Life Is Elsewhere by Milan Kundera (1969)

And all the secrets we discovered were
Extraordinary and false
(from August for the people by W.H. Auden)

Kundera’s second novel, Life is Elsewhere, is – at least to begin with – a bit of a disappointment after the pyrotechnics of his first, The Joke. The former book was packed with sophisticated ironic effects by virtue of being told by half a dozen narrators who all had different perspectives on the central event. If nothing else, this made for a dynamic reading experience, as the reader was often ahead of various characters in understanding what was going on, or was enabled to assemble the ‘meanings’ of various events from multiple points of view – the cumulative effect being to produce a narrative not only of events, but of what those events ‘meant’, how the meaning of the events was continually changing and, by implication, a sustained meditation on the meaning of ‘meaning’.

Life is Elsewhere is much more traditional and boring in this respect, being told by one, omniscient narrator who has a rather smothering claustrophobic presence. And the story itself takes the time-honoured shape of the Bildungsroman, a straightforward, linear description of the ‘psychological and moral growth’ of a central character.

So there’s only one central character. And we are told his story in chronological order.

The character in question is a fictional poet, who Kundera names Jaromil. We are told how his parents met and married, how he was conceived, and his precocious way with words when still a toddler. This is all set in the early 1930s, not very distant from Kundera’s own birth year of 1929. Jaromil is the apple of his mother’s eye. She makes posters of his childish sayings and hangs them on the wall of the room he is given when still a boy. And he himself shows a precocious ability at drawing although, for some reason, he gives all his human figures dogs heads – a childish eccentricity.

Then, suddenly, it is 1938 and France and Britain hand over the Sudetenland to Germany without a fight. A year later German troops are in Prague, and then the Nazis start rounding up students, communists, socialists and shipping them off to concentration camps. We are told about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi Stellvertretender Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia, in June 1942 and the ferocious reprisals the Nazis carried out.

But Jaromil and his Mother are too young to be caught up in all this and go to a spa, where they meet an artist who gives a professional opinion on the young boy’s youthful drawings.

The novel is 300 pages long and feels long. But what struck me is its fairy tale quality, the feel of a fable. In the real world, work and the hassles of parenthood fill up time with a never-ending sequence of harassing demands. Whereas a fiction like this is able to alight on certain key moments – the moment of Jaromil’s conception, the moment his mother begged his father to inseminate her once again so she could have a baby girl, but the father withdrew and curtly announced he wanted no more children.

These are talismanic moments, selected like the ones in a fairy tale because they are key to the overall fable, while all else is rejected.

We selected this episode out of dozens in order to show that the pinnacle of happiness Jaromil had experienced up to this point in his life was having a girl’s head on his shoulder. (p.110)

It comes as no surprise, when Jaromil and Maman arrive at the spa that they find it in a beautiful rural setting, so much so that it appears to young Jaromil to be ‘a fairy-tale world’ (p.29), in fact, once I’d noticed it, I realised that a succession of milieu through which Jaromil moves are described as magical or fairy tale.

  • Through the magic of poetry (which is the magic of inexperience)… (p.111)
  • A poem is a magical land where rivers change their course. (p.194)
  • ‘The magical thing about it is, ‘continued Jaromil… (p.196)
  • Tears signified to him a magic elixir… (p.257)
  • Through the magic of poetry all things become the truth… (p.271)
  • It seemed to him that the magic moment was returning, the magic evening when he had sat in her room and they had had eyes only for each other… (p.293)

His nursery. His infant school playground. The spa. The artist’s studio. All these settings are just so, just exactly the ones required to tell a story like this, of the psychological and spiritual evolution of a sensitive soul. Moments are selected like jewels, spangling against the grey cloth of the everyday, and presented for the reader’s delectation, along with authorial commentary.

Maman ends up having an affair with the artist – that’s to say he successfully seduces her, and then submits her to an interesting, amusing and erotic series of transformations. He doesn’t just paint or draw her, he paints on her, stripping her and decorating her body with modernist lines, and then taking photographs of her. Then making passionate love to her. Pages are taken up with Maman’s bewildered reflections on these events.

