The Seven Seas by Rudyard Kipling (1896)

To enjoy Kipling’s poetry you have to accept the convention of the ballad. You have to accept that not all poetry has to be sensitive and spiritual. Not all poetry is about the poet’s soul, or superior perceptions or feelings.

Some poetry, and the ballad in particular, is designed to be objective, to tell stories about fictional characters, to have an immediate impact, to be closer in some ways to the short story; to tell a tale and impress moral messages, and is designed to the widest possible audience.

Kipling comes squarely out of this tradition, a tradition that goes back to the Border Ballads, to Percy’s Reliques, via the long, moralising narrative poems of the 18th century, which continued to be written in the Victorian period, but are little read today.

The Seven Seas was Kipling’s first poetry collection since the smash-hit Barrack Room Ballads of 1892. It’s divided into two sections:

  • numbers 26 to 43 are new Barrack Room Ballads, a continuation of the jaunty cockney style he had copied from the immensely popular music halls of his day, all dropped aitches and ave-a-banana rhythms
  • numbers 1 to 25 are freestanding poems, all linked by the ideas of the Sea and – more or less explicitly – the British Empire

‘A Song of the English’ is the longest poem, at around 20 pages – in fact a sequence of often quite short poems powerfully evoking the experience of Empire through a series of poems on English seafarers, the casualties of imperialist expansion, and the exotic and far-flung capitals of the British Empire. The overall effect is awe-inspiring. It is quite dazzling to realise just how large the Empire was, just how far its extent reached.

There are two long dramatic monologues in the style of Robert Browning:

  • McAndrews’ Hymn, where McAndrew is chief engineer on a merchant ship, in love with his gleaming engines and his Presbyterian work ethic
  • The Mary Gloster, a variation on the theme of the novel Captains Courageous where a successful businessman tells his story to his wayward and effete son – with a dramatic twist in the tail!

The final piece in the whole book, the Envoi, epitomises the ballad format, the brisk confidence, the lack of innerness, combined with lines and phrases of real poetic power, which comprise the Kipling effect.

L’Envoi

When Earth’s last picture is painted, and the tubes are twisted and dried,
When the oldest colours have faded, and the youngest critic has died,
We shall rest, and, faith, we shall need it — lie down for an æon or two,
Till the Master of All Good Workmen shall set us to work anew!

And those that were good shall be happy: they shall sit in a golden chair;
They shall splash at a ten-league canvas with brushes of comets’ hair;
They shall find real saints to draw from — Magdalene, Peter, and Paul;
They shall work for an age at a sitting and never be tired at all!

And only the Master shall praise us, and only the Master shall blame;
And no one shall work for money, and no one shall work for fame;
But each for the joy of the working, and each, in his separate star,
Shall draw the Thing as he sees It for the God of Things as They Are!

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Kipling and Auden

Swimming at Tooting Lido, under threatening grey storm clouds, reflecting on its 1930s art deco architecture, I thought of the 1930s poet W.H. Auden and it began to dawn on me that he and Kipling have more in common than you might at first think. Both:

  1. dominated their decade (the 1890s for Kipling, the 1930s for Auden), influencing everyone, becoming a climate
  2. are non-Romantic, external poets, interested in the outside world and in the machinery of modern life, in new technologies, in devices and gadgets – rather than their own personal feelings or spiritual development
  3. are deeply political poets, writing poems commentating on the great events of their time; compare Kipling’s ‘White Man’s Burden‘ with Auden’s ‘Spain‘. Different in every respect, except they are engaging with the key events of their day
  4. are deeply moral poets. Both recommend sets of value – Kipling’s stiff upper lip imperial Duty; Auden’s a) 30s pinkoism b) after the war, Christian humanism
  5. are interested in northern European, Nordic culture, Border ballads, Anglo-Saxon. Ie they’re both relatively uninfluenced by Mediterranean culture, in particular the French poetry which strongly influenced other English writers
  6. are interested in out-of-the-way vocabulary, technical terms, slangs and argots – Kipling imported hundreds of words from India and Auden used to read the OED for pleasure
  7. are fluent and prolific, writing hundreds of poems…
  8. … partly because they are untouched by the Modernist feeling that each poem must be a dauntingly intense masterpiece which creates its own form; instead both are happy to work in traditional forms, knocking out limericks and epigrams and comic verse and dramatic monologues and hymns and exulting in their virtuosity…
  9. both were very short-sighted – possibly linked to their tendency to deploy large capitalised Abstract words, or recherche vocabularies – both tendencies away from the lush, sensuous description found in more Romantic poets
  10. both have odd first names: Rudyard. Wystan.

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Many Inventions by Rudyard Kipling (1893)

Throughout his career Kipling published a stream of short stories and poems in the numerous periodicals of the time. Every two or three years he brought these together into collections. Many Inventions was published in 1893 and brings together 15 short stories.

