[Thanks to James Heffernan, founder and editor-in-chief of Review 19 for sharing this review with readers of the Victorian Web. Thackeray created the illuminated “I” for Vanity FairGeorge P. Landow.]

Illuminated initial i

n 1976 Margaret Thatcher chose for her holiday reading the collected poems of her favorite poet, Rudyard Kipling. In that hot summer she read through all 845 poems. Had she lived to consult Thomas Pinney's edition her task would have been a good deal more demanding, for his three volumes include around 1400 poems. Pinney's is a prodigious feat of scholarship that no individual could have accomplished alone. He acknowledges special debts to Andrew Rutherford, whose Early Verse by Rudyard Kipling (1986) so widely extended the canon; to Barbara Rosenbaum's description of no less than 2,309 Kipling items in the Index of English Manuscripts; and to David Alan Richards's recent Rudyard Kipling: A Bibliography (2010). But even after all this is granted, Pinney's achievement remains remarkable. He has himself discovered some fifty poems in a variety of places, some of them unexpected: in a New York house undergoing restoration, in the papers of a former director of the Cunard Line, in the possession of the daughter of one of Kipling's godchildren. But the labor involved in that detective work pales in comparison with the task of collation. Kipling published his poetry more widely and more variously than any other poet before or since. He published on four continents and in all kinds of outlets, from sophisticated literary magazines to local newspapers in India, Canada, Australia, South Africa and elsewhere, and many of the poems were extensively revised for their publication in volume form. Given Kipling's publication habits it is inconceivable that no new poems will be discovered in the future, but it seems unlikely that new discoveries will change significantly the view of Kipling's achievement that emerges from Pinney's magisterial volumes.

Much work remains. Many of Kipling's poems are topical and need extensive annotation if they are to be fully understood. Pinney's notes are helpful, as when he points out that the early poem "A New Departure" (1883) responds to the Ilbert Bill, which had authorized native judges to try British citizens (Kipling was not in favour). But the notes are sporadic and, as Pinney acknowledges, vestigial. He directs the reader to the Kipling Society website commentary on the poems, whose online format easily allows expansion and revision, but the commentary is as yet uneven and touches only a small fraction of the poems. Nevertheless, Pinney has produced for the first time a text and a textual history of the poems that can claim full authority.

In their scholarship and in their handsome production, these three volumes seem firmly to establish Kipling's status as a major English poet, and yet in his introduction Pinney stops short of any such claim. "Kipling as a poet," he writes, "will doubtless continue to attract admirers and to provoke detractors, and no one can say which of the two will prevail in determining the public judgment of his achievement" (xlvii). One might have thought that the matter had long ago been decided. It was not eccentric of Margaret Thatcher to have fixed on Kipling as her favourite poet. In 1995, after all, a public vote identified "If" as the nation's favourite poem. But both decisions have been adduced as evidence that Margaret Thatcher and the British public lack a genuine taste for poetry at all. "If" is admired by readers who hold that poems ought to give memorable expression to admirable sentiments. "If" is not likely to be a favourite poem of those who do not accept that poetry is primarily a vehicle for the expression of sentiments, nor of those who disapprove of the sentiments expressed.

The common objections to Kipling are persuasive. It may be that his popular appeal depends on his refusal of the formal experiments that characterise the poetry of his contemporaries. He may belong with poets such as the Canadian Robert Service, or the Australian Banjo Paterson, differing from them only in that his views have a greater power to embarrass. For what other English poet does the expression "the white man" denote not just an ethnic identity but an ethical ideal? But Kipling retains what a poet such as Service lacks: the capacity to surprise. Who could have predicted, for example, that it should have been Kipling who in 1919 wrote the fitting epitaph for all those unfortunate First World War soldiers cruelly executed for cowardice?

I could not look on Death, which being known,
Men led me to him, blindfold and alone. ("The Coward")