Meanwhile, Jaromil hits an early puberty and begins to fantasise about the body of the family’s maid, Magda. There is an extended, mildly comical account of one night at home, when his parents have gone out, and he knows Magda is taking her evening bath, and Kundera describes the more and more contorted pretexts Jaromil tries to contrive to enable him to walk breezily into the bathroom, see the maid’s naked body, and walk out again. But he fails to carry them through. He is too shy.

Xavier

Part two of the book, commencing on page 65, is titled Xavier and is deeply confusing. A young man bursts through a woman’s window and reassures her that he means no harm, but at that moment her husband lumbers upstairs towards the bedroom, so the young man hides under the bed, the big husband carries the woman to the bed, the young man sneezes, the big husband hears and goes to the wardrobe to see if a man is hiding there, the young man bursts out from under the bed and pushes the husband into the wardrobe and locks it, and grabs the young woman and takes her on an adventure, he wakes up in another room and…

And so, slowly and confusedly, we realise the entire section is made up of the never-ending adventure of this character, Xavier, who goes from one half-fulfilled dream to another, repeating the same general contours of adventure and excitement and rescuing young damsels against an ever-changing backdrop.

It’s only well after the section has concluded, back in a section about Jaromil, that we discover the by-now teenage poet invented a character named Xavier and wrote down his poetic adventures. So what we have just read is a version of Jaromil’s journal. OK. It was bewildering and left-field when it first appeared…

Other lyric poets

When we return to Jaromil’s story it is to discover that his father is arrested and executed by the Nazis just before the end of the war. But the real innovation in this section, something which dogs the rest of the story is the appearance alongside Jaromil, of a shopping list of the greatest lyric poets from the entire European tradition.

The narrator makes explicit comparisons between Jaromil’s background, upbringing, family situation, early life experiences and shows how closely they mirror those of the great lyric poets such as the Czechs Frantisak Halas and Jiri Wolker, the Germans Rilke and Hölderlin, the Russians Esenin, Mayakovsky, Blok and Pushkin, the Englishman Shelley, the Frenchmen Baudelaire and de Nerval, but most of all  the French boy wonder poet, Rimbaud, and the short and easily offended Russian poet, Lermontov.

(It is Rimbaud who gives the book its title, a quote from one of the prose poems he wrote in a storm of creativity when he was just 17: La vrai vie est absente – the real life or just ‘real life’ is absent. I wonder why Kundera shortened this to ‘life’ is absent.)

These other lyric poets start out as comparators for Jaromil, but quite soon they start to take over the text. I mean that, after many sections describing this or that about Jaromil, a new section will set off describing ‘him’ and you have to have your wits about you to realise it’s now describing an event in the life of Rimbaud or Lermontov. More and more their names are scattered across the text as Kundera uses the events in  Jaromil’s fictional life to bring out the resemblances between the lyric poets – Baudelaire, aged 40 and still scared of his mother, de Nerval mesmerised by the mother who died when he was a boy, and so on…

Jaromil, we come to realise, is not-that-subtly being presented as a type, as a category of European thought. The Lyric Poet. And the essence of the Lyric Poet (in Kundera’s view) is that he is an immature mummy’s boy.

  • The lyric poet spends a lifetime searching for signs of manhood in his face. (p.97)
  • Tenderness is the fear of maturity. (p.112)

Jaromil wants to be a man, a real man. He wants to possess a woman, many women. He wants to write great poetry, he wants to be accepted by the other poets.

In the last third of the book Jaromil is a young man and is introduced to writers and poets through the artist, the one he had the lucky meeting with at the spa when he was a boy, the one he went to for art lessons, the one who seduced, stripped, painted and photographed his mother (in what are, arguably, the book’s most memorable scenes).

The poets meet upstairs in a pub, argue and get drunk a lot. The format of their arguments is uncannily like the format of the rhetorical questions the narrator asks all through the text: is Surrealism a revolutionary movement? Can poetry help build the new socialist society? And so on.