The most striking feature is their variety: Kipling roams far and wide, India, London, South Africa; there are comic stories, tragic ones, science fantasy and strange fables. Each contains flashes or more of brilliance, but I don’t think you can point to any of them and say, ‘That’s a masterpiece’. I wouldn’t recommend the book as a whole to a reader new to Kipling. I think the best i.e. the ones which most nearly work or contain the most vivid writing, are The Finest Story in the WorldThe Record of Badalia Herodsfoot and In the Rukh.

The Disturber of Traffic (1891) Typical Kipling in having a strong frame story, the narrator’s visit to Fenwick the lighthouse keeper of St Cecilia under-the-cliff. After the usual Kipling litany of technical details, Fenwick tells him the tale of Dowse the lighthouse keeper at the Wurlee light near old Loby Toby Strait in Indonesia, who goes mad imagining the sea is all streaky. It takes the sober, sensitive captain of a British Survey ship to talk him off the lighthouse and then take care of him. So much of the surrounding detail is persuasive, including the character of Dowse’s native helper, Challong, but the central portrait of a man going mad doesn’t convince.

A Conference of the Powers (1890) An ironic title for a party of three subalterns, Tick Boileau, ‘The Infant’ and Nevin, who rendezvous at the narrator’s rooms in London and begin drinking and telling tales when the famous novelist, Eustace Cleeve, turns up. Kipling’s purpose is to show how little even the best of contemporary commentators understand about the fighting and sacrifice made by the flower of Britain’s youth to maintain the Empire and preserve the cushy, pampered lives of its civilians.

‘Like many home-staying Englishmen, Cleever believed that the newspaper phrase he quoted covered the whole duty of the Army whose toils enabled him to enjoy his many-sided life in peace.’

‘The Infant’ recounts in detail his campaigns against murderous dacoits in the Burmese jungle and an attack on a village to capture their leader, Boh Na-ghee. Kipling strongly conveys his contempt for civilian liberals and intellectuals, a contempt which was to deepen with the years and seriously damage his reputation.

My Lord the Elephant (1892) 16th of the 18 stories about Kipling’s three archetypical soldiers – the cockney Ortheris, the Yorkshireman Learoyd and the Irishman Mulvaney. Framed by the narrator with the soldiers three listening to an elephant raging in a barracks, the noise reminds them of the time Mulvaney was arrested for punching a soldier and is being walked to clink when an elephant runs amok, scatters his guard and pursues Mulvaney into the courtyard of a carriage maker where the elephant smashes everything. Mulvaney, on the roof, drinks a bottle of brandy then jumps onto the elephant’s head and tries to subdue it as it rampages through the streets by clouting it on the head with his rifle. Eventually the elephant calms down and Mulvaney slides down the trunk to comfort it and they become pals.

In part two Mulvaney is lying sick in bed near the Tangi pass into Burma while the army marches past. Suddenly it becomes blocked when an elephant hauling a massive gun refuses to move. Its mahout or driver says it is looking for its ‘friend’ – none other than Mulvaney – and so various officers ransack the barracks and hospital until Mulvaney is raised from his sickbed to go see his pal elephant, who picks him up and puts him on his back and off they ride. Angus Wilson called this a farce in Kipling’s Laurel and Hardy style, and it’s thought-provoking to realise that Kipling’s stories are appearing just a decade before the first movies began to be shown, and are often aimed at the same not-too-well-educated audience, and display the same vulgar effects.

One View of the Question (1890) A fictional letter from ‘Shafiz Ullah Khan’, agent of one ‘Rao Sahib of Jagesur, which is in the northern borders of Hindustan’ to one of the prince’s ministers. He reports first on the success of his mission to London, then conveys his personal impressions of that city, and finally recommends a course of action for Muslims that will allow them to use the Indian National Congress, and its supporters in a spinelessly democratic Britain, to ease the British out of India so that Muslim rule can be forcefully re-established. Written just a few months after he arrived in London, the story powerfully reflects Kipling’s disillusionment and revulsion from London and England, his contempt for Liberals who he thought criminally ignorant of the plight of the men who toil to maintain the Empire and sustain their cushy existence. Political contempt mixes with misogyny as he singles out female Liberals as barren and childless, and then segues into his well-known contempt for educated Bengalis. But the letter, as a fictional device, is very well done, and the descriptions of hellish, smog-ridden London, its streets full of drunken proles, is very powerful and persuasive.

The Finest Story in the World (1891) The worldly-wise author-narrator (Kipling is just 25 when he writes it) meets a young bank clerk, Charlie Mears, who has mediocre literary aspirations but accidentally reveals an amazing gift – the ability to remember fragments of past lives, as a Greek galley slave, and as a 10th century Viking who voyaged to the New World. The author is quietly taking down these reminiscences at scattered meetings with a view to publishing them and creating a sensation. His plan is foiled by his friend, an educated Bengali, Grish Chunder, whom the narrator chummily despises for being a hypocrite and playing up to the prejudices of his ignorant Liberal English hosts. Chunder a) points out his own Hindu familiarity with reincarnation b) and so predicts that as soon as Mears meets and falls for a woman his gift will disappear. Which is exactly what happens. In some unclear way, the need to breed requires oblivion of former lives. Mears’ gift disappears and the narrator is left foiled and frustrated. Full of powerful details, this is an eerie tale reminiscent of HG Wells or Conan Doyle’s tales of unease; but as soon as the Bengali appears Kipling’s prejudices outweigh the fantasy.

