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William Lyon Phelps Essay on Rudyard Kipling

by William Lyon Phelps

Mr. Rudyard Kipling is in the anomalous and fortunate position of having enjoyed a prodigious reputation for twenty years, and being still a young man. Few writers in the world to-day are better known than he; and it is to be hoped and expected that he has before him over thirty years of active production. He has not yet attained the age of forty-five; but his numerous stories, novels, and poems have reached the unquestioned dignity of "works," and in uniform binding they make on my library shelves a formidable and gallant display. Foreigners read them in their own tongues; critical essays in various languages are steadily accumulating; and he has received the honour of being himself the hero of a strange French novel.[15] His popularity with the general mass of readers has been sufficient to satisfy the wildest dreams of an author's ambition; and his fame is, in a way, officially sanctioned by the receipt of honorary degrees from McGill University, from Durham, from Oxford, and from Cambridge; and in 1907 he was given the Nobel Prize, with the[Pg 209] ratifying applause of the whole world. There is no indication that either the shouts of the mob or the hoods of Doctorates have turned his head; he remains to-day what he always has been—a hard, conscientious workman, trying to do his best every time.

Although Mr. Kipling is British to the core, there is nothing insular about his experience; he is as much-travelled as Ulysses.

"For always roaming with a hungry heartMuch have I seen and known: cities of men,And manners, climates, councils, governments,Myself not least, but honour'd of them all."

Born in India, educated at an English school, circumnavigator of the globe, he is equally at home in the snows of the Canadian Rockies, or in the fierce heat east of Suez; in the fogs of the Channel, or under the Southern Cross at Capetown. Nor is he a mere sojourner on the earth: he has lived for years in his own house, in England, in Vermont, and in India, and has had abundant opportunity to compare the climate of Brattleboro with that of Bombay.

A born journalist and reporter, his publications first saw the light in ephemeral Indian sheets. In the late eighties he began to amuse himself with the composition of squibs of verse, which he printed in the local newspaper; these became popular, and[Pg 210] were cited and sung with enthusiasm. Emboldened by this first taste of success, he put together a little volume bound like a Government report; he then sent around reply post-cards for cash orders, in the fashion already made famous by Walt Whitman. It is needless to say that copies of this book command a fancy price to-day. He immediately contracted what Holmes used to call "lead-poisoning," and the sight of his work in type made a literary career certain. He produced volume after volume, in both prose and verse, with amazing rapidity, and his fame overflowed the world. A London periodical prophesied in 1888, "The book gives hope of a new literary star of no mean magnitude rising in the East." The amount and excellence of his output may be judged when we remember that in the three years from 1886 to 1889 he published Departmental DittiesPlain Tales from the HillsSoldiers ThreeIn Black and WhiteThe Story of the GadsbysThe Man Who Would Be KingThe Phantom 'RickshawWee Willie Winkie, and other narratives.

The originality, freshness, and power of all this work made Europe stare and gasp. For some years he had as much notoriety as reputation. We used to hear of the Kipling "craze," the Kipling "boom," the Kipling "fad," and Kipling clubs sprang up like mushrooms. It was difficult to read him in cool blood, because he was discussed pro and[Pg 211] con with so much passion. He was fashionable, in the manner of ping-pong; and there were not wanting pessimistic prophets who looked upon him as a comet rather than a fixed star. So late as 1895 a well-known American journal said of him: "Rudyard Kipling is supposed to be the cleverest man now handling the pen. The magazines accept everything he writes, and pay him fabulous prices. Kipling is now printing a series of Jungle Stories that are so weak and foolish that we have never been able to read them. They are not fables: they are stories of animals talking, and they are pointless, so far as the average reader is able to judge. We have asked a good many magazine editors about Kipling's Jungle Stories; they all express the same astonishment that the magazine editors accept them. Kipling will soon be dropped by the magazine editors; they will inevitably discover that his stories are not admired by the people. Robert Louis Stevenson died just in time to save him from the same fate."

Many honestly believed that Mr. Kipling could write only in flashes; that he was incapable of producing a complete novel. His answer to this was The Light that Failed, which, although he made the mistake of giving it a reversible ending, indicated that his own lamp had yet sufficient oil. In 1895 he added immensely to the solidity of his fame by printing The Brushwood Boy, the scenes of[Pg 212] which he announced previously would be laid in "England, India, and the world of dreams." Here he temporarily forsook the land of mysterious horror for the land of mysterious beauty, and many were grateful, and said so. In 1896 the appearance of The Seven Seas proved beyond cavil that he was something more than a music-hall rimester—that he was really among the English poets. The very next year The Recessional stirred the religious consciousness of the whole English-speaking race. And although much of his subsequent career seems to be a nullification of the sentiment of that poem, it will remain imperishable when the absent-minded beggars and the flannelled fools have reached the oblivion they so richly deserve.

