Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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Some Aspects Of Kipling’s Poems — Part I

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 28, 2007

Man: “Do you like Kipling?”
Woman: “You silly, I do not know, I never Kippled”
— Conversation on a postcard that held Guinness record for maximum sales

I always wondered why poems – atleast some of them — appeal more than the best of the prose that we have ever read? I think it is so because poems carry with them four important qualities that make them shine viz. the power of imagery, the power of abstraction, the power of rhyming and the power of brevity. As a consequence of the combination of these four qualities in various degrees, the job and purpose of a detailed and descriptive paragraph is very well met by two lines or a single stanza of a poem. Also the power of rhyming aids in holding an image in mind – probably some sort of visual mnemonics at play. The appeal of abstraction is because it takes us to a higher plane of existence although it may be momentary – equivalent of an emotional high. However, in all this one should not downplay the importance of the cultural context that is necessary for understanding and enjoying a poem. The cultural context very often forms the backdrop or setting against which these four powers show their strength.

Personally, I am a prose lover and like the majority, I need to force myself to read poetry. But whenever I did read poetry, I came back happier, satisfied and with a lingering feeling of being more humane and with a hint of existence of a greater wisdom that is outside of me. Also there is a very assuring sense that some thing that I felt and desperately wanted to say but could not for want of appropriate words got said by others who I do not even know. More importantly they resonate as if they were my own thoughts. This to me is the ever present demonstration of life’s interconnectedness which is a wholesome and exhilarating feeling.

Consider two examples of the play of the poetic powers that I referred to above:

We cleansed our beards of the mutton-grease,
We lay on the mats and were filled with peace,
And the talk slid north, and the talk slid south,
With the sliding puffs from the hookah-mouth

                                          – The Ballads of King’s Jest

What a great way to describe the post dinner state of a human being! There is rhyming, there is brevity and there is superb imagery but is there abstraction? – I am not sure. What is the cultural context here? Beards, mats, mutton-grease and hookah  — where are they to be found? Most probably it will be Middle East or Afghanistan – the picture is complete.  Imagine what an effort it would be to come up with an equivalent description in prose

Alternately consider this

What chariots, what horses
Against us shall bide
While the Stars in their courses
Do fight on our side

                            – An Astrologer’s Song
The above is a marvelous piece that is describing the power of an individual’s fate as an assurance against potential adversities. Once again there is rhyming, brevity and superb abstraction. But what of imagery?  While it is alive, it appears a little weak. Does it need a cultural context to understand what is being said? The answer is a NO

What has all that got to do with this article?
Of late I have been browsing through a complete collection of Rudyard Kipling’s poems and it dawned on me that Kipling was not only a great novelist but also an impressive poet in his own right. Jungle Book and Kim were two of his novels that I enjoyed myself thoroughly. However, his poems are an area where his capabilities come out in full play. In his poems Kipling deals with a vast variety of themes that constitute universal essentials of life’s ordinary struggles. Given his time and place, the life’s struggles that Kipling deals in his poems play out in three distinct spheres. First is the sphere of the lives of English (The firangis) who came to India as part of the Raj. Second is the sphere where the citizens of Raj and natives operated – the former as rulers and the latter as ruled. Third is the sphere where the lives of the natives are seen through the eyes of the English adapting to the conditions of the sub continent. Of course there are many other spheres which I am not considering here

Kipling’s sense of humour was truly outstanding. Consider the poem “The Betrothed” (this will be an all time favourite of mine). Here a young man under the duress of an ultimatum from his fiancée to choose between her or his smoking habit is musing the options. Serene and high quality humour — all for ones taking. Note the following stanzas:

Open the old cigar-box, get me a Cuba stout,
For things are running crossways, and Maggie and I are out
………………………………………………………..
We quarreled about Havana’s — we fought o’er a good cheroot,
And I knew she is exacting, and she says I am a brute
…………………………………………………………..
Maggie is pretty to look at — Maggie’s a loving lass,
But the prettiest cheeks must wrinkle, the truest of loves must pass
…………………………………………………………………………
Maggie, my wife at fifty — grey and dour and old —
With never another Maggie to purchase for love or gold!
…………………………………………………………………….
Which is the better portion — bondage bought with a ring,
Or a harem of dusky beauties, fifty tied in a string?
……………………………………………………………………
This will the fifty give me, asking nought in return,
With only a Suttee’s passion — to do their duty and burn
………………………………………………………………….
A million surplus Maggies are willing to bear the yoke;
And a woman is only a woman, but a good Cigar is a Smoke.
…………………………………………………………………….
Light me another Cuba — I hold to my first-sworn vows.
If Maggie will have no rival, I’ll have no Maggie for Spouse!