His Private Honour (1891) The ‘Soldiers Three’ again. New recruits join B Company, Mulvaney pulls a sickie and leaves it to the disgusted Ortheris to whip the recruits into shape.

‘The army, unlike every other profession, cannot be taught through shilling books. First a man must suffer, then he must learn his work, and the self-respect that that knowledge brings. The learning is hard, in a land where the army is not a red thing that walks down the street to be looked at, but a living tramping reality that may be needed at the shortest notice, when there is no time to say, “Hadn’t you better?” and “Won’t you please?”‘

It contains a big vision of a truly independent India by which Kipling means an India run by a native white caste:

‘Then I went off on my own thoughts; the squeaking of the boots and the rattle of the rifles making a good accompaniment, and the line of red coats and black trousers a suitable back-ground to them all. They concerned the formation of a territorial army for India,— an army of specially paid men enlisted for twelve years’ service in Her Majesty’s Indian possessions, with the option of extending on medical certificates for another five and the certainty of a pension at the end. They would be such an army as the world had never seen,— one hundred thousand trained men drawing annually five, no, fifteen thousand men from England, making India their home, and allowed to marry in reason. Yes, I thought, watching the line shift to and fro, break and re-form, we would buy back Cashmere from the drunken imbecile who was turning it into a hell, and there we would plant our much-married regiments,— the men who had served ten years of their time,— and there they should breed us white soldiers, and perhaps a second fighting-line of Eurasians. At all events Cashmere was the only place in India that the Englishman could colonise, and if we had foothold there we could, . . Oh, it was a beautiful dream! I left that territorial army swelled to a quarter of a million men far behind, swept on as far as an independent India, hiring warships from the mother-country, guarding Aden on the one side and Singapore on the other, paying interest on her loans with beautiful regularity, but borrowing no men from beyond her own borders — a colonised, manufacturing India with a permanent surplus and her own flag. I had just installed myself as Viceroy, and by virtue of my office had shipped four million sturdy thrifty natives to the Malayan Archipelago, where labour is always wanted and the Chinese pour in too quickly, when I became aware that things were not going smoothly with the half-company.’

The nervous young officer Ouless drills the men all wrong and lashes out in his frustration, ripping Ortheris’s tunic. An officer approaches. Ouless tells the truth. Ortheris lies to save him; later takes it out on Samuelson the Jew. The narrator sees all this and is asked what to do by Ouless. The narrator goes away, comes back weeks later. The company is now transformed, at shooting practice. Ortheris tells him Ouless invited him out to the jungle where they had a fist fight and were reconciled. Everything tickety-boo. Why didn’t Ortheris stand up for his legal right?

‘My right!’ Ortheris answered with deep scorn. ‘My right! I ain’t a recruity to go whinin’ about my rights to this an’ my rights to that, just as if I couldn’t look after myself. My rights! ‘Strewth A’mighty! I’m a man.’

Kipling doesn’t like whiners. Liberals. Socialists. Unions.

A Matter of Fact (1892) A strange sci-fi story in the manner of Wells or Conan Doyle’s tales of awe. Three journalists on a tramp steamer back to England witness a tsunami caused by an underwater volcano/earthquake and then the death throes of a monstrous underwater creature, mourned by its mate. Weird and strange. But part 2 of the story is when the journalists arrive at England, with its lines of ordered villas, its repressed emotion, its common decency, and realise that no newspaper will believe them. Instead the narrator declares he’ll publish it all as a fiction. And hence this story. So a Dahl-ish twist in the tale. The satire on the American journalist and his nation’s credulity and his awe of Winchester cathedral etc is characteristically crude. What stands out is the monster as an early example of science fantasy.

The Lost Legion (1892) A ghost story about a regiment of native troops who rebelled during the Indian Mutiny and so, leaderless, were massacred by Afghan tribesmen. A generation later, when a British army force is sent to capture an Afghan warlord, they approach the stronghold in the night but can hear ghostly horses around them. The watchguards at the top of the valley mistake the approaching silent English troopers for the ghosts of the slain regiment, which they’re used to, and so don’t give the alarm, allowing the English to take the village and capture the warlord.  Were there ever any ghosts? Kipling leaves it open… What makes it Kiplingesque is the vehement journalistic opinions dropped at every paragraph, on the ignorance of the people at home about how things are, the public’s outcry at each war, and how murderous warlords are able to exploit this weakness in the British.

