Writing life sketches of poets, philosophers, politicians, and saints offers space for learning and honing critical thinking skills.
Joseph Rudyard Kipling was born December 30, 1865, in Bombay (Mumbai), India. Kipling's father, John Lockwood Kipling, was a professor of architectural sculpture at the Bombay School of Art, and his mother Alice MacDonald Kipling was a poet. At age 6, the young Kipling was sent back to England to be educated. He returned to India in 1882.
Rudyard Kipling worked as a journalist and ventured into the creative writing of poetry and fiction. His Plain Tales from the Hills, published in 1888, gained him a following in England, and in 1889, he returned to England to live in London.
Kipling married an American, Caroline Balestier, in 1892, and the couple relocated to Brattleboro, Vermont, in the USA, where Caroline's family resided. The couple had two daughters, Josephine (1893) and Elsie (1896); the next year, while living in Rottingdean in Sussex, England, Caroline gave birth to their third child, a son named John, a war hero, who on September 27, 1915, was pronounced missing in action in northern France during the Battle of Loos.
By the late 1890s, Kipling's fame had spread, and he was considered a very popular writer of both children's and adult literature. He wrote his Just So Stories for his elder daughter, Josephine, who died from pneumonia at the age of six years. Other wildly famous works at the time include Stalky and Co. (1899), Kim (1901), perhaps his most noted work, and Puck of Pook's Hill (1906).
Kipling is often referred to as a British poet laureate, but he turned down that honor as well as the knighthood when they were offered to him in 1907. He did accept the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907; he was the first English writer to be awarded that honor.
The Kiplings moved into a 17th century home in East Sussex in 1902, and they lived there for the rest of their lives. Kipling continued to travel extensively, including many journeys back to India and trips to South Africa, where he spent time during the winter months.
After his son went missing in 1915 while serving in the Irish Guards, Kipling wrote a history of the regiment titled, "The Irish Guards in the Great War." John Kipling had originally been declared unfit for military service because of his acute myopia, but the young lad desired so strongly to serve that his father interceded to help enter his son into the Guards. Kipling searched for many years trying to find his son's remains, which were finally identified nearly a century after the soldier went missing.
Kipling was greatly affected by the MIA of his son; in addition to engaging many searches for the young soldier's remains, the father joined the Imperial War Graves Commission and was responsible for selecting inscriptions for memorials, for example, "Their Name Liveth For Evermore." He worked with Winston Churchill to have all war memorials of equal size despite the rank of the soldier.
Rudyard Kipling spent his last years in poor health, suffering from a severe ulcer, from which he died on January 18, 1936. His ashes are interred in Westminster Abbey in Poets' Corner next to the graves of poet/novelist Thomas Hardy and novelist Charles Dickens author of the widely famous A Christmas Carol.
Despite its early prominence in the literary world, Rudyard Kipling's reputation began to suffer in the 1890s and continued to decline as influential voices such as Oscar Wilde, George Orwell, and Edward Said began to express negative views of Kipling.
In his glib fashion, Oscar Wilde opined: "As one turns over the pages of his Plain Tales from the Hills, one feels as if one were seated under a palm-tree, reading life by superb flashes of vulgarity."
George Orwell, whose general view of Kipling remained positive, in 1942 offered the disparaging remark that "during five literary generations every enlightened person has despised him" as "morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting."
Edward Said, dubbed "The False Prophet of Palestine," who fabricated his own biography, has declaimed, "Kipling could not imagine an India in historical flux out of British control." Refuting Said’s remark, Sam Joridson has responded, "Kipling can be accused of many things, but I’d say a lack of imagination is not one of them."
Because of fallacious comments such as those from Wilde, Orwell, Said, the media, and from the American professorate, a blurred, inaccurate narrative surrounding Rudyard Kipling has been repeated so often that it has gripped Western culture.
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Rescuing and Rehabilitating
T. S. Eliot remarked about Kipling, " . . . it is impossible to belittle Kipling." But Eliot's critical essays about Kipling hinge on making a distinction between Kipling's fiction, for which Eliot considers Kipling a master and Kipling's poetry, for which Eliot considers the novelist less masterful. Thus Eliot's attempt to rehabilitate Kipling went only so far, and likely had little effect of the ilk that continued to label Kipling a racist and a misogynist.
Among those currently who are attempting to restore Rudyard Kipling to his rightful place in the literary world as a writer and political thinker is David Gilmour, whose biography, The Long Recessional, offers analyses that serve to take the sting out of many of the barbs lobbed against Kipling over the decades. According to John Gross, whose review appears in The Telegraph,
you close The Long Recessional with enhanced respect for Kipling, especially after reading the closing pages. He saw the threat of Hitler from the first. His last years — he died in 1936 — were overshadowed by his premonition of the conflict to come, and in the Second World War, as Gilmour justly claims, he had his posthumous vindication.
Critic and editor of The New Criterion, Roger Kimball, credits a zeitgeist shift with the "de-claw[ing] and domesticat[ing of] Rudyard Kipling, that gradually diminished that brusque and imposing giant to an entertaining homunculus." Kimball says, "Kipling’s politics suddenly became a popular as well as an elite embarrassment."
