On Reading Rudyard Kipling in 2021
Recently, I realised that I’d been spending too much time on Twitter. The warning sign was noticing that my first thought on re-reading Kipling’s The White Man’s Burden, on the day after the US Capitol riot, was an internet-conditioned meme response; “Well that aged well” I said, out loud. However, perhaps that kind of response wasn’t totally unjustified. Let’s remind ourselves of that poem’s opening:
Take up the White Man’s Burden—
Send forth the best ye breed
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.
Kipling is addressing the American people in 1898, during America’s war with Spain and on the eve of the American empire; just as power was ebbing from London, Paris, and Madrid and flowing up onto the opposite Atlantic shore. Because of this, it was towards America that Kipling thought that we should look for a power mighty enough to act as the guardian of Western civilization. Or at least, for that curious subsidiary of Western civilization, that of the British.
Granted that Fate’s comic timing was off by about 122 years, but the events of the 6th of January 2021 do have the appearance of ironicising those lines. A fancy-dress mob, high on presidential idolatry, stampeding their nation’s legislature in an attitude that was one-part insurrectionary and one-part contemptuous tourist is itself the stuff of ‘half-devil and half-child’. Keep in mind the year of violence it has just been gifted by its intractable racial conflict, and the idea that the United States should be the ultimate arbiters of civilization sounds more like a punchline than a subject for stately verse.
But this is a topic more for gloom than derisive jeering. Obviously, the idea of the white man’s burden and the worldview it entails are racist. The implication is that melanin and cultural progress don’t go together — unless a man in a pith helmet is there to show you the ropes. Not to mention the fact that the view that sees millions of your fellow men as raw material to be ground in the mill of civilization is terribly unsettling.
Because of this it might seem strange to modern readers to feel anything when reading this poem other than disgust. But it isn’t Kipling’s (often unpleasant) view of non-Europeans that I want to draw attention to here, but his view of his own people: the English-speaking peoples, of British civilization (and its heir the USA) as a trans-national whole. Kipling had high expectations of the American republic, just as he had a high opinion of the British Empire, and both point to an idealism and a self-belief in the civilization that both nations represent that we might do well to recover.
Let’s look at the American situation before diagnosing Britain’s problem. How did it go from heir to the legacy of British imperialism to its current state? Well, a satisfactory answer to that question would likely take the form of a multi-volume history of modern America. A more manageable sort of observation to discuss, however, is what I see as the difference between the expectations of greatness that Kipling entertains, and what the Capitol Hill rioters likely entertain; of the idealised sense of duty of the former that is absent from the latter.
Despite his reputation as a sort of apostle of jingoism, the duty that Kipling believed to be incumbent upon America suggests that belief in their own greatness should not degenerate into chauvinism. Rather, he encourages them to act with a respectful dignity:
Take up the White Man’s Burden
In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride…
Americans should recognise the greatness of their country and love it; but not without conforming to this ideal of civilized behaviour. Those Trumpers at the Capitol fulfil the first condition while forgetting the second.
Perhaps it was an odd way of expressing it, but we should remember that the men and women who shoved their way into Congress did so out of a powerful sense of patriotism. The photos of vandals among the marble and columns recalled, for many, descriptions of the barbarians entering Rome, but the comparison faulters once you remember that the Gothic invaders’ intention was not to Make Rome Great Again. Given the promise of that now notorious slogan, we might conjecture that the average Trumper’s hopes for America are no less grand than Kipling’s were at the end of the 19th century. The ultimate difference is the inability to conceive of a sense of dignified conduct appropriate for a great nation to act; “To veil the threat of terror/ And check the show of pride” is not in the Trumper’s language.
What this ultimately expresses is a high idealism, encompassing as it does his hopes about American imperial power and the duty that it entails; and as high idealism, it naturally finds its best expression in poetry. As another example, take the seductive nobility of the injunction to “Fill full the mouth of famine/ And bid the sickness cease” all the while keeping in mind that the effort will always be:
But the toil of the serf and sweeper—
The tale of common things.
The ports ye shall not enter,
The roads ye shall not tread,
Go make them with your living,
And mark them with your dead.
This is really quite thrilling stuff. And Kipling’s verse often has that crystalline clarity, which by no means debases the content his message; in this case, that ballad-like melody is just enough to save this idealism from prosy understatement and clothes it a more apposite splendour.
And here lies Kipling’s greatest attraction for readers in 2021. As a poet, he is capable of expressing an idealism that, in our more prosaic age, we might find embarrassing to believe in. We’ve seen how one aspect of his idealism (the expectations we have of the great) is absent from modern America, but I would argue that a similar absence of idealism currently infects the rest of the Anglosphere. And this affliction is a kind of heart disease, corrupting as it does the core of the Anglo world — the United Kingdom.