‘With sorrow and tears, and one eye on the British taxpayer at home, who insisted on regarding these exercises as brutal wars of annexation, the Government would prepare an expensive little field-brigade and some guns, and send all up into the hills to chase the wicked tribe out of the valleys…’

In the Rukh (1893) This is the proto-Jungle Book story, the first story about Mowgli, which is completely at odds with the later tales and so is omitted from many editions of the Jungle Books. It opens with a characteristic tribute to the hard work of the dedicated British Officers of the Woods and Forests Department of British India and introduces us to Gisborne of the W&F who has fallen in love with the forest and his fat Muslim butler, Abdul Gafur.

‘If he drew anything, it was to make a purchase from the Calcutta Botanical Gardens, or to pay a ranger’s widow a sum that the Government of India would never have sanctioned for her man’s death…’

Solid chap, Gisborne. Also solidly paternalistic. He forgives his fat Muslim butler for stealing his pay. This is discovered when the mysterious spirit of the forest, Mowgli as a reincarnation of Pan, appears out of the rukh or jungle. Muller, the big German head of the Forestry Service, recognises Mowgli for a child of the jungle raised by wolves.

‘…for he is before der Iron Age, and der Stone Age. Look here, he is at der beginnings of der history of man — Adam in der Garden, and now we want only an Eva! No! He is older than dot child-tale, shust as der rukh is older dan der gods. Gisborne, I am a Bagan now, once for all.’

This may be the most powerful story in the set, marred only a little by Kipling’s prejudices in favour of the wonderful British administrator and the untrustworthy native – but soaring above them is the power of the conception of the child of the jungle.

‘Brugglesmith’ (1891) = Brook Green, Hammersmith. An Ealing comedy in which the narrator, after chatting with M’Phee, an engineer on a boat moored in the Pool, is suddenly cast adrift with an incorrigible drunken Scot as company, who follows him ashore, to a police station, throws himself in the river to qualify for a hot toddy, escapes the river police to catch up with the narrator outside the High Courts, and then drunkenly throws his river blanket over a policeman. They meet Dempsey, a copper Kipling knows, in Charing Cross, who listens to the full story and bursts into laughter, and allows Kipling to wheel the drunk in the handbarrow ambulance through clubland, through Knightsbridge, and on to Brook Green, where he encourages him to ring his bell till it breaks, then encourages two policemen to arrest him.

Kipling’s preference for low life, for soldiers over officers, for workers over toffs, for the police constable over any higher authority. Reminds me of his long night-time roams around Lahore, his prying into all aspects of native life, which put him in very bad odour with the authorities in India, but made him the man he is.

‘Love-O’-Women’ (1893) 17th of the 18 stories about the Three Soldiers. Part 1 the trial of Sergeant Raines who murders Corporal Mackie for having an affair with his wife. Ortheris is a key witness; Mulvaney is a guard, done in some detail. Then in part 2 Mulvaney tells the story of one Larry Ellis, a famous philanderer, known as ‘Love o’ Women’. When the Tyrone regiment goes on patrol in the Khyber, Mulvaney realises he’s trying to get himself shot by the enemy Pathan, then back in barracks the doctor diagnoses him with a wasting illness. He struggles back to Rawalpindi more dead than alive where he arrives at the brothel where the woman he ruined – Diamond and Pearls – lives, and there, after being reproached by her, he expires. Mulvaney goes to get the doctor and when he returns they find the woman has shot herself. And that’s what lies behind Mulvaney’s comments on the Mackie trial which we’ve just seen. The guard is roused and they march Raynes off… Feels like a brave attempt to deal with sexual relations, with adultery, affairs, the cost of philandering in terms of disease – syphilis – and lives ruined – Diamond and Pearls become a prostitute. But it somehow lacks conviction. French writers like Zola or Maupassant could deal with this area because the French had a long tradition of frankness about sex. All British authors languish under the shadow of the national squeamishness, greatly exacerbated by the total Victorian ban on the subject.

The Record of Badalia Herodsfoot (1890) Badalia is a denizen of the very rough Gunnison Street in the East End. Abandoned by her violent husband, her small daughter dies, but she finds purpose in advising the various squabbling charities trying to help the poor. She creates a copybook and scrupulously records the donations. Her drunken husband returns and kicks her to death for refusing to hand over the charity money. His lover Jenny comes and drags him away. On her deathbed Badalia exonerates her husband and advises Little Sister Eva to marry the curate. Extremely harsh, bloody and realistic. And the woman is the undoubted heroine. The frank depiction of multipartnering counters the rather sentimental treatment of sex in of ‘Love o’ Women’. This and In the Rukh are the best stories.

Judson and the Empire (1892) The first of Kipling’s many naval stories. A slightly impenetrable long story about Judson, captain of a riverboat, which is sent on a hush-hush mission to Mozambique where they lure a Portuguese gunboat onto a shoal, then scare rebels fighting in a township into submission. I think there’s a civil war going on between the Portuguese settlers although a British expeditionary force has also arrived. Peace breaks out and the jolly Portuguese governor is happy to have dinner with them all. I think this is meant to be a comic tale, and one which emphasises the pragmatic, harmless nature of British imperialism, but I found it hard to follow.