Robert Service and Banjo Paterson are national poets who inspire an affection more or less confined to their countrymen. In this too Kipling might seem their counterpart. But Thomas Pinney is an American scholar, and the critic who first and still most influentially put the case for Kipling's major status was also American born. In his introduction to A Choice of Kipling's Verse (1941), T. S. Eliot notes Kipling's "universal foreignness": his deep affection for India, for the Empire, for England and for Sussex, Eliot writes, coincides with "a remoteness as of an alarmingly intelligent visitor from another planet." (Eliot, Introduction, 1963 edn. 23). In the dedicatory poem to The Seven Seas (1896), Kipling describes what it is like to find oneself in a foreign city, the feeling that besets one of being "[d]azed and newly alone," and many of the poems seem written out of just such a mood. It may be the foreignness of Pinney and Eliot that alerts them to the peculiar virtues of Kipling's verse. His imperialist poems celebrate the perspective of the outsider, of the man who lives and works far from England, and may-- like Kipling himself -- have been born far from it. This patriotism of the outsider is what makes his version of imperialism so peculiarly generous. The soldiers and the civil servants who spend their lives thousands of miles from England know bigger skies and wider horizons than those who are confined to English shores. The Boer war veteran of "Chant-Pagan" (1903) finds when he returns to England that "there's somethin' gone small." England with its " 'ouses both sides of the street" is a sad contrast to the Veldt with its "valleys as big as a shire," and the obligation to touch his hat when he meets "parson an' gentry" rankles in a man who has known the rough camaraderie of the campaign. His own countrymen seem somehow more foreign than the "Dutchman" he was fighting against. He dreams of going back to South Africa, echoing as he does so an Irishman feeling out of place in London. "I will arise an' get 'ence,'" he chants, in a cockney parody of the Irish Republican Yeats's "Lake Isle of Innisfree." Perhaps it is easier for the American than the English ear to attend to the complexities of feeling in such a poem.

T. S. Eliot is almost as reticent as Pinney in the claims he makes for Kipling. In the case of Kipling, he suspects, "the critical tools which we are accustomed to use in analysing and criticising poetry do not seem to work" (17). His poetry does pose special problems. Pinney has Kipling's authority for publishing independently the poems that were written to accompany prose stories, but if --as he says-- we cannot "appreciate the whole of a given poem's meaning" except in the context of the story (xlvii), then his edition refuses access to the full meaning of many of the poems that it reproduces--even though it presents them more fully and accurately than ever before.

But it seems still more important that so many of Kipling's poems seem written in a manner that resists analysis. His preferred form, as Eliot notes, is the ballad. A verse form that has survived for centuries and spread over much of the world is clearly well suited to a poet so interested in wide expanses of space and time. Kipling's Sussex poems are archaeological. The sound of his footsteps as he walks the lanes echoes the tramp of the Roman legions. Poems such as "Chant-Pagan" hanker after space, "the shine an' the size / Of the 'igh, unexpressible skies." And yet the ballad is of all poetic forms the most resistant to verbal analysis.

In the whole of his introduction Eliot offers just one comment on Kipling's use of words. Of a single line from "Danny Deever" (1890), "'What's that that whimpers over'ead?' said Files-on-Parade," Eliot writes that "the word whimper" seems "exactly right." (Is it pure coincidence that the world ends with "a whimper" in Eliot's own "Hollow Men" (1925)?) There are moments as remarkable scattered all the way through these three volumes: the distress that falls unannounced from "the unhinting sky" ("Dedication" to The Five Nations [1903]), the city traffic "slurring" through the London mud ("The Broken Men" [1902]), the quick ear that registers "the click of the restless girders / As the steel contracts in the cold" ("Bridge-Guard in the Karroo" [1901]). But no one would look to Kipling for the natural magic that Arnold thought so characteristic of British poetry.

His admirers relish the swing of the verse, but his rhythmic effects can be surprisingly delicate. In "My Boy Jack" (1916), the line that closes the first two stanzas is tremulous, "Not with this wind blowing and this tide." The third may end with a cadence too emphatically heroic, "Not even with that wind blowing and that tide," but the emphasis allows the fourth stanza to close the poem with a cadence adequate to the nobility of the sacrifice of a young life and to its sadness, "And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!" Nevertheless Kipling's metrical effects rarely prompt the delighted astonishment that Hardy elicits in poem after poem. Nor does Kipling offer the privileged access to an interior life that is often expected of lyric poets. In an early poem included in Departmental Ditties Kipling complains of the presumption that "The Singer generally sings / Of personal and private things," and admits that he is powerless to dispel the "pet delusion" ("La Nuit Blanche" [1887]). But his poems do nothing to support it. He prefers speaking in voices other than his own, and even the assumed voices tend to be generic rather than individual. He favours anonymous characters such as the officer of the Indian Civil Service, Tommy Atkins, or "Sergeant Whatsisname" ("Pharaoh and the Sergeant" [1897]), so that the music hall seems as much of an influence on his handling of the dramatic monologue as Browning is.