On the periphery of the poets he meets a sweet and soulful young woman. But she is as innocent and virginal as Jaromil and many pages are spent describing their painful and embarrassing fumbles. These are counterpointed with his now-adult encounters with the artist, and his bohemian coterie, who Jaromil shocks with the vehemence of his revolutionary nihilism, and with the arguments of the established, published poets, who grumble on during the era of the 1948 Communist coup and beyond, endlessly nagging at what kind of poetry is revolutionary, whether it’s kitsch rhymes for the masses, or the hyper-modern Russian avant-garde style poetry which rejects all the old bourgeois forms.


Kundera the narrator

A highly intrusive narrator

Kundera’s narrator doesn’t just intrude a bit on the story: he selects, presents and displays events for our delectation. He whips the text up out of nothing. He is an impresario of the text.

The most obvious symptom of this is his use of rhetorical questions to set up each new section or scene, a tactic which is present from the very first sentence of the book.

Exactly when and where was the poet conceived? (First sentence, page one)

and litters the text thereafter:

  • And what about her son’s soul?
  • But why did Jaromil continue to be an only child? (p.24)
  • And how did Jaromil fare with his unique inner world? (p.33)
  • Was she thus telling him the real truth at last? (p.54)
  • For Jaromil it [the concept of death] was infinitely far away; it was abstract; it was not reality, but a dream. What was he seeking in that dream? (p.104)
  • What was the source of her sorrows? Who knows… (p.143)
  • If Jaromil had become a zealous functionary, whose work affected the fate of adults, can we still maintain that he was on the run? (p.163)

All these rhetorical questions are a bit reminiscent of a certain type of academic presentation, of a lecture, reminding us that Kundera was indeed a professor of literature for many years (1952-75). They cut to the chase. They eliminate the need for hundreds of sentences setting up a location and a time of day, and a place wherein a great spiritual turning point is going to happen. No, Kundera can simply ask, ‘And how did Jaromil fare with his unique inner world?’ and then get on with answering his own question.

Not having to paint in any kind of background or set any scenes liberates Kundera to get right to the psychological point he wants to make about his characters. It makes the text very cost-effective.

The royal ‘we’

Related to this is the way Kundera he freely uses the royal ‘we’, the authorial ‘we’, to establish his own narratorial omniscience, and to forge a knowing acquaintance with the reader, the ‘we’ coercing us to acknowledge shared assumptions and experiences. The rhetorical questions are often answered by the authorial ‘we’. Why was Jaromil unpopular at school?

  • We are almost embarrassed to say: it was not wealth, it was mother love (p.20)
  • We don’t know why she laughed. [the young woman Jaromil was feebly trying to make love to] (p.133)
  • If we were to ask Jaromil how old the two characters were [in a long poem he’s just written] he’d stammer in embarrassment… (p.138)

And

  • Other [pictures] of certain scenes which we had better pass over. (p.36)
  • We don’t wish to imply that Jaromil was not interested in bodily beauty. (p.110)

Which is related to the use of the phrase ‘let us’, in the sense of ‘let us explore this moment  / word / event a little further’, which also brings out a strong scholarly, academic tone of the narrator.

  • He was one of the elect. Let us examine this word a little closer. (p.99)
  • Ah, let us mercifully skip over some fifteen or twenty minutes of Jaromil’s torment. [he is trying to undress a young woman who is refusing to help] (p.132)
  • Let’s keep Jaromil’s picture before us a while longer. (p.219)
  • Let us also recall the historical context… (p.230)
  • Let us leave our novel for a little while, let us carry our observatory to the end of Jaromil’s life… (p.271)

This ‘we’ is not embarrassed about picking up the narrative, fiddling with it, and plonking it back down right where he wants it.