The Children of the Zodiac (1891) A strange parable of the children of the Zodiac who become human and learn to accept their mortality. The message seems to be – Do your duty and don’t fear.

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The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ by Joseph Conrad (1897)

25 June 2012

In August 1897, Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee year, a few months after ‘Captains Courageous‘ was published in book form,  Joseph Conrad’s novella ‘The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus” began to appear in The New Review. (This was a literary journal edited by WE Henley, major editor and minor poet, remembered for his poem Invictus, quoted by Nelson Mandela upon his release from prison and so used as the title of a recent movie about South Africa. Henley was an important player in 1890s literature. As editor of the Scots Observer he’d brought Robert Louis Stevenson to national attention. After Stevenson surprised the literary world by decamping to the South Seas, Henley was the first in London to recognise The Next Big Thing – Kipling – and helped him establish his reputation by publishing the ‘Barrack Room Ballads‘ in 1892.)

The ‘Nigger’ is a novella, only 140 pages in the Penguin edition, a study of men isolated on a merchant ship on a long sea voyage who live through a terrifying storm which pitches the ship right onto its side and nearly drowns them all. It is directly comparable in length, publication date and subject matter to Kipling’s ‘Captains Courageous’.

Both books are, frankly, hard to read, but for different reasons. Kipling is concerned to show you he has mastered the terminology of sea fishing, so his text is stuffed with technical terms. When he’s not showing off his expertise, his characters are talking in a phonetically rendered version of New England fisherman slang:

“‘Ver’ good. Ver’ good don,’ said Manuel ‘After supper I show you a little schooner I make, with all her ropes. So we shall learn.’ ‘Fust-class fer a passenger,’ said Dan, ‘Dad he’s jest allowed you be wuth your salt maybe fore you’re kaownded. Thet’s a heap fer Dad. I learn you more our next watch together.”

(Captains Courageous, Chapter 3)

In terms of meaning or purpose, Kipling’s book is a ‘coming of age’ tale in which a spoilt brat is transformed into a Man by learning discipline and duty and comradeship from the fishermen he’s fallen among. Though all the characters are American, the message is British public school: Become a Man through Responsibility, Hard Work, doing your Duty.

Conrad’s vision and style are far removed from this. His vision is one of European existentialism, of despair at the meaninglessness of human existence. His pages are overwhelmed with mournful asides about the immensity of the sea and the pettiness of human concerns.

“A heavy atmosphere of oppressive quietude pervaded the ship. In the afternoon men went about washing clothes and hanging them out to dry in the unprosperous breeze with the meditative language of disenchanted philosophers. Very little was said. The problem of life seemed too voluminous for the narrow limits of human speech, and by common consent it was abandoned to the great sea that had from the beginning enfolded it in its immense grip; to the sea that knew all, and would in time infallibly unveil to each the wisdom hidden in all the errors, the certitude that lurks in doubts, the realm of safety and peace beyond the frontiers of sorrow and fear.”

(‘The Nigger of the Narcissus’, Chapter 5)

And as you can see, this vision is conveyed in a baroque style of exceeding wordiness – a seemingly limitless litany of boom words and big phrases, all circling hopelessly round his one big perception, the horror of existence. The word horror is repeated a number of times.

Kipling’s bright, shallow British optimism. Or Conrad’s doom-laden European pessimism. Posterity – and literature courses everywhere – have favoured Conrad. But is that right?

As to the ‘nigger’ of the title, the novella centres on a black sailor – James Wait – who ships with the Narcissus knowing he is dying (presumably of TB, though never made explicit). Various crew members – Old Singleton, the sneak Donkin, the youth Charley, sturdy Captain Allisoun, the first mate Baker – are described at length and become fairly ‘real’, but Wait is an allegorical figure, the man doomed to Death who melodramatises his plight, and becomes the psychological centre of the ship, mesmerising the crew.

I think the book is a failure. I didn’t understand from the text or from Conrad’s preface the point of Wait. Conrad keeps calling him a fake, an imposter, but Wait does, truly, die of illness, exactly as he’d been worrying. I think Conrad is wrestling in a confused manner with the issues which obsess him: his sincere love of the sea and his sailor comrades is tangled up with a more personal vision of the heartless universe.

To my mind Conrad sorted these confused feelings out in his next book, also a novella, ‘Heart of Darkness‘, published in 1899 – whose key quote, ‘The horror, the horror’, has become part of the culture thanks to the movie adaptation, ‘Apocalypse Now’, and whose critique of the mindless brutality of western Imperialism has never been surpassed. Here the horror of Conrad’s vision finds its ‘objective correlative’ – the publicly understandable image or symbol of Conrad’s private feelings – in the story of Kurtz, the exemplary imperialist servant gone grotesquely rotten in the depths of the jungle.

In the same year as ‘Heart of Darkness’, Kipling published his volume of stories about jolly public schoolboys, ‘Stalky and Co‘, learning through their wily japes the ways of Brotherhood and Service which will stand them in good stead when they go out to run the British Empire.