Almost five years after a vote that reasserted British sovereignty, about half of the population is still pretty unenthused about it as a project, and its champions in government can’t seem to provide a vision of Britain’s 21st century role more inspiring than the bloodless ‘Global Britain’ rhetoric and cold talk about buying and selling in far-flung markets. Meanwhile, the Scottish nationalists do seem to be adept at providing people with ideal to believe in, albeit one that involves the death of the UK. The crisis of ideals that Kipling helps to highlight in America is the forgetting of how to act like a great nation; in Britain what we see is a total absence of any faith in our greatness. In short, no one seems to believe in Britain.
Kipling, of course, did believe in it. And it’s the how he believed that really interests me, rather than the why. Kipling’s faith in Britain and its purpose essentially took the form of a reoccurring metaphor that expresses his idealism. Take these lines from his Recessional that gives us the same idealised sense of duty that we’ve seen already:
If, drunk with the sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget, lest we forget!
Here, that sense of duty is heightened by bringing it in relation to the divine. Kipling’s addressees (this time the British) not only owe it to themselves to act with dignity, but to God as well. But here’s where this odd metaphor changes things; this is no mere spur to propriety, but a vision of Britain as a New Israel — as the people of the Law chosen by God to be its messengers on earth.
Now, it’s easy to object to this depiction: it seems idolatrous from the point of view of the Christian and to most readers today it probably smacks of an unjustifiable racial chauvinism. But, as with the racism of The White Man’s Burden, I’m going to put that aside for the moment and dwell instead on what might actually be the most foreign aspect of this Britain-as-Ancient-Israel conceit: the possibility of a romantic faith in the purpose of your own civilization.
Kipling doesn’t try to encourage that faith by asking his readers to literally see Britain in this way. Instead, he asks for a momentary suspension of disbelief that allows us to imagine Britain as such; an imagining that will hopefully leave an impression of Britain’s ideal greatness that survives the return of that disbelief. We can look elsewhere for examples of this conceit; a particularly dramatic statement of it is his a Song of the English, a series of six poems extoling the energy and industry of the empire, of the sacrifices made in extending British dominion around the globe. From the preface:
Hold ye the Faith—the Faith our Fathers sealed us;
Whoring not with visions—overwise and overstale…
Keep ye the Law—be swift in all obedience—
Clear the land of evil, drive the road and bridge the ford.
The British have usurped Israel as God’s chosen people. Their imperial project has its source in a covenant with God, and their institutions are a manifestation of the divine will on earth.
Of course, Kipling’s faith in the ideals and mission of his civilization is perhaps evident in all his poems with imperial themes, but nowhere is the expression of that faith more sublime than when he engages with this metaphor. Take these lines from the second poem in the series:
We were dreamers, dreaming greatly, in the man-stifled town
We yearned beyond the sky-line where the strange roads go down.
Came the Whisper, came the Vision, came the Power with the need,
Till the Soul that is not man’s soul was lent us to lead.
This is Kipling at his most romantic. The vision of the British empire as the embodiment of that “Soul,” of its commercial activities and battles as inspired by the voice of God whispering across the cosmos is a bold act of idealisation. But what is there in the mere act of getting and spending, of Britain’s often perfidious mercantilism, to justify such claims? Well, nothing, of course — if we see it as a ‘claim’ in the sense of an empirical statement on the nature reality. But that isn’t quite what Kipling is doing here. As I pointed out above, this metaphor is a way of imagining rather than seeing; Kipling is asking us to make a leap of faith in encouraging a belief British civilization as a divinely inspired one.
But why pay this romantic faith (this metaphor) any attention if it exists in the imagination of a dead poet rather than being based on past or present reality? I’m going to answer that with another question: without it, in what else does one have to believe? For the materialistic Anglo of his own day, this conceit is a means of transcending what could too often be a grubby, money obsessed affair; in imagining the force-backed cash nexus of the British Empire as an expression of the Law and Faith, it seems less hollow, more noble. Idealism such as this is a potent inducement of self-belief. Perhaps this is what the materialistic Anglo of our own day also needs.
Those who want Britain to survive this century will first have to encourage that same self-belief; you will need to connect the nation’s activity and efforts with something more momentous than the events and immediate concerns of the present. You will need an ideal, and as the language of ideals, we look to poetry as a guide for the articulation of one. Of course, it would be laughable to even hope that political renewal will directly follow a ‘rediscovery of Kipling’s verse’, whether in Britain or America. What it can do for us, however, is suggest a way of thinking about ourselves, a way of thinking that might be the necessary first step in achieving anything as a nation.
Not only the past five years but the two decades that started this century have embarrassed the Anglosphere. As far it expresses a vision of that civilization that shames us for those embarrassments and encourages a hope that it can do better, Kipling’s verse will continue to be immensely valuable. So for that reason, long may it live.