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Market Place,
But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come
That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome.
I have always been a great fan of the poetry of Kipling. It is fun to recite and often has a fair amount of wisdom. Too often Kipling is simply written off as a pro-imperialist poet and relegated to the past along with the British Empire. He was certainly a loyal Brit and an advocate of the Empire, but there was much more to him than that. Refusing honor after honor, including being poet laureate of Great Britain, he always retained his independence to give loving criticism to his country. For example, in 1897 at the time of the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria, he wrote the poem Recessional which envisioned a time when Great Britain would have lost its Empire and its power:
Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet.
Lest we forget—lest we forget!
Kipling realized that power was never an end itself and that Great Britain would be judged by God and History not by how much power it amassed, but by what the British did with their power. Continue reading
May 19, 1780 was a memorable one in the history of New England. Darkness descended for several hours in New England and parts of New York. The cause of the darkness has been blamed on everything from volcanoes to dust storms. The most commonly accepted explanation today is that the darkness was caused by forest fires. An excellent overview of the Dark Day and its possible causes is presented by John Horrigan here.
Darkness in the middle of the day of course caused quite a bit of alarm, with more than a few people thinking that the Day of Judgment had arrived. In the Connecticut legislature a motion to adjourn was proposed and passed. Members of the Council of Safety of the legislature wanted to go to their homes. Senator Abraham Davenport would have none of it. “The day of judgment is either approaching, or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause of an adjournment: if it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I wish therefore that candles may be brought.” John Greenleaf Whittier immortalized this archetypal stubborn Yankee with this poem: Continue reading
I have never cared for Lord Byron, his poetry or the way he misled his life, with one massive exception. From the first time I read this poem in grammar school it has had immense significance for me.
The Destruction of Sennacherib
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.
Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.
For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!
And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride;
And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.
And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail:
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.
And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord! Continue reading