The contrast couldn’t be starker.

‘All Hands to The Pump’ by Henry Scott Tuke

Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling (1897)

Kipling moved to America in 1892, settling in Brattleborough, a village in rural Vermont, on the estate belonging to the family of his new American wife, Caroline (Carrie) Balestier. Here he built a cabin, had children, was happy, wrote the two Jungle Books and continued pouring forth poems and short stories.

Late in 1896 he began serialisation of a new prose work, Captains Courageous. It’s short, only ten chapters and 153 pages in the Oxford University paperback edition I read.

Like a lot of Kipling’s fictions, it’s long on journalistic details and specialised jargon, short on plot, extremely light on pyschology. Spoilt teenage son of millionaires, Harvey Cheyne, is irritating the crew on a transatlantic liner before going for a walk along the deck when – whoops – he is washed overboard by a big wave. He comes to on a New England fishing boat and learns, to his horror, that the rough old fishermen who’ve saved him a) don’t believe a word about him being a rich man’s son b) stay out fishing for cod on the Grand Banks all summer long with no plans to return to shore till the autumn!

After cheeking them a few times, Harvey gets knocked down and starts to find out the hard way that if he wants to eat, he has to work.

Over the next eight chapters Harvey becomes a Man in the sense that ‘you’ll be a man, my son’ in Kipling’s most famous poem, If (1895). Eventually he is reunited, a changed person, with his grieving parents who thought he was drowned.

The striking issues are: Masculinity; the gospel of work; showing off; the language; the plot.

1. The plot It’s more like a set-up or predicament than a plot. Or the thinnest of fairy tale transformations. In the hands of a Henry James or Joseph Conrad the pleasure would have been in seeing Harvey’s character genuinely change through a sequence of events. Instead Kipling supplies a stream of incidents but they’re curiously detached from Harvey’s transformation. And Harvey’s transformation doesn’t occur in a gradual way but very quickly in chapter 2 after he’s been knocked down for cheeking the skipper and then chased around the deck with a rope till he performs the shipboard chores correctly. In other words, the chastening and growing-up of Harvey is poorly handled. Because Kipling isn’t really interested in it. Psychology isn’t his thing.

Instead of plot there is a succession of incidents. The crew tell stories. The crew sing songs. A luxury liner nearly hits them in foggy weather and does run over and sink another schooner, killing most of the crew. In a good piece of Kipling cruelty and spookiness, the crew dredge up the corpse of one of the sailors from the wrecked schooner, which seems to have eerily followed them. A hair-standing-up-on-end moment. But these incidents merely follow each other rather than accumulating, let alone prompting Harvey’s psychological progress.

2. Showing off If there’s next to no psychological depth on display, what there is a lot of is Kipling’s characteristic concern to impress the reader with the depth of his expertise – this time on the subject of New England cod ships and sailors. Apparently, he researched the story very thoroughly, visiting shipyards, going out in boats, gutting cod himself, and having long conversations with a friend who sailed. The result is a text absolutely stuffed with fishing expertise and technical terms. No part of the fishing boat or process is left unexplored and unexplained and this can get rather wearisome.

3. The language The expertise is most obviously displayed in the dialect speech of the cod sailors which Kipling renders phonetically, as exhaustively as he renders the regional dialects of his famous Soldiers Three (Yorkshire, Ulster, Cockney) or the Indians who populate his Asia stories. Short though it is, I found the book difficult to read because almost every sentence required decoding from Kipling’s phonetic spelling. Add to this the plethora of technical terms he makes sure he stuffs into every sentence, and his preference for often elliptical conversations over authorial explanation, and it gets quite hard to understand what’s going on in places.

‘Mother av delight! He s forkin them wan by wan,’ howled Long Jack, as Uncle Salters got to work laboriously; the little man in the other dory counting a line of notches on the gunwale. ‘That was last week’s catch,’ he said, looking up plaintively, his forefinger where he had left off. Manuel nudged Dan, who darted to the after-tackle, and, leaning far overside, slipped the hook into the stern-rope as Manuel made her fast forward. The others pulled gallantly and swung the boat in man, fish, and all. ‘One, two, four nine,’ said Tom Platt, counting with a practised eye. ‘Forty-seven. Penn, you re it!’ Dan let the after-tackle run, and slid him out of the stern on to the deck amid a torrent of his own fish.

It’s all like this. Very hard work.

4. Surfaces Kipling’s energy doesn’t go into the psychological depths, into where you’d expect a novelist to be working; it goes into the surfaces of facts and language. As a novelist, Kipling is a great journalist. It’s typical that in Chapter 9, when the bereaved parents learn that their son is alive after all, instead of even attempting to describe the psychological impact on them, Kipling spends pages detailing the route Cheyne senior’s private train would have taken from San Francisco to Gloucester, Mass., including the details of all the drivers and engineers required, the messages sent ahead to key junctions and so on and so on. The grieving parents’ reunion with their son takes place in a sentence, and has little or no impact on either of them.