  • At the end of the last section we left Jaromil in the redhead’s bed. (p.186)
  • Do you hear the distant sound of Death, impatiently stamping its feet? Let it wait, we are still here in the flat, in another novel, in another story… (p.286)

Analysis and italics

Kundera is the kind of author – or thinker about his stories and characters – who is continually analysing their every thought and gesture and turn of mind and habits. One tell-tale sign of this is his use of italics. He is keen not just to explain what they’re thinking or doing, but to delve ever deeper, to really dig down into their psychological sub-strata. In doing so he is keen to clarify the ideas and motivations of the characters he has invented and displayed for our entertainment. And to do this he often finds himself writing like an expository writer, rather like the new theory French writers of the 1960s, who felt compelled to show where they’d revealed a new depth of analysis, by writing it in italics.


The plot part two – History intrudes

I enjoyed the second half of the book more because it moves away from the cloyingly claustrophobic relationship between mother and son which dominates the first half, and focuses increasingly on politics and the tragic political, social and personal consequences of the Communist takeover of power.

Kundera has by now established that all the great mummy’s boy lyric poets were enraptured by the idea of Death and ran off to be soldiers with no idea of the reality – from Shelley travelling to Dublin with pockets stuffed with incendiary pamphlets designed to spark an insurrection (p.175), to Lermontov, a sickly misfit who insisted on joining the Russian army and died in a pointless duel, from Rimbaud who fantasised about manning the barricades during the Paris Commune of 1870 (but was too young) and who instead terminated his precocious poetic career by going off to become a gun-runner in Africa, to Byron who fantasised about joining the great Pan-Hellenic Fight For Freedom, but ended up dying of a mosquito bite in Missolonghi. They were sickly and died pathetically young, like John Keats coughing his lungs up in Rome.

All mother’s boys, all struggling to escape the apron strings, and above all, to prove themselves real men. Kundera throws in withering comparisons with the students of his day – 1948 in Prague – and at the time he was writing the novel – 1968 in Paris – who wrote lyrical slogans all over the walls, calling for a new world, revolution and overthrow.

Slowly we realise what form this wish – the primal wish of the lyric poet to hurl himself into a Cause, to run towards battle and engage with the real world and wrestle with death and stop being a mummy’s boy and become a Real Man – will take for Jaromil.

In the context of the Communist takeover of power in Czechoslovakia, it means he wilfully becomes hard-hearted, he joins the young zealots, he publicly derides the art and poetry of his mentor, the old artist. He derides his own earlier poetry. He quotes the Soviet poet Mayakvsky, who said he stamped on the throat of his own, earlier, bourgeois poetry. Jaromil writes Stalinist poems for workers.

And now Kundera skillfully uses the interplay he’s created between his fictional poet and the real-life poets and the events of 20 years later – 1968 – to begin to scathingly criticise the unthinking, stone-faced, hard-hearted zealotry of the young. For:

Revolutions are lyrical and in need of lyricism. (p.193)

Counter-intuitively, and to the reader’s great surprise, it turns out that the entire book is going to be a condemnation of lyric poetry and of the role it plays in revolutions; is devoted to showing the linkage between the immature absolutism at the heart of revolutions and of youthful lyricism. The way both are totalising, both want to overthrow the complex messy real world, and create a new one of compulsory beauty and harmony and order.

Kundera dissects the psychology behind the lyric impulse: Unable to confront the complexity of adult life, the lyric poets create an alternative world, beautiful and perfect and utterly unreal.

This is the basic situation of immaturity. The lyrical approach is one way of dealing with this situation: the person banished from the safe enclosure of childhood longs to go out into the world, but because he is afraid of it he constructs an artificial, substitute world of verse… He becomes the centre of a small universe in which nothing is alien, in which he feels as much at home as an infant inside its mother… (p.219)

The rousing slogans Jaromil finds himself called upon to create for revolutionary youths marching in the streets of Prague in 1948, are identical to the ones the zealous French students of 1968 will paint all over the walls of the Sorbonne (p.172) calling for the complete overthrow of the existing order and the installation of something which is only a dream and a fantasy, slogans like:

  • Beneath the pavement, the beach!
  • Be realistic – demand the impossible!

In everything I’ve read about the Paris évènements (simply the French word for ‘events’) of 1968, in every documentary, every film, and every art exhibition I’ve seen which references them — the presenters, producers and curators are one hundred per cent behind the students and nostalgic that they themselves weren’t there during this heady lyrical revolutionary time!

