Cover of the book under review. [Click on this
and the following images to enlarge them.]

The title of Alexander Bubb's scholarly monograph, Meeting Without Knowing It, comes from Foucault's The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969), and there are other signs too of its origin in a doctoral thesis, including its extensive scholarly apparatus. But its central idea is quite straightforward. It is that while Rudyard Kipling and W. B. Yeats never set eyes on or even corresponded with each other, and took different stands on some major issues, their writings reveal "an unintentional collaboration," as well as "an unacknowledged rivalry" (13). In his introduction Bubb also indicates that he will view both of them as freighted with the legacy of the Romantics (something far less contentious in the case of Yeats), and will treat the fin de siècle itself as a "phase of late Romanticism" (13).

Writings of the same period, however different in character, inevitably reflect something of their own times, and jostle with each other as they draw on the same ferment of intellectual ideas and cultural values. Foucault uses the idea as a basis for the kind of methodology that interests Bubb, and that the latter largely adopts. Rejecting the concept of linear development espoused by theorists like Weber or Levi-Strauss, Foucault proposes instead a "'discursive formation' as a conceptual framework comfortable with the dispersedness and contradiction inherent in the development of an idea or ideology" (qtd., 7). Bubb finds Foucault's approach encapsulated in this key sentence from The Archaeology of Knowledge:

Different oeuvres, dispersed books, that whole mass of texts that belongs to single discursive formation — and so many authors who know or do not know one another, criticize one another, invalidate one another, pillage one another, meet without knowing it, and obstinately intersect their unique discourses in a web of which they are not the masters, of which they cannot see the whole. [8]

In the present study, therefore, Bubb probes both authors, bringing out the influences on them of their individual experiences and shared times, and the crosscurrents flowing between their oeuvres, in such a way as to draw them unexpectedly close to each other despite their divergent views. By its very nature, and by his chosen focus on the years up to 1906, his book also explores in depth the closing years of the nineteenth century and their immediate aftermath, before Kipling's star faded and Yeats's reached new heights. A mark of this swing towards Yeats is that Kipling won the Nobel Prize in 1907, while Yeats won it in 1923.

Portrait of Kipling by William Strang, in 1898.

Kipling and Yeats make a good pair for such a study. Both born in 1865, they were almost exact contemporaries, with Kipling dying first in 1936 and Yeats only a few years later in 1939. Despite Bubb's recourse to Foucault with his dislike of linearity, the chapters do progress in a generally chronological way from his chosen authors' childhoods and later revisitings of them, towards their emergence in their thirties as established authors. There is useful background here on both writers, and Bubb's approach bears fruit at once: both were born into artistic families, absorbing what Bubb calls the "decorative sensibility" (131) of those mid- to late-Victorian years, and the whole complex of ideas that flourished then, around heroism, mythology and nostalgia for old ideals. All these had a special resonance in their particular circumstances: their respective Anglo-Indian and Anglo-Irish experiences proved to be as formative as they were fractured. Most significantly, the intellectual atmosphere in which the two grew up was "pregnant — but not yet alive — with imperial intent and nationalist implications" (45).

Yeats in 1911, photographed by George Charles Beresford,
© National Portrait Gallery, London. [Click on the
image for more information.]

These elements can all be followed through into their work, appearing in a variety of ways: their common interest in folklore as an expression of national identity, for instance, something long recognised in the case of Yeats; their shared predilection for the traditional and plangent ballad form (both were given to humming along or chanting while composing); and their respective leanings towards the occult, in which fragmentation could be healed. The quest for an alternative way of fulfilling spiritual needs was, of course, very much a feature of the age — just as its failure was a feature of the years that followed, when both later adopted a bardic stance or "vatic posture" (238), prophesying doom. In their respective poems, Kipling's "The Gods of the Copybook Headings" and Yeats's "Second Coming," for example, both warn of the terrible destiny that awaits us, when the so-called march of progress leads us away from the tenets of civilised society towards "terror and slaughter" (Kipling), or a brutal rebirth of barbarism (Yeats). Bubb sees each of these authors, in their own ways, as late Romantics who eventually succumbed to pessimism, and effectively heralded the advent of modernism.

As for the political divide, Bubb has to acknowledge that these almost exact contemporaries were political opponents. As the Boer War loomed in 1899, and Kipling rallied public sentiment to the imperialist cause, Yeats pilloried him by proclaiming in a public lecture in Dublin that "Shakespeare was no Rudyard Kipling" (qtd. p. 220). And as Kipling became more and more directly identified with the cause, and anti-imperialist sentiment grew in Ireland, with Maud Gonne herself organising support for the Boers, the two major literary figures of the age were inevitably pitted against each other on the issue. At this point they were hardly "unacknowledged" rivals. Nevertheless, when Bubb looks at their backgrounds and reads their work in tandem, he is able to argue convincingly that their contrasting affiliations, to imperialism on the one hand and nationalism on the other, no less than their other preoccupations, derived from contemporary discourse, ran side by side, and even intersected. Were they not both, after all, expressing "the notions of the romantic or heroic" that they had absorbed in their youth (11)? Both had their reservations, too, about the causes to which they were committed. Yeats, for example, felt that such heroic rebellion would produce only what he called in "Easter 1916" the "terrible beauty" of tragic self-sacrifice.

It must have been disappointing not to find any record of a meeting, or even correspondence, between these two authors. But Yeats did collect newspaper cuttings about their different approaches to the Boer War. The cartoon detail on Bubb's front cover also shows how proximate the two men were in the literary firmament of the time. The sketch by Max Beerbohm is entitled "Members of the Academic Committee discussing whether at future meetings an Agenda Paper shall be provided, and, if so, what an earth to put into it," and it takes a wry look at top Royal Academicians, one or two of them in heated debate. A tall, lank and drooping Yeats is seen musing poetically in the top right-hand corner, while a squat Kipling (who was not actually present on the occasion) is shown looking on in the centre. Both men appear to have their eyes shut. Beerbohm clearly felt that this was not the kind of debate that they were going to be drawn into. One of Bubb's useful asides is about caricature as a "mode of publicity wielded with mastery in the Nineties" (127).

This "parallel reappraisal," as Bubb puts it in his final sentence, is dense, with many supporting in-text references to the two authors' works and letters, as well as hundreds of footnotes. But it is not without humour: one of the trends to which the two writers responded similarly, Bubb tells us, was the pursuit of manliness, promoted by Havelock Ellis through his essays on Neitzsche. Yeats duly took to fishing while Kipling, for his part, told a friend that the "only real thing" was "catching a four pound bass" (qtd., 127)! Perhaps in later books, when there is less to pack in, Bubb's style will loosen up a bit. As it is, he gives us a great deal of material here and succeeds in two worthy aims: demonstrating that these two authors were, for all their opposing views, in some ways closer to each other than we might have realised; and bringing into sharper focus the fin de siècle itself, that fascinating cultural period in which they both played important roles. Bubb has also, undoubtedly, contributed to the on-going rehabilitation of Kipling's reputation. This rather surprising project has turned out to be a curiously rewarding one.


Bubb, Alexander. Meeting Without Knowing It: Kipling and Yeats at the Fin de Siècle. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. Hardcover. viii + 272 pp. £58.50. ISBN 978-0-19-875387-2.

9 July 2021