Alternately, consider the poem Pagett M.P. Out here a prig of an official with assumed notions of promise of life in India arrives with pomp and boast only to beg to return to England within a few months of stay on account of the difficulties he faces  

Pagett M.P., was a liar, and a fluent liar therewith, –
He spoke of the Heat of India as “The Asian Solar Myth”

……………………………………………………………..
March came in with the koil. Pagett was cool and gay,
Called me a “bloated Brahmin,” talked of my “princely pay.”
…………………………………………………………………..
And I laughed as I drove from the station, but the mirth died on my lips
As I thought of fools like Pagett who write off their “Eastern Trips”
And the sneers of the traveled idiots who duly misgovern the land
And I prayed to the Lord to deliver another one into my hand

In the same league of comic master pieces is another poem called The post that fitted – where a crafty fellow uses the services of his benefactor to get a good job with the promise of marrying the benefactor’s daughter and ditch the daughter for his own former love feigning epileptic fits where the froth during the fits gets created using shaving cream

Did he, therefore, jilt Miss Boffkin — impulse of a baser mind?
No! He started epileptic fits of an appalling kind.
Of his modus operandi only this much I could gather: —
“Pears’s shaving sticks will give you little taste and lots of lather.”
……………………………………………………………
Four weeks later, Carrie Sleary read — and laughed until she wept —
Mrs. Boffkin’s warning letter on the “wretched epilept.” . . .
Year by year, in pious patience, vengeful Mrs. Boffkin sits
Waiting for the Sleary babies to develop Sleary’s fits

Imagine what the Indian sub continent would have looked like during the times of Kipling! There was no India nor Pakistan and no borders between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Burma too was part of the empire. Migration for the purposes of trade and livelihood was rampant. And there was a great intermingling of races, tribes, religions, language, people and practices. Kipling had a great eye for the nuances of the lives of natives and this manifested in his poems so very vividly that it unfailingly evokes a haunting nostalgia for a land that has changed forever due to the ravages of time and history. Consider the following extract from the poem “What Happened”

Hurree Chunder Mookerjee, pride of Bow Bazaar,
Owner of a native press, “Barrishter-at-Lar,”
…………………………………………………..
Yar Mahommed Yusufzai, down to kill or steal
Chimbu Singh of Bikaneer, Tantia the Bhil
Killar Khan the Marri Chief, Jowar singh the sikh
Nubbe Baksh Punjabi Jat; Abdul Huq rafiq
He was a Wahabi; last, little Boh hla-oo
Took advantage of the act – took a snider too

Note that just the names of the natives becomes rich material for poetry in the hands of Kipling. Alternately consider this brilliant observation of Kipling on the practice of animal sacrifice in the poem “Man and Beast in India” where a goat laments as follows:

I bear the sins of sinful men
That have no sin of my own,
They drive me forth to Heaven’s wrath
Unpastured and alone.

I am the meat of sacrifice,       
The ransom of man’s guilt,
For they give my life to the altar-knife
Wherever shrine is built

Kipling seems to have had a great ear for the native language for he employs a lot of Urdu words in his poems with an uncommon dexterity and ease.

Doubled taxes, cesses, all; cleared away each new-built thana;
Turned the two-lakh Hospital into a superb Zenana;
…………………………………………………………………………..
Happy, happy Kolazai! Never more will Rustum Beg
Play to catch his Viceroy’s eye. He prefers the “simpkin” peg
…………………………………………………………………………..
When spring-time flushes the desert grass,
Our kafilas wind through the Khyber Pass

Over a period of time Kipling seemed to have developed a sympathetic view of the East: its people, culture and practices. There are many poems of his where he dwells on these topics. Consider this outstanding poem titled The Ballad of East and West – a near soul stirring poem where the robbery of a horse of an English Colonel by an eastern chieftan is set right by the colonel’s son involving life threatening adventure and in the end the colonel’s son and chieftan become friends with an immense respect for each other 

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!

The imagery is quite cinematic  in nature 

Alternately look at his poem titled Buddha at Kamakura and one finds a definite respect for the ways of East:

O ye who tread the Narrow Way
By Tophet-flare to Judgment Day,
Be gentle when “the heathen” pray
To Buddha at Kamakura!

To him the Way, the Law, apart,
Whom Maya held beneath her heart,
Ananda’s Lord, the Bodhisat,
  The Buddha of Kamakura
…………………………………………
And whoso will, from Pride released,
Contemning neither creed nor priest,
May feel the Soul of all the East
About him at Kamakura

As I conclude Part 1 of this musing of mine about Kipling, I am reminded of a wonderful quote from Dorris Lessing – a compatriot – who won the Nobel Prize exactly after 100 years after Kipling which runs like this: “We have a treasure-house – a treasure – of literature, going back to the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans. It is all there, this wealth of literature, to be discovered again and again by whoever is lucky enough to come on it. A treasure. Suppose it did not exist. How impoverished, how empty we would be” —

True how empty we would be!! — Well I do not want to think about it

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2 Responses to “Some Aspects Of Kipling’s Poems — Part I”

  1. Sobhana Desikan said

    Hi,
    I was recommended your blog by a friend over a conversation about books and reading and found it very impressive to say the least…

    As I went through this particular post, I was wondering if you had also read Kipling’s “If”. The simplicity in narration blends with profoundity of thought to make it both richer and deeper as a poem…
    Would be interesting to read your comments on it!

    Sobhana

  2. Rishi said

    The other aspect I see in poetry as different from prose is that it assumes a substratum of wide knowledge that helps you make meaning of what is being presented and enjoy it. Refer to the “Buddha at Kamakura” – one needs to know what Maya is, the way is, the law is and who Tophet was, to make better sense. In several cases prose does work this way too, but this aspect is more natural to poetry.

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