5. The gospel of work If the Victorians can be divided into Hebrews or Hellenes, Kipling is a prophet of Hebraicism. Following in the traditions of Carlyle et al he believes in the virtues of Work, the Dignity of Labour, that the truth is only revealed to those who work hard, do their duty, building and maintaining the world we live in.

In chapter 7 the schooner (emblematically named We’re Here) is nearly run down in the fog by a vast luxury liner; a fellow schooner is actually cut in half and the whole crew crushed or drowned.  the tragedy / disaster / accident rams home Kipling’s moral that the pampered passengers on the liner fussing over their gilt-edged menus don’t even notice that, in a few seconds, their vessel has destroyed the livelihoods, and actually killed, poor, hard-working, honest sailors.

At the end of the story the Cheyne parents attend the annual church service for fishermen lost in that season and the pampered Mrs Cheyne is shown breaking down in tears as the long list of drowned seamen is read out. Kipling has a highly moral purpose in almost all his writings, which is to show pampered liberals the sheer bloody hard work of the thousands of unsung soldiers, sailors, merchants, explorers, engineers etc who provide the peace, stability, goods and services they all take for granted. It is not an unworthy task.

5. Masculinity What is it to be a man? Kipling has a very clear idea, and Harvey’s transformation from pampered brat to blooded young man is accomplished through hard physical work, dedication to duty, masculine comradeship, and the rejection of all luxury. These are the values Kipling elsewhere esteems in his Indian administrators and soldiers, in the New England sailors, in his South African pioneers. It is a narrow, blinkered view of (hu)man nature, but one he made his own and expresses more completely than, maybe, any other English writer.

The well-known poem, If, written a year earlier than Captains Courageous, in 1895, may be regularly parodied and mocked by knowing intellectuals. But it is just as regularly voted Britain’s favourite poem. Whatever you think of Kipling’s politics and artistry, his jingoism and sexism, he is saying something which still endures and speaks to many people today.

The story is written from the point of view of Harvey, but it can also be seen as the story of Mr Cheyne, the successful millionaire, too busy running his business empire to attend to his son who, as a result, becomes a spoilt brat. The act of Fate which throws Harvey into the company of the sailors and shows him hard work, comradeship and respect – which makes a responsible adult of him – was something Cheyne senior realises that he was failing to do himself. As a father, I wouldn’t be unhappy if something similar happened to my son.

Related links

The movie

There have been two film versions, the 1937 one starring Spencer Tracy. I bet it’s great. Costs £20 on Amazon. And a 1977 remake starring Karl Malden.

Other Kipling reviews

Dickens’ Journalism (1850-70)

19 June 2012

Dickens wrote with feverish energy, unstoppably, creating a vast output. The Penguin volume of Dickens’s selected journalism is 688 pages long. Michael Slater has edited four volume of Dickens journalism and even these aren’t complete.

Having read the novels I came to the journalism expecting the hundreds of articles he wrote to be factual, analytical critiques of Victorian society, complete with statistics and investigations. I was bitterly disappointed. Only when I learned to see them for what they are, did the scales drop from my eyes and I began to enjoy them.

They are entertainments. All Dickens’s prodigious output can be summarised by his wish to entertain. When he sits down to plan he is moralistic, as in the novels. But for long stretches of the novels and lots of the journalism there is no deeper motive than to entertain, to distract and to amuse.

When I first read Hard Times expecting an economically literate, politically informed critique of Victorian industrialism I was shocked at how muddled, shallow and thick it was. It offers next to no insight into his times; its one great message is the importance of the imagination to the human spirit. Sleary’s Circus is at the heart of the novel, not Gradgrind’s factories (is there a single description of the work that goes on inside any of the factories?).

After a while you realise the joy of the essays is similar – it’s their unsystematic, unstatistical, unanalytical style. They are more stream-of-consciousness than Parliamentary report, with memory tumbling over memory, imagery striking out like sparks.

Exuberance and intimacy. Dickens enchants with the utter candour of many of these memories and offers an immediate sensual identification with the excitements of his experiences. A famous example is  ‘Gone Astray’, where he was lost as a child and blundered round a city of giants. But the effect is enchanting not terrifying.

He visits slums, police stations, was an obsessive visitor of prisons and lunatic asylums (read the American Notes where he makes a beeline for the prison, asylum or morgue of every city he visits).

We are seduced by a) Dickens’s candid tone b) the openheartedness of his memories c) the relentless optimism of his style, which overrides pessimism of subject matter. Dickens’s energy energises his reader. Creates an implied author of confidence, candour and permanent good humour. Creates an exuberance which seems endless. One of the ways in which he seems more like a world, a universe, than a mere mortal author.

Painting of Dickens’ characters populating his study by Robert William Buss

Band of Brothers by Stephen E. Ambrose (1992)

10 June 2012

Historian Stephen E. Ambrose published ‘Band of Brothers, E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne: From Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest’ in 1992. It’s a remarkable story and finding one company which had such varied and yet emblematic experiences was a stroke of luck or inspiration.