It is a bracing surprise and antidote to come across a noted and world famous liberal’ author – who is wholeheartedly against the students and their high-minded slogans, and has gone to such trouble to create such an extended and scathing indictment of the youthful, revolutionary, lyric impulse as an entity.

In amidst the confusion of the 1948 coup and its aftermath, Jaromil has dumped the frigid girlfriend, but then wasted a huge amount of time fixating on a pretty blonde shop assistant from a department store. He tails her everywhere like a useless puppy, and, back in his bedroom, masturbates continually as he imagines finally losing his virginity to her. One evening he is waiting at the department store when her not-so-pretty red-headed friend exits and, before he can bolt, she walks right up to him. She claims to know that he has a crush on her. She’s noticed him looking at her in the shop. She’s noticed him hanging round the shop every evening. On one notable occasion Jaromil had followed the blonde home to her apartment and hung around in the street hoping to catch a glimpse of her – only to see the red-head at the window. And she saw him!

Of course she has utterly misinterpreted the situation when she thinks Jaromil carries a torch for her, but Jaromil is too terrified to put her right.

They walk and before he knows it are kissing, she invites him up to her place and he is about to go through the usual existential agonies when she simply puts her hands between his legs and touches his penis. Which is rock hard. The rest follows like clockwork. Afterwards, as they lie in bed, she asks how many women he’s had and our lyric poet smirks and remains mysteriously silent. The reader laughs because we know the answer is ‘None’ and that he has just lost his virginity.

But, as is always the way with Kundera characters, with Kundera men, as soon as Jaromil has acquired a basic fluency at sex (and above all mastered the technique of undressing a woman, something which has caused him agonies of embarrassment throughout his adolescence) he becomes dissatisfied with the redhead. She natters on all the time. Especially about her family.

The janitor’s son

At school Jaromil had been picked on as a weakling and had formed only one friendship, with the janitor’s son. Now, years later, the janitor has risen to become a senior policeman. He makes a friendly call on Jaromil’s mum, leaves an invitation. So Jaromil goes round to the big building of National Security, signs in his name, and is met by the janitor’s son. (I don’t think we ever learn his name. He is always referred to simply as the janitor’s son, presumably to keep ever-present in our minds the way he, too, is taking revenge for having been an outsider and bullied at school.)

They settle into his office and the man swanks about his heavy responsibilities and the challenge the police face in these difficult times, rounding up enemies of the revolution.

Kundera emphasises that Jaromil, living in a lifelong bubble of mummy’s love, is blissfully unaware that tens of thousands of his fellow Czechs have been arrested, many of them tortured, some of them executed, all on trumped-up charges. All Jaromil sees is the janitor’s son’s manliness. He is a real man. He has manly responsibilities. He has a gun strapped to his belt. This is the real life Jaromil’s been seeking all his years. The Real Life that Shelley and Rimbaud and Lermontov were ever-seeking. A life of Action and Responsibility.

And thrown into the mix, is the long long long, very long list of humiliations public and private which Jaromil has lived through and the book has described, from being bullied at school, to not knowing how to take a girl’s bra off, from being ridiculed in assemblies of mature poets and authors, to being mocked by editors and publishers for being one more among thousands of aspiring poets, and – in a tragi-comic scene towards the end of the novel – being forced to turn down the offer of sleeping with a beautiful woman film-maker because he is crushingly conscious that he is wearing the big grey flannel pants which his mother still lays out for him every morning, as if he were still a schoolboy!

The zealot, Kundera suggests, is overflowing with a thirst for revenge. But not the wide-minded, imaginative revenge which helps to usher in a New World. Just revenge. Just punishment. Just the ability to threaten, intimidate, bully, arrest and, if necessary, torture all those who mocked and persecuted him when he was a boy.

The revolution hands over the running of society to small-minded bullies.