In 1897 he tried his hand for the second time at a complete novel, Captains Courageous, and the result might safely be called a success. The moral of this story will be worth a word or two later on. The next year an important volume came from his pen, The Day's Work—important because it is in this volume that the new Kipling is first plainly seen, and the mechanical engineer takes the place of the literary artist. Such curiosities as The Ship that Found HerselfThe Bridge-Builders.007, became anything but curiosities in his later work. This collection was sadly marred by the inclusion of such wretched stuff as My Sunday at Home, and[Pg 213] An Error in the Fourth Dimension; but it was glorified by one of the most exquisitely tender and beautiful of all Mr. Kipling's tales, William the Conqueror. And it should not be forgotten that the author saw fit to close this volume with the previously printed and universally popular Brushwood Boy. Then, at the very height of his ten years' fame, Mr. Kipling came closer to death than almost any other individual has safely done. As he lay sick with pneumonia in New York, the American people, whom he has so frequently ridiculed, were more generally and profoundly affected than they have been at the bedside of a dying President. The year 1899 marked the great physical crisis of his life, and seems also to indicate a turning-point in his literary career.

Whatever may be thought of the relative merits of Mr. Kipling's early and later style, it is fortunate for him that the two decades of composition were not transposed. We all read the early work because we could not help it; we read his twentieth-century compositions because he wrote them. It is lucky that the Plain Tales from the Hills preceded Puck of Pook's Hill, and that The Light that Failed came before Stalky and Co. Whether these later productions could have got into print without the tremendous prestige of their author's name, is a question that has all the fascination and all the insolubility[Pg 214] of speculative philosophy. The suddenness of his early popularity may be perhaps partly accounted for by the fact that he was working a new field. The two authors who have most influenced Mr. Kipling's style are both Americans—Bret Harte and Mark Twain; and the analogy between the sudden fame of Harte and the sudden fame of Mr. Kipling is too obvious to escape notice. Bret Harte found in California ore of a different kind than his maddened contemporaries sought; his early tales had all the charm of something new and strange. What Bret Harte made out of California Mr. Kipling made out of India; at the beginning he was a "sectional writer," who, with the instinct of genius, made his literary opportunity out of his environment. The material was at hand, the time was ripe, and the man was on the spot. It was the strong "local colour" in these powerful Indian tales that captivated readers—who, in far-away centres of culture and comfort, delighted to read of primitive passions in savage surroundings. We had all the rest and change of air that we could have obtained in a journey to the Orient, without any of the expense, discomfort, and peril.

But after the spell of the wizard's imagination has left us, we cannot help asking, after the manner of the small boy, Is it true? Are these pictures of English and native life in India faithful reflexions[Pg 215] of fact? Can we depend on Mr. Kipling for India, as we can depend (let us say) on Daudet for a picture of the Rue de la Paix? Now it is a notable fact that local colour seems most genuine to those who are unable to verify it. It is a melancholy truth that the community portrayed by a novelist not only almost invariably deny the likeness of the portrait, but that they emphatically resent the liberty taken. Stories of college life are laughed to scorn by the young gentlemen described therein, no matter how fine the local colour may seem to outsiders. The same is true of social strata in society, of provincial towns, and Heaven only knows what the Slums would say to their depiction in novels, if only the Slums could read. One reason for this is that a novel or a short story must have a beginning and an end, and some kind of a plot; whereas life has no such thing, nor anything remotely resembling it. When honest people see their daily lives, made up of thousands of unrelated incidents, served up to remote readers in the form of an orderly progression of events, leading up to a proper climax, the whole thing seems monstrously unreal and untrue. "Why, we are not in the least like that!" they cry. And I have purposely omitted the factor of exaggeration, absolutely essential to the realistic novelist or playwright.

In a notice of the Plain Tales from the Hills, the[Pg 216] London Saturday Review remarked, "Mr. Kipling knows and appreciates the English in India." But it is more interesting and profitable to see how his stories were regarded in the country he described. In the Calcutta Times, for 14 September, 1895, there was a long editorial which is valuable, at any rate, for the point of view. After mentioning the Plain Tales,Soldiers ThreeBarrack-room Ballads, etc., the Times critic said:—

"Except in a few instances which might easily be numbered on the fingers of one hand, nothing in the books we have named is at all likely to live or deserves to live.... It will probably be answered that this sweeping condemnation is not of much value against the emphatic approval of the British public and the aforesaid chorus of critics in praise of the new Genius.... And the English critics have this to plead in excuse of their hyperbolical appreciation of the Stronger Dickens, that his first work came to them fathered with responsible guarantee from men who should have known better, that it was in the way of a revelation of Anglo-Indian society, a-letting in the light of truth on places which had been very dark indeed.

