Poetry

Of Centurions, Love and Kipling

 

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:

[1] And there was a certain man in Caesarea, named Cornelius, a centurion of that which is called the Italian band; [2] A religious man, and fearing God with all his house, giving much alms to the people, and always praying to God. [3] 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. [4] 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. [5] And now send men to Joppe, and call hither one Simon, who is surnamed Peter: Continue reading

The Last of the Light Brigade

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 Muse Among the Motors

Rudyard Kipling and car

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

High Flight

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

The Gods of the Copybook Headings Provide The Commentary

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.

Continue reading

Political Advice From Rudyard Kipling

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

The Great Darkness

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

Christ in Flanders

QG001618

I have always found this war poem from World War I very moving.  The author is “L.W.”, and I have been unable to discover his identity.  The poem powerfully reminds us of how easy it is to forget Christ, He who is most important in our brief lives here on Earth.

Continue reading

Death Be Not Proud

father-neuhaus
DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

Politicians. Little Tin Gods on Wheels.

Since the bad joke who happens to be the governor of my state is apparently fond of quoting Kipling, the title to this post is also from Kipling who had very little use for most politicians.  A variant of the great poem “If” , much more fitting for Blagojevich, is provided by Claudia Rosett here.

Blagojevich, Chicago’s curse to the state of Illinois, might be more careful in the choice of poets he quotes.  Kipling did not think much of the Windy City.

Lest We Forget

gkcmarines

TO THE UNKNOWN WARRIOR
by G.K.Chesterton

You whom the kings saluted; who refused not
The one great pleasure of ignoble days,
Fame without name and glory without gossip,
Whom no biographer befouls with praise.
Who said of you “Defeated”? In the darkness
The dug-out where the limelight never comes,
Nor the big drum of Barnum’s show can shatter
That vibrant stillness after all the drums.

Though the time comes when every Yankee circus
Can use our soldiers for its sandwich-men,
When those that pay the piper call the tune,
You will not dance. You will not move again.

You will not march for Fatty Arbuckle,
Though he have yet a favourable press,
Tender as San Francisco to St. Francis
Or all the angels of Los Angeles.

They shall not storm the last unfallen fortress,
The lonely castle where uncowed and free,
Dwells the unknown and undefeated warrior
That did alone defeat Publicity.

Ad Astra Per Aspera

defeat

 

Say not the struggle naught availeth,
     The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
     And as things have been, things remain.

If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars;
     It may be, in yon smoke concealed,
Your comrades chase e’en now the fliers,
     And, but for you, possess the field.

For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
     Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back through creeks and inlets making
     Comes silent, flooding in, the main.

And not by eastern windows only,
     When daylight comes, comes in the light,
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly,
     But westward, look, the land is bright.

— Arthur Hugh Clough

A Poem For Our Times

The Gods of the Copybook Headings

 

 

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.

 

Continue reading

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