The betrayal

Jaromil is invited to an evening of poetry at a police academy in the countryside arranged by his friend the janitor’s son. Improbably, he is a fan of Jaromil’s Stalinist poetry. A dozen poets attend and Jaromil finds himself drawn into the intense question and answer session which follows the recitals. At the front of the audience is a stunningly gorgeous woman who keeps looking at him. The last stretch of the novel is characterised by Jaromil’s hapless attempts to sleep with her. On the occasion referred to above she invites him up to her apartment but at the last minute he is embarrassed at the thought of his big grey pants. Then he is invited to take part in a film, where he is taken to some country location and asked to recite his poems amid bucolic scenery. But Jaromil is so terrified of her and of the whole situation that he forgets the words to his own poems and, while the whole crew mocks him, is eventually ordered just to stand dumbly opening and closing his mouth while the director assures him they’ll dub the poems on later. Humiliation.

It is in this mood of maximum frustration and humiliation that the tragedy occurs. The redhead is late for their next meeting and Jaromil flies into a fury. She at first says she had to stay late to comfort a colleague who’s having trouble in love. Jaromil is even more angry that some shopgirl comes before his feelings, so the redhead quickly retraces her steps and says she is in fact late because she was saying a final goodbye to her brother (the one she once shared a room with, to Jaromil’s intense immature jealousy, and who she’s always wittering about).

Now she tells him that her brother is planning to flee the country illegally the next day. This triggers a tremendous argument in which Jaromil says how can she be such a traitor – she should have told him the truth straightaway – she doesn’t really love him if she’s prepared to lie to him. He reduces the woman to tears, which (obnoxiously) he finds magical and soothing.

By this stage, I think we are safe in concluding that Jaromil is a thorough-going sneak and bastard.

Next day he dresses smartly and goes to see his friend the janitor’s son at the building of National Security, looking across the table at him ‘as one tough-minded adult faces another; equal to equal; man to man.’ And he calmly betrays his girlfriend and her brother to the security police. The janitor’s son calls in other officials. They take down the girlfriend and her brother’s names and details. Jaromil feels like he is in the real world now, this is Real Life. Jaromil leaves the building feeling Big and Full of Destiny.

He goes home and tries to write a poem but then gets restless and takes a tram to the redhead’s apartment and is surprised to see two men waiting outside it. He hides. When she turns up around 6pm, from work, the two men approach her, they talk for a moment, then they take her to a waiting car and drive off. He goes home troubled. Next morning he goes to see the janitor’s son who thanks him profusely for his prompt and patriotic action, and sends him off with a pat on the back. For the last few pages of this section Kundera shows us the inner workings as the despicable Jaromil decides that the sacrifice of one skinny freckled red-haired girl is well worth it in order to create a better future, a perfect future, in which politics and love will be identical and everyone will do the right thing.

The red-headed girl

The penultimate section up sticks and shifts perspective to years later, telling what happened next.

The redheaded girl was locked up in prison for three years. In this short epilogue, upon release from prison she goes to the train station to take a train to her home town but then hesitates… and decides instead to go to the apartment of… her older lover. He is forty. They met when she was seventeen, erotically talented and eager to please an older man. Not only herself, but she organised some straight and some lesbian orgies for his pleasure. Then she met and fell in love with a young poet, obviously Jaromil, though he goes unnamed.

The older man was happy; he didn’t want any of his mistresses becoming too dependent on him. He guided her through their courtship, gave her advice, and kept the poems Jaromil wrote her, though he despised them.

Then one evening she came to tell him she was leaving him, that she really loved the young poet and was going to dedicate her life to his. She was late leaving and late arriving for her date with the poet. He was cross. She made up an excuse about a colleague at work and when that didn’t wash, invented a story about her older brother preparing to flee the country. She had no inkling that the poet would report her and her brother to the police, or that she’d be arrested, or sentenced to prison.

Now the older man tells her that the poet died soon afterwards. He just got ill and died, nothing dramatic or lyrical. His mother moved away. Nobody remembers him anymore.

The redhead turns away: even her plans to cold shoulder and ignore the poet have come to nothing. It was all a meaningless nightmare. For nothing.