"Now the average English critic knows very little of the intricacies of social life in India, and in the enthusiasm which Mrs. Hauksbee and kindred creations inspired he accepted too readily as true types what are, in fact, caricatures, or distorted presentments, of some of the more poisonous social characteristics to be found in Anglo-Indian as well as in every other civilised society.... Do not let us be understood as recklessly running down Kipling and all his works....[Pg 217] He possesses in a high degree the power of describing a certain class of emotions, and the flights of his imagination in some directions are extremely bold and original. In such tales, for instance, as 'The Man who would be a King' (sic) and 'The Ride of Morrowby Jukes' (sic) there are qualities of the imagination which equal, if they do not surpass, anything in the same line with which we are acquainted.... The capital charge, in the opinion of many, the head and front of his offending, is that he has traduced a whole society, and has spread libels broadcast. Anglo-Indian society may in some respects be below the average level of the best society in the Western world, where the rush and stir of life and the collision of intellects combine to keep the atmosphere clearer and more bracing than in this land of tennis, office boxes, frontier wars, and enervation. But as far as it falls below what many would wish it to be, so far it rises above the description of it which now passes current at home under the sanction of Kipling's name.... For whether Kipling is treating of Indian subjects pure and simple, of Anglo-Indian subjects, or is attempting a Western theme, the personality of the writer is pervasive and intrusive everywhere, with all its limitations of vision and information, as well as with its eternal panoply of cheap smartness and spiced vulgarity.... Smartness is always first with him, and Truth may shift for herself."

Although the writer of the above article is somewhat blinded by prejudice and wrath, it is, nevertheless, interesting testimony from the particular section of our planet which Mr. Kipling was at that time supposed to know best. And out in San Francisco they are still talking of Mr. Kipling's[Pg 218] visit there, and the "abominable libel" of California life and customs he chose to publish in From Sea to Sea.

Apart from Mr. Kipling's good fortune in having fresh material to deal with, the success of his early work lay chiefly in its dominant quality—Force. For the last thirty years, the world has been full of literary experts, professional story-writers, to whom the pen is a means of livelihood. Our magazines are crowded with tales which are well written, and nothing else. They say nothing, because their writers have nothing to say. The impression left on the mind by the great majority of handsomely bound novels is like that of a man who beholds his natural face in a glass. The thing we miss is the thing we unconsciously demand—Vitality. In the rare instances where vitality is the ground-quality, readers forgive all kinds of excrescences and defects, as they did twenty years ago in Mr. Kipling, and later, for example, in Jack London. The original vigour and strength of Mr. Kipling's stories were to the jaded reader a keen, refreshing breeze; like Marlowe in Elizabethan days he seemed a towering, robust, masculine personality, who had at his command an inexhaustible supply of material absolutely new. This undoubted vigour was naturally unaccompanied by moderation and good taste; Mr. Kipling's sins against artistic proportion[Pg 219] and the law of subtle suggestion were black indeed. He simply had no reserve. In The Man Who Would Be King, which I have always regarded as his masterpiece, the subject was so big that no reserve in handling it was necessary. The whole thing was an inspiration, of imagination all compact. But in many other instances his style was altogether too loud for his subject. One wearies of eternal fortissimo. Many of his tales should have been printed throughout in italics. In examples of this nature, which are all too frequent in the "Complete Works" of Mr. Kipling, the tragedy becomes melodrama; the humour becomes buffoonery; the picturesque becomes bizarre; the terrible becomes horrible; and vulgarity reigns supreme.

He is far better in depicting action than in portraying character. This is one reason why his short stories are better than his novels. In The Light that Failed, with all its merits, he never realised the character of Maisie; but in his tales of violent action, we feel the vividness of the scene, time and again. His work here is effective, because Mr. Kipling has an acute sense of the value of words, just as a great musician has a correct ear for the value of pitch. When one takes the trouble to analyse his style in his most striking passages, it all comes down to skill in the use of the specific word—the word that makes the picture clear, sometimes intolerably[Pg 220] clear. Look at the nouns and adjectives in this selection from The Drums of the Fore and Aft:

"They then selected their men, and slew them with deep gasps and short hacking coughs, and groanings of leather belts against strained bodies, and realised for the first time that an Afghan attacked is far less formidable than an Afghan attacking; which fact old soldiers might have told them.

"But they had no old soldiers in their ranks."

