Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Orwell on Kipling

The title of this post alone ought to be enough convince you (Men of Letters, all) to read this. Both Orwell and Kipling were complicated men who are difficult to pigeonhole into a particular political box. I think Orwell gives a very interesting and balanced portrayal (even where I don't agree with it all). As a matter of aesthetics I find Kipling's poetry to be amongst my favourites. There is much wisdom condensed in poems such as "The Gods of the Copybook Headings", and "If'", and if they are popular to the point of cliche, it is only because they resonate with so many people. I also think that Kipling had a wonderful ear for rhyme and rhythym, almost unmatched in poetry. Orwell can only muster the backhanded compliment of him writing 'good bad poetry'. But I think that the snobbery that attached to Kipling-haters (of which Orwell doesn't seem to be one, exactly) has become less important. I attribute this to the fact that the distinction between those who enjoy good poetry vs. bad poetry has been dwarfed today by the distinction between those who read or think about any poetry at all vs.the rest. In that sense, those today who like any poets have much more in common with each other (relative to everybody else) than they used to.

There are a lot of interesting observations, such as this one about Kipling and the Indian literary tradition:
One must say of this, as of what Kipling wrote about nineteenth-century Anglo-India, that it is not only the best but almost the only literary picture we have... It took a very improbable combination of circumstances to produce Kipling's gaudy tableau, in which Private Ortheris and Mrs. Hauksbee pose against a background of palm trees to the sound of temple bells, and one necessary circumstance was that Kipling himself was only half civilized.
I think he hits the mark with some criticisms, such as the accents that soldiers in the poems speak in:
[T]his accounts for the curious fact that one can often improve Kipling's poems, make them less facetious and less blatant, by simply going through them and transplanting them from Cockney into standard speech.
And others which I'm not entirely sold on the premise of, but are interesting nonetheless:
It is notable that Kipling does not seem to realize, any more than the average soldier or colonial administrator, that an empire is primarily a money-making concern. Imperialism as he sees it is a sort of forcible evangelizing. You turn a Gatling gun on a mob of unarmed "natives," and then you establish "the Law," which includes roads, railways and a court-house. He could not foresee, therefore, that the same motives which brought the Empire into existence would end by destroying it. It was the same motive, for example, that caused the Malayan jungles to be cleared for rubber estates, and which now causes those estates to be handed over intact to the Japanese.
But the overall picture gives an interesting view of some of the world views that make Kipling so enyoyable :
Although he had no direct connexion with any political party, Kipling was a Conservative, a thing that does not exist nowadays. Those who now call themselves Conservatives are either Liberals, Fascists or the accomplices of Fascists. He identified himself with the ruling power and not with the opposition. In a gifted writer this seems to us strange and even disgusting, but it did have the advantage of giving Kipling a certain grip on reality. The ruling power is always faced with the question, "In such and such circumstances, what would you do?", whereas the opposition is not obliged to take responsibility or make any real decisions. 
 As they say, read the whole thing.

(Via Andrew Bolt )

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