And suddenly the older man realises why she hesitated at the train station about whether to go straight home, and then… and decided to come and see him first. Her brother, totally innocent, was also arrested. She thinks he is still in prison somewhere. So that when she finally faces her family, how will they believe that it was not her who betrayed him and destroyed their family, but some unknown young man who isn’t even alive any more?

Overcome with pity, the man stretches out her hand to touch her cheek… and she bursts into tears.

For me, these last fifteen or so pages were better than all the rest of the novel put together. Jaromil is a vile creature and creates a slow-building sense of contempt and anger. And somehow, intertwined with this, is all the tricksiness of Kundera’s narratorial devices and conceits, the transposition of eras and the merging of Jaromil’s story with episodes from all the other lyric poets of the European tradition. Very clever.

Whereas this short section feels like a straightforward account of a terrible event. Most of Kundera’s stories are cerebral, detached, witty and paradoxical. They prompt admiration. But this tragic epilogue, like the coalmining scenes in The Joke, convey you to a genuine time and place in history where life was terrible, and so have real emotional depth.

The final end

In the short final passage we learn how Jaromil died. He was not yet 20. He is invited to a party at the film director’s. It is full of literati and artists. One of them, a big bluff fellow, confronts Jaromil and asks him if he knows what’s happened to the old artist, the one we saw spot Jaromil’s talent at the spa and then paint his mother? He was declared a a bourgeois enemy of the people, deprived of his studio and paints, and forced to work on a building site. Unlike Jaromil, who has become a Stalinist lickspittle. Jaromil takes a feeble mummy’s boy swipe at the big man, who grabs his arm, turns him round, picks him up by the collar and seat of his pants, and throws him out into the freezing cold (it is a Christmas party).

Absolutely humiliated, and without his coat or jacket, Jaromil can’t leave and travel across town, but he is too frightened to go back into the party, not for hours, not until the last guest has left. By that stage he is shivering uncontrollably. He tiptoes in, collects his jacket and coat and staggers home where he takes to his bed, hallucinates a bit, looked after and tended, as always, by his loyal dutiful Maman. And dies.

Concluding thought

What actually remains of that distant time? Today, people regard those days as an era of political trials, persecutions, forbidden books, and legalised murder. But we who remember must bear witness: it was not only an epoch of terror, but also an epoch of lyricism, ruled hand in hand by the hangman and the poet. (p.270)

This is a complicated thesis, and the book presents a complex case: it seems to be arguing that youth, and the vigour and idealism of youth, and its partner – wonderful, boundless, inspiring passionate lyrical poetry – are all intimately tied in with the crushing annihilating force of the police state which is always unleashed by revolutions: in France, in Russia, in Iran, in the Arab Springs – the intoxicating, life-affirming springtime of peoples is always followed by mass imprisonment and the zealous repression of anything and anyone who doesn’t conform to the revolutionaries’ impossibly other-worldly and lyrical ideas.

Thus this long densely argued book conveys a bleak lesson, but one which Kundera himself lived through, so his testimony carries weight.

Enough weight to overthrow the prejudices and conventions most of us have accepted most of our lives, that lyric poetry is inspiring and uplifting?

Maybe not to overthrow it… but certainly to trouble it.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Medieval English lyrics 1200 to 1400 edited by Thomas G. Duncan (1995)

This handy Penguin paperback contains 132 medieval lyrics along with an extensive introduction explaining their historical and cultural context and explaining the rhyme scheme, scansion and pronunciation of the poems. Each work benefits from a ‘crib’ or translation of obscure phrases which is on the same page as the text, and extensive notes on each poem at the back of the book.

The pronunciation

First the pronunciation. In the following short poem ‘i’ is pronounced like a long ‘e’ as in leave so ‘miri’ is pronounced like mini except with an r in the middle and ‘while’ is pronounced weelë. ‘Sumer’ is soomer, the ‘i’ in ‘i-last’ is ee. The extra ‘e’ on the end of many words is generally voiced which is why Duncan prints it as ‘ë’ to remind the reader to pronounce it. ‘Ou’ is pronounced oo, so ‘foulës