Sunday, 5 January 2020

A Man of the Empire

1865-1936. A man who served the Empire. Good man, that Kipling.

Back in 1995, Rudyard Kipling was voted Britain's favourite poet and the favourite poem was Kipling's, 'IF'. No doubt voted for by people who have not read his work, apart from 'IF'. Fast forward to 2015 and the nation's favourite poet morphs into TS Elliot. Quite a change in subjective taste- go figure. 

To be honest, I'm not a fan of  Kiplin's prose or poetry, or for any of his work for that matter. Tis a matter of taste, of course, and much of Kipling's work is anachronistic and has not travelled well. It is interesting to read his work pre-Great War and subsequently. I will have more to say on this matter later on in this post. 

Kipling, in my opinion, was a poor poet prone to pomposity and moralising and yet, all the same, had the knack of juxtaposing platitudes in a pleasing manner. Perhaps I'm being unfair, some of his prose ascends to the sublime although much of his work is simply silly, especially to the modern mind and sense. Read the following and tell me if I'm wrong: "I heard the knives behind me, but I durns't face my man, Nor I don't know where I went to, cause I didn't stop to see, Till I heard a beggar squealing out for quarter as he ran, And I thought I knew the voice and- it was me." Kipling had the annoying habit of dropping haitches and the ending, 'g' when portraying the working class soldiery. Tis a condescending and distracting trait that adds nothing to the composition, so in the quoted version I have erred on the side of correct English usage. It is a rendering of his social class, and of his time and we are apt to forget how dripping in social class, Britain, and especially England, was just two generations ago. Lest us, not us forget that Kipling was a colonial living in India, in what polite English society, of late 19th century, would describe as 'rude and quaintly, barbaric'. Flies, dysentery and the damned heat were never fashionable. And of course, there was the smell. Imagine the crowded Indian bazaar/bizarre of the late 19th century and perhaps you can gain a glimpse of the noisome atrocity that assails the olfactory sense, then and even now. 

It is interesting to note that Kipling has remained 'popular' with non-literary folk and despised by those with literary pretension- quite a legacy. Those on the 'left' hate him for his jingoist imperialism irrespective of any intrinsic poetic merit. The views of Kipling are well portrayed in his verse and reflect a 'Kipling' who was very much a man of his time: A Victorian. Not only a Victorian but also a member of the ascendant race which ruled the world; heady stuff. However, as a wretched colonial, he never had the cultural merits of polite London society. He was always considered a 'rude barbarian' moderately burnished with a societal tan. This may have been part of his underlying problem in polite Victorian society. It was said that his 'tan' was more than skin deep, hinting of past ancestral indiscretions with the local 'duskies'.

Kipling's poetry changed as the world changed. But like the true Victorian he was, he failed to comprehend that change and was left adrift in a Modern World where certainty had perished on Flanders field.  Indeed, his poetry undergoes a modification after the Great War. Before that time, it is bold, sure-footed and on the side of god, king, and country. Kipling's god is a good god and punishes hubris and his king never strays from his queen's bedchamber.  The war changed him. Idealism was lost and he was smart enough to realise that 'right' was no longer enough to prevail, the only thing that really mattered was 'might'. This has always been the case and yet is not always appreciated, especially in times of prolonged peace. After the war, a strain of cynicism and bitterness enters his work. Gone is the certainty of the privileged middle-class man living in an Anglo-centric world. What enters is bewilderment and incomprehension. Although the British Empire had prevailed in the greatest war ever known, it had inexplicably become weakened and superseded by 'lesser breeds'. His earlier work is like the Empire at its Greatest: grandiose, immensely confident and without error. Post-1918: his foot and intellect flounder in the intellectual mud of 1917. I suspect that a great part of his intellectual sinking and demise has, in the main, been attuned to the death of his son on the 1915 Western Front battlefield- his son's body was never recovered. 

Kipling acknowledged the reality of a post-Great War world but could not offer an anodyne or even a ready anecdote. However, the post-Great War World was about to get a lot worse......Ain't da the sad 

 Anyway, here is the poem, 'IF', in its entirety. In my opinion, it is cloying and 'preachy' although some of the couplets are very seductive at the emotional level. Please judge and let me know what you think.


If you can keep your head when all about you   
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,   
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;   
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;   
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;   
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;   
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,   
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,   
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!


  1. "...Imagine the crowded Indian bazaar/bizarre of the late 19th century and perhaps you can gain a glimpse of the noisome atrocity that assails the olfactory sense, then and even now..."

    Not unlike early 21st century Tipton, Bilston & Dudley, then?

  2. I'm reminded of Smethwick market on a Saturday morn.

  3. If you can make one heap of all your winnings and risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, then your risk management is diabolical. This is why, from primary school days, I've hated 'IF'

  4. Yea, perhaps the best advice if your run a casino. And as for the last line about being a man.... perhaps it needs an extra line incorporating the other 56 genders. Plays havoc with the rhyme though.