The book is a little more confusing than the HBO mini-series based on it (transmitted in 2001). There are a lot more individuals in the book (and in reality, presumably) whereas the TV series did what all film and TV does, which is simplify and focus in on just a handful of individuals, allowing us to “get to know them” better.

In fact what came over most vividly to me is the hypertextuality of the book – Ambrose describes how the wartime closeness of the men of Easy Company led to various forms of postwar contact, from reunions to newsletters. It’s interesting to discover which of the characters were most proactive in these activities, and to realise that the characters we’ve read a lot about tended to be the ones who wrote and organised most. Maybe that’s inevitable but it makes you realise how skewed and partial the book potentially is. And, overlaying their stories, is the account of Ambrose’s increasing involvement with these men which leads him to commission them to write memoirs of their wartime deeds, or dig up letters and diaries. That’s what I mean by its hypertextuality – the way the book is made up of lots of other texts, sources, diaries, interviews, letters and memoirs.

It’s also a good example of the power of paratextuality. By this I mean that bits of the book normally thought of as peripheral or unimportant, in fact had as much impact on me as the main narrative, and radically changed my impression of the whole.

1. The final chapter, detailing the various soldiers’ post-war careers is in many ways more interesting than the preceding 300 page account of their wartime deeds. These few pages contain the seeds of a probing and maybe disturbing novel. The shiny heroes of the previous chapters move on into the Postwar world and become CEOs of big corporations or alcoholics, teachers or suicidal depressives. Some of these stories are just as poignant as anything told in the main narrative. For me, the stories told in these sections are better than a novel. They’re as brief as good short stories; their brevity is as suggestive as poetry.

2. The final section of acknowledgements details Ambrose’s intense involvement with the men of Easy Company, meeting with many of them on numerous occasions, attending their reunions, visiting with them the sites of battles described in the text, hearing about their attempts to stay in touch with each other or help comrades who’d fallen on hard times. Eventually he is elected an honorary member of the Company.

The depth of Ambrose’s involvement with these living men, the amount of activity the veterans kept up over the years, the large amount of texts they generated in a whole range of formats, and the poignancy of their post-war lives struck me as being more dense, more felt, more evocative and more moving and more complex than the war stories they are so keen to share.  And this depth and complexity and lack of happy endings, the messiness of their lives and of the way Ambrose got involved in those lives and became a player in the events he was describing, made me think of the book as much more of a modernist novel than you usually experience from a work of ‘history’.

‘Band of Brothers’ – HBO home page

D-Day and the Battle for Normandy by Anthony Beevor (2009)

10 June 2012

I read this book in early June 2012 ie the 68th anniversary of the D-Day landings. I read it on a surfing holiday in Croyde, north Devon where, every morning, I squeezed into a wetsuit and walked into the freezing north Atlantic, some days under a slate-grey sky and in driving rain, images from the book vivid in my mind. I understood a little of what it felt like to plunge into the same cold grey water on a June day – though without the hundreds of pounds of equipment which drowned so many soldiers – or the annihilating fire of the German defenders which killed so many more.  The whole area where I was holidaying, from Sauton Sands in the south to Woolacombe and Morte Hoe in the north, was used by American soldiers to practice for D-Day.

I guess I should say that Antony Beevor’s book is a triumph but in fact it’s rather a blur of one brigade, division, regiment, Army after another. There are plenty of maps in the book but what you really need is a big wipeable map of the North of France pinned to the wall and plenty of marker pens to draw in the movements of the numerous different units. A few themes emerge:

* Monty appears to have been a disaster, error-prone in his military decisions, indecisive in not closing the Falaise Gap quickly enough, then impulsive in hatching the disastrous Market Garden operation, generally becoming perceived as unreliable and vain leading, eventually, to widespread American distrust of the British Army just as the war was ending and we needed to work more closely than ever together.

* Air power was alarmingly bad. Time after time the Typhoon fighter bombers are revealed as missing their targets. I think he says it was estimated that only 4% of their missiles hit anything. On a few occasions massive bombardment from the air and by the navy offshore ended up totally missing the target, or only partially disabling the enemy. Having read so much about the failure of artillery in the Great War I was surprised to see the same thing happening in WWII, and it uncomfortably reminded me of the massive aerial bombardments ‘we’ carried out on Iraq in 1990, on Serbia in the 90s, and Iraq again in 2003.

* I hadn’t appreciated how wrecked Normandy was by the fighting. Next time I’m in the region I’ll appreciate that every hedgerow, every farm and barn and village, was brutally, bitterly fought over. Beevor is at pains to point out that mortality rates were equal or even higher than those on the Eastern Front. I take the point and am suitably appalled.

What terrible suffering the fighting men of both sides experienced and what astonishing bravery and endurance they showed. What a crazy stupid waste.

Photo of troops landing on D-Day by Robert Capa

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