Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Should We Kill Kipling?

Dear Everyone:

Today I offer one of the most popular and sneered-at poems every written. There's much to be said on both sides. But to begin with, read the poem with an open and sympathetic mind. Try your best to hear and appreciate it exactly as Kipling meant you to:

by Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream–and not make dreams your master,
If you can think–and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings–nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much,
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And–which is more–you'll be a Man, my son!

So... what do you think? Moving? Ripe? Both? These are all valid reactions. The two most common reasons for disliking this poem are 1) overexposure, and 2) a dislike for people who offer advice at length. For the first, there is no cure – people do pass this around too much, and once you've heard "In A Gadda Da Vida" five hundred times, you'll never want to hear it again. But for the second, it helps to remember that Kipling is trying to be helpful. He's offering the distilled wisdom that a lifetime of being knocked down and getting right back up again has taught him.

The big criticism of Kipling, though, is that he was the mouthpiece of the British Empire, the jingoistic sloganeer, the man who perceived and embodied the Victorian spirit in all its brave, foolish, world-conquering bulletheadedness. When applied to his best (and usually early) work, this is cruelly unfair. But there's no getting around the fact that success turned him into the guy who wrote "The White Man's Burden" and such lines as, "Oh, it's Tommy this and Tommy that, And shove ‘im out, the brute. But it's savior of ‘is nation, When the guns begin to shoot."

And certainly, in this poem, you can see the distilled essence of the shared values and attitudes that allowed the British to conquer half the world in, as one historian put it, "a fit of absent-mindedness." There's a story of a seven-year-old Victorian English girl in India who fell out of a tree while playing and broke her arm, but went on playing for another half-hour because she knew she was expected to not show weakness before the natives. If you read George MacDonald Fraser's wonderfully comic Flashman novels, you'll see that exact same attitude examined by somebody who finds it kind of weird and creepy.

On the positive side, the poem is clear and lucid – and isn't that a relief after some of the stuff we've plowed through? We know exactly what Kipling was trying to tell us. And his formal command of the language is astounding. The rhyme scheme (ABAB, repeated endlessly) ought to make the poem sound singsong and yet it doesn't. How did he do that?

There are lots of cunning bits of craft hidden in the poem so openly that you probably missed them entirely. To mention just one: The fact that the poem is addressed to the narrator's son isn't revealed until the very final word. Which, since the reader has been receiving the poem as a direct admonition directed at him, turns him into the poet's son, and Kipling into his father. A very powerful relationship has thus been imposed, and absolutely without resistance on the reader's part!

But the key question is, does the poem work? That is, is it of actual help in the messy business of living? And the answer is, I think, on balance, yes. Not as a self-improvement program -- it contains a near-infinite number of goals and no advice on how to reach them -- but as a way of making the reader brave. I'm sure there have been any number of times when somebody faced adversity and defeat and drew strength from these lines in the form of a determination to be THAT kind of man, one who can force his "heart and nerve and sinew" to act hopeful, courageous, and strong, long after hope, courage, and strength have left him.

Yes, it's a hokey poem. Yeah, if you successfully internalize it, you'll be a massively repressed Type-A personality. But anything that helps you when times are hard is to be cherished. And, even at its worst, it's like the parson's egg – parts of it are excellent.

So, on balance, I think we'll let Kipling live.

Tomorrow, a rather different poem on the subject of courage

All best,


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