Pinney is no more willing than Eliot to predict what "the public judgement" of Kipling's achievement will turn out to be. In 1941 Eliot was a good deal more confident that Kipling was a great verse-writer than a great poet, and he spends the greater part of his introduction worrying away at the distinction between the two without ever quite succeeding in making it clear. Kipling seems just as unsure himself of his poetic status. His schoolboy poems include many parodies. He mimics Tennyson, Browning, and Morris with reasonable facility, though the parody of Burns is amongst the very worst ever perpetrated: "Hoots ! toots! ayont, ahint, afore, / The bleth'rin' blast may blathe and blaw" ("The Indian Farmer at Home" [1884]). But even these poems seem less like schoolroom exercises than poems in which Kipling is beginning to question where he might fit in a tradition of English poetry that seems to him disconcertingly alien. In "Amour de Voyage" (1884), for example, a poem commemorating a fleeting shipboard romance, the world-weary cynicism seems an unlikely and unattractive posture for a nineteen-year-old to assume: "And what is a month in love but an age? / And who in their senses would wish for more?" But perhaps the poem is an exercise in the manner of a poet such as Arthur Symons that contrives to represent the manner as almost as foreign as Burns's.

The "universal foreignness" that Eliot so astutely recognized in Kipling goes beyond geography. It defines his relation to the whole tradition of poetry within which and against which he writes. The early "Sestina of the Tramp-Royal" (1896) may be uncharacteristic in its verse form, but it is typical of much of Kipling's verse in its jaunty effrontery: "Speakin' in general, I 'ave tried 'em all -- / The 'appy roads that take you o'er the world." Kipling wears the courtly verse form as the tramp might wear some discarded top hat he had come across. The effect is still more pronounced in another poem of the same year, "When 'Omer smote 'is bloomin' lyre." Kipling's posture may be defensive, the self-protective stratagem of a poet who feels his lack of a university education, but he assumes it with a winning swagger. In "The Song of the Banjo" from the same volume, he offers the banjo with its "Pilly-willy-winky-winky-popp" as figuring his own poetry more appropriately than the lyre. It seems a self-deprecating choice, and yet it allows the boast that banjo poetry can function in rougher terrain than poetry with more pretensions:

You couldn't pack a Broadwood half a mile --
You mustn't leave a fiddle in the damp --
You couldn't raft an organ up the Nile,
And play it in an Equatorial swamp.

Although Kipling had next to nothing in common with the Modernists who were his contemporaries, he shared with a Modernist such as the French painter Picabia's fascination with machines. In "The Secret of the Machines" (1911), they speak for themselves:

We were cast and wrought and hammered to design,
We were cut and filed and tooled and gauged to fit.

Kipling evidently means to suggest an analogy between the excellence of their construction and of the poem that celebrates them. But for Picabia the machine becomes a work of art only when it is stripped of its function, whereas for Kipling the beauty of the machine is a product of its functionality. "McAndrew's Hymn" (1893) may borrow a rhetoric from Burns's "Holy Willie's Prayer," but Kipling's engineer, despite his sexual incontinence, is almost wholly sympathetic. Kipling clearly admires his willingness to understand engineering as a kind of worship: "From coupler-flange to spindle guide I see Thy Hand, O God." The shipowner who speaks "The Mary Gloster," written in the following year, is less winning. The contempt with which he views his son's rooms may express something of Kipling's feelings towards his decadent contemporaries:

you muddled with books and pictures, an' china an' etchin's an' fans,
And your rooms at college was beastly -- more like a whore's than a man's.

But the disreputable old man is disgusted not just by his son's effeminacy but also by his contempt for the workaday world within which the father has acquired the wherewithal to finance his son's lifestyle.

Throughout his career, Kipling was intolerant of the notion that poetry might, like china and fans, simply be decorative. If, as Auden was to put it, "poetry makes nothing happen," then so much the worse for poetry is what Kipling seems to have felt. Poetry should work for its living, which is why so many of his poems are written to the moment, in response to particular events; a legislative decision, a military setback, a political campaign. The poems respond to newspaper reports and Kipling often chose to publish them first in the newspapers that carried the reports. Kipling was not in any ordinary sense an experimental poet. Yet in retrospect he may be recognized as having conducted the boldest experiment of all: the attempt to restore poetry to the place it had once held but had long since abandoned at the center of the public life of the nation. Whether the attempt demands a reassessment of Kipling's status as a poet remains to be seen, but the three handsome volumes housing Thomas Pinney's formidable scholarly achievement lay before the reader for the first time all the materials on which any such reassessment must be founded.


The Cambridge Edition of the Poems of Rudyard Kipling. Ed. Thomas Pinney. Cambridge, 2013. 3 vols, xlviii + 2349 pp.

Last modified 22 June 2014