Even people who don’t read much poetry know some lines from Kipling.
‘You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din’
‘If you can keep your head when all about you’
‘Watch the wall my darling, while the gentlemen go by’
‘The Colonel’s Lady an’ Judy O’Grady Are sisters under their skins’
‘They shut the road through the woods Seventy years ago.’
If you’re my age, you may have sung Non Nobis Domine at school and know the chorus of The Road to Mandalay because it was so familiar to your parents. If memorability is one of the criteria for great poetry, Kipling is up there.
This new selection, published by Cambridge University Press, is taken from the same editor’s massive work containing the complete poems. Thomas Pinney has chosen 100 of these, twenty five of which must be old, that is, well known, and seventy five new; poems never reprinted by Kipling. He writes:
“The idea of this selection from Rudyard Kipling’s many poems is to contrast the familiar with the unfamiliar: the list includes 25 of the first kind, and 75 of the second. Any collection will have those first 25; no other collection will have all 75 of the other kind – probably not more than one or two, if any. They come from many different sources, a few of them unpublished, none of them ever reprinted by Kipling himself. They have rested, unvisited, in inaccessible Indian newspapers, in manuscript, in the files of long-dead magazines.”
We are never told which are the familiar ones, a possible problem for someone coming to Kipling for the first time. What I wanted from the good professor was a little explanation as to why he chose just those twenty five familiar poems and those seventy five unfamiliar ones? This is the kind of book it’s very frustrating to read on a Kindle. You keep wanting to flip back and forth, checking this and that, and it’s a tedious business. I have two collections with which to compare this one: Songs for Youth, 1924 and A Choice of Kipling’s Verse made by T S Eliot with an Essay on Rudyard Kipling , 1941. I decided to read every one of the 100 poems and compare the choices made in the other books.
The first thing to note is that T S Eliot says ‘verse’ and Pinney, ‘poems’. Eliot was not denigrating Kipling’s work by calling it verse, He describes him as a great balladeer, a great hymn writer and a writer whose verse contains poetry. He says that, ‘we have to defend Kipling against the charge of excessive lucidity … the charge of being a ‘journalist’ … the charge of writing jingles.’ And proceeds to do so. He admires Kipling’s mastery of his craft: ‘The variety of form which Kipling manages to devise for his ballads is remarkable: each is distinct, and perfectly fitted to the content and the mood which the poem has to convey.’
Reading a book of poetry straight through is not something I would normally do but here it added something because of the surprising juxtapositions. For instance, after reading Bobs (a soldier’s poem about Lord Roberts), the very next line I came to was Now this is the law of the jungle and the hairs on my neck stood up. These poems old and new show the ‘variety of form’ used by Kipling, his thorough knowledge of the Bible and even the influence of Lewis Carroll. So what was particularly striking in this new selection?
Some of the poems here are mere fragments; many are surprisingly funny. I liked one called a morning ride (sic), which is like Mandalay written by an officer and deserves to be better known. It was interesting to compare the story of tommy a story without a moral (sic) with the great poem Danny Deever. Each is about a military execution but the first is written in a jaunty style and rhythm and ends, ‘Then, in the Central Jail, Tommy, aged twenty, was hanged.’ No wonder the poem is ‘without a moral’ and leaves the reader unmoved. Danny Deever, with its inflexible repetitions (‘said Files-on-Parade’/ ‘the Colour-Sergeant said.’) and the way it conveys the effect of the death on the troops involved, is chilling. The contrast between the two poems is achieved by the different rhythm and rhyme pattern of each. Yet Kipling could also use obvious rhymes in an unobvious way. In The Way Through the Woods, the rhyming of ‘cools’ and ‘pools’ in
When the night-air cools on the trout-ringed pools
Where the otter whistles his mate,
is simple and ‘Kiplingesque’ yet has great poetical effect in the context of that particular poem. An example of Eliot’s ‘verse containing poetry’?
After the next cut is a list of poems I’ve found in other anthologies. Of the ones I looked at, I found Songs for Youth had the most eccentric choices. ’Cities and Thrones and Powers’ should be in any anthology, in my opinion. The children’s book is the only one to include Eddi’s Service, which many people love. My personal preference is for the Sussex poems, those published in Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies.
Illustration for A Smuggler’s Song from Songs for Youth.
Dame Helen Gardner in The New Oxford Book of English Verse, picks Mandalay, Danny Deever, ‘Cities and Thrones and Powers’, The Way through the Woods and Recessional.
For The Oxford Book of Narrative Verse, Iona and Peter Opie chose The Ballad of East and West.
Kingsley Amis gets two goes, first for The New Oxford Book of Light Verse, where his choice is The Lie. He also edited The Faber Popular Reciter and featured Kipling heavily there, with The Ballad of East and West, Recessional, For All We Have and Are, Danny Deever, Tommy, Boots, The Winners, and The Gods of the Copy Book Headings.
This gives some idea which of Kipling’s poems should be the most familiar. I’m glad to have read the unfamiliar ones printed in Thomas Pinney’s book, which I read courtesy of NetGalley. There’s plenty of Kipling’s poems to read here.
As it’s Advent, here’s an ‘unfamiliar’ poem about Christmas.
[“to all our people now on land”]
To all our people now on land
We men at sea must write,
Because the work we have in hand
Withholds us from your sight:
And if you ask us what we do –
We keep the seas, and Christmas too.
In every home we used to know
Hang up with liberal hands
The holly and the mistletoe
That Christmastide commands,
And, though we may not present be,
Keep Christmas while we keep the sea.