That Rudyard Kipling had been a widely read author presented a problem for those whose political leanings had shifted with that zeitgeist. Having committed to memory Kipling's many memorable lines, quoters engaged a level of disingenuousness that can only be labeled shameful. For example, as Kimball explains,
It got to the point where people who had absorbed Kipling unwittingly suppressed his authorship. Orwell notes that Middleton Murry, quoting Kipling’s famous lines "There are nine and sixty ways / Of constructing tribal lays," mistakenly attributed them to Thackeray. Kipling might have written good poetry, but it wasn’t good for poetry to have been written by Kipling. Sanitizing Kipling, segregating his political and social opinions from his literary accomplishment, has had the unfortunate effect of diminishing the appreciation or even the knowledge of that accomplishment.
Roger Kimball's essay, "Rudyard Kipling Unburdened," appearing in April 2008 in The New Criterion, can be considered one of the most comprehensive pieces to rehabilitate the reputation of Rudyard Kipling. Kimball debunks the often misunderstood lines that have served to tarnish Kipling's reputation. For example, the line with the phrase, "lesser breeds," had inflamed the politically correct for decades. "Lesser breeds" appears in Kipling's poem, "Recessional," an occasional poem written for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee:
If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe—
Such boasting as the Gentiles use
Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget — lest we forget!
About the misunderstanding of these lines, Kimball explains,
As Orwell noted, the line about "lesser breeds" "is always good for a snigger in pansy-left circles." But it doesn’t refer, as Orwell also noted, to "coolies" being kicked about "by pukka sahib in a pith helmet" but rather to the awe-less multitudes "without the Law," Germans, first of all, but also anyone who glorified power without restraint or obeisance.
Another set of lines that cause the "pansy-left" to cringe is the one containing the reference to "white": "Take up the White Man’s burden—/ And reap his old reward: / The blame of those ye better, / The hate of those ye guard—." But again, the term "white" does not refer to skin color, or to finite imperialists; it refers to "civilization" of "those who conduct themselves within the Law for the good of others"; thus "Gunga Din may have a ‘dirty’ hide, but he is ‘white, clear white, inside.'"
It is certainly sad and shameful that a set of events, including misunderstandings real or concocted, may be allowed to tarnish a good man's reputation. Nevertheless, the "gullible and feeble" will always be with us, and as Evelyn Waugh, elucidated:
Kipling believed civilization to be something laboriously achieved which was only precariously defended. He wanted to see the defenses fully manned and he hated the liberals because he thought them gullible and feeble, believing in the easy perfectibility of man and ready to abandon the work of centuries for sentimental qualms.
It remains to be seen whether the Kipling reputation can ever be restored to its original luster. One can hope that those reading his works today can at least take the time to learn some history. As Andrew Roberts has asserted,
The abuse of Kipling has been long and sustained, yet his works might prove our ideal cultural reference for the next stages of the war against terror: he warned that imperialists could only expect "the blame of those ye better, / The hate of those ye guard."
Let more critical thinkers come forward to rehabilitate the reputation of Rudyard Kipling, who was both a great writer and a decent, humane, and loving man. He understood both Western and Eastern culture with a clearer insight than many of his contemporaries, whose dabbling has left too many Westerners with a garbled, incomplete knowledge of the East.
- Editors. "Rudyard Kipling." Biography. Original: April 27, 2017. Updated: October 21, 2019.
- Bataween. "Exposing Edward Said as Academic Fraud." Point of No Return. August 26, 2014.
- Justus Weiner. "The False Prophet of Palestine: In the Wake of the Edward Said Revelations." Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. January 16, 2000.
- David Rose. "Blue Roses and Green Carnations: Intertextual Readings of Rudyard Kipling and Oscar Wilde." Kipling Society. Accessed August 15, 2021.
- George Orwell. "Rudyard Kipling." The Complete Works of George Orwell. 2003.
- Sam Jordison. "Reading beyond Rudyard Kipling's Imperial Crimes: The Complexities of Kim." The Telegraph. January 12, 2016.
- T. S. Eliot. "Rudyard Kipling." A Choice of Kipling’s Verse. 1941. Internet Archive.
- John Gross. "How Right Was Kipling." The Telegraph. March 5, 2002.
- Roger Kimball. "Rudyard Kipling Unburdened." The New Criterion. April 2008.
- John Derbyshire. "Waugh on Kipling." National Review. April 30, 2008.
- Andrew Roberts. "At last, Kipling Is Saved from the Ravages of Political Correctness." The Telegraph. May 13, 2003.
© 2020 Linda Sue Grimes
Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on August 14, 2021:
Thank you for your response, MG Singe emge.
The line that includes "white man's burden" requires interpretation that those steeped in the political correctness of identity politics have misinterpreted for far too long, and Roger Kimball and others have offered reliable elucidations. However, those responsible for denigrating Kipling’s reputation will likely never bother to learn of their misreading.
Kipling's knowledge of India has benefited the West, and instead of disparaging his reputation, these many generations of writers and thinkers should join in the restoration of his reputation as an important voice in the literary world.
MG Singh emge from Singapore on December 22, 2020:
This was a fascinating article on Kipling. He was the exponent of the British Raj and made that famous comment regarding " white man's burden". All the same his writings about India in particular his Novel Kim is wonderful.
Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on December 22, 2020:
Hi, John - Nice to hear from you. Yes, Kipling is one of the best. It's always such a pathetic display when identify politics is used as a weapon against good writers. Thanks for the info about Allen's book. Looks like an interesting read. I do hope Kipling's reputation can be completely restored. Of course, his works have remained quite popular, and that is perhaps the best indication of his true worth to the literary world.
John Hansen from Gondwana Land on December 21, 2020:
I loved this article, Linda. I have always been a fan of Kipling (his poetry too.) A friend of mine's uncle Charles Allen actually wrote a book on him called "Kipling Sahib": https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kipling_Sahib