There are two defects in Mr. Kipling's earlier work that might perhaps be classed as moral deficiencies. One is the almost ever present coarseness, which the author mistook for vigour. Now the tendency to coarseness is inseparable from force, and needs to be held in check. Coarseness is the inevitable excrescence of superabundant vitality, just as effeminacy is the danger limit of delicacy and refinement. Swift and Rabelais had the coarseness of a robust English sailor; at their worst they are simply abominable, just as Tennyson at his worst is effeminate and silly. Mr. Kipling has that natural delight in coarseness that all strong natures have, whether they are willing to admit it or not. A large proportion of his scenes of humour are devoted to drunkenness: "gloriously drunk" is a favourite phrase with him. The time may come when this sort of humour will be obsolete. We laugh at drunkenness, as the Elizabethans laughed at insanity, but we are only somewhat nearer real civilisation[Pg 221] than they. At any rate, even those who delight in scenes of intoxication must find the theme rather overworked in Mr. Kipling. This same defect in him leads to indulgence in his passion for ghastly detail. This is where he ceases to be a man of letters, and becomes downright journalistic. It is easier to excite momentary attention by physical horror than by any other device; and Mr. Kipling is determined to leave nothing to the imagination. Many instances might be cited; we need only recall the gouging out of a man's eye in The Light that Failed, and the human brains on the boot in Badalia Herodsfoot.

The other moral defect in this early work was its world-weary cynicism, which was simply foolish in so young a writer. His treatment of women, for example, compares unfavourably with that shown in the frankest tales of Bret Harte. His attitude toward women in these youthful books has been well described as "disillusioned gallantry." The author continually gives the reader a "knowing wink," which, after a time, gets on one's nerves. These books, after all, were probably not meant for women to read, and perhaps no one was more surprised than Mr. Kipling himself at the rapturous exclamations of the thousands of his feminine adorers. A woman rejoicing in the perusal of these Indian tales seems as much out of place as she does in the[Pg 222] office of a cheap country hotel, reeking with the fumes of whiskey and stale tobacco, and adorned with men who spit with astonishing accuracy into distant receptacles.

Mr. Kipling doubtless knows more about his own faults than any of the critics; and if after one has read The Light that Failed for the sake of the story, one rereads it attentively as an Apologia Pro Vita Sua, one will be surprised to see how many ideas about his art he has put into the mouth of Dick. "Under any circumstances, remember, four-fifths of everybody's work must be bad. But the remnant is worth the trouble for its own sake." "One must do something always. You hang your canvas up in a palm-tree and let the parrots criticise." "If we sit down quietly to work out notions that are sent to us, we may or we may not do something that isn't bad. A great deal depends on being master of the bricks and mortar of the trade. But the instant we begin to think about success and the effect of our work—to play with one eye on the gallery—we lose power and touch and everything else.... I was told that all the world was interested in my work, and everybody at Kami's talked turpentine, and I honestly believed that the world needed elevating and influencing, and all manner of impertinences, by my brushes. By Jove, I actually believed that!... And when it's done it's such a tiny thing,[Pg 223] and the world's so big, and all but a millionth part of it doesn't care."

Fortunately, four-fifths of Kipling's work isn't bad. We are safe in ascribing genius to the man who wrote The Phantom 'RickshawThe Strange RideThe Man Who Would Be KingWilliam the ConquerorThe Brushwood Boy, and The Jungle Book. These, and many other tales, to say nothing of his poetry, constitute an astounding achievement for a writer under thirty-five.

But the Kipling of the last ten years is an Imperialist and a Mechanic, rather than a literary man. We need not classify Stalky and Co., except to say that it is probably the worst novel ever written by a man of genius. It is on a false pitch throughout, and the most rasping book of recent times. The only good things in it are the quotations from Browning. The Jingo in Mr. Kipling was released by the outbreak of the South African War, and the author of The Recessional forgot everything he had prayed God to remember. He became the voice of the British Empire, and the man who had always ridiculed Americans for bunkum oratory, out-screamed us all. In this imperialistic verse and prose there is not much literature, but there is a great deal of noise, which has occasionally deceived the public; just as an orator is sure of a round of applause if his peroration is shouted at the top of his[Pg 224] voice. His recent book, Puck of Pook's Hill, is written against the grain; painful effort has supplied the place of the old inspiration, and the simplicity of true art is conspicuous by its absence. Of this volume, The Athenæum, in general friendly to Kipling, remarks: "In his new part—the missionary of empire—Mr. Kipling is living the strenuous life. He has frankly abandoned story-telling, and is using his complete and powerful armory in the interest of patriotic zeal." On the other hand, Mr. Owen Wister, whose opinion is valuable, thinks Puck "the highest plane that he has ever reached"—a judgement that I record with respect, though to me it is incomprehensible.

Kipling the Mechanic is less useful than an encyclopædia, and not any more interesting. A comic paper describes him as "now a technical expert; at one time a popular writer. This young man was born in India, came to his promise in America, and lost himself in England. HisPlain Tales of the Hills (sic) has been succeeded by Enigmatical Expositions from the Dark Valleys.... Mr. Kipling has declared that the Americans have never forgiven him for not dying in their country. On the contrary, they have never forgiven him for not having written anything better since he was here than he did before. But while there's Kipling, there's hope." It is to be earnestly hoped that he will cease describing[Pg 225] the machinery of automobiles, ships, locomotives, and flying air-vessels, and once more look in his heart and write. His worst enemy is himself. He seems to be in terror lest he should say something ordinary and commonplace. He has been so praised for his originality and powerful imagination, that his later books give one the impression of a man writing in the sweat of his face, with the grim determination to make every sentence a literary event. Such a tale as Wireless shows that the zeal for originality has eaten him up. One can feel on every page the straining for effect, and it is as exhausting to read as it is to watch a wrestling-match, and not nearly so entertaining. If Mr. Kipling goes on in the vein of these later years, he may ultimately survive his reputation, as many a good man has done before him. I should think even now, when the author of Puck of Pook's Hill turns over the pages of The Man Who Would Be King, he would say with Swift, "Good God! what a genius I had when I wrote that book!"

His latest collection of tales, with the significant title, Actions and Reactions, is a particularly welcome volume to those of us who prefer the nineteenth century Kipling to the twentieth. To be sure, the story With the Night Mail, shows the new mechanical cleverness rather than the old inspiration; it is both ingenious and ephemeral, and should[Pg 226] have remained within the covers of the magazine where it first appeared. Furthermore, A Deal in CottonThe Puzzler, and Little Foxes are neither clever nor literary; they are merely irritating, and remind us of a book we would gladly forget, called Traffics and Discoveries. But the first narrative in this new volume, with the caption,An Habitation Enforced, is one of the most subtle, charming, and altogether delightful things that Mr. Kipling has ever given us; nor has he ever brought English and American people in conjunction with so much charity and good feeling. I do not think he has previously shown greater psychological power than in this beautiful story. In the second tale, Garm—A Hostage, Mr. Kipling joins the ranks of the dog worshippers; the exploits of this astonishing canine will please all dog-owners, and many others as well. Naturally he has to exaggerate; instead of making his four-footed hero merely intelligent, he makes him noble in reason, infinite in faculty, in apprehension like a god, the paragon of animals. But it is a brilliant piece of work. The last story, The House Surgeon, takes us into the world of spirit, whither Mr. Kipling has successfully conducted his readers before. This mysterious domain seems to have a constantly increasing attraction for modern realistic writers, and has enormously enlarged the stock of material for contemporary novelists. The field is[Pg 227] the world, yes; but the world is bigger than it used to be, bigger than any boundaries indicated by maps or globes. It would be interesting to speculate just what the influence of all these transcendental excursions will be on modern fiction as an educational force. Mr. Kipling apparently writes with sincere conviction, and in a powerfully impressive manner. The poetic interludes in this volume, like those in Puck of Pook's Hill, show that the author's skill in verse has not in the least abated; the lines on The Power of the Dog are simply irresistible. It is safe to say that Actions and Reactions will react favourably on all unprejudiced readers; and for this relief much thanks. If one wishes to observe the difference between the inspired and the ingenious Mr. Kipling, one has only to read this collection straight through.[16]

Like almost all Anglo-Saxon writers, Mr. Kipling is a moralist, and his gospel is Work. He believes in the strenuous life as a cure-all. He apparently does not agree with Goethe that To Be is greater than To Do. The moral of Captains Courageous is the same moral contained in the ingenious bee-hive story. The unpardonable sin is Idleness. But[Pg 228] although Work is good for humanity, it is rather limited as an ideal, and we cannot rate Mr. Kipling very high as a spiritual teacher. God is not always in the wind, or in the earthquake, or in the fire. The day-dreams of men like Stevenson and Thackeray sometimes bear more fruit than the furious energy of Mr. Kipling.

But the consuming ambition of this man, and his honest desire to do his best, will, let us hope, spare him the humiliation of being beaten by his own past. After all, Genius is the rarest article in the world, and one who undoubtedly has it is far more likely to reach the top of the hill than he is to take the road to Danger, which leads into a great wood; or the road to Destruction, which leads into a wide field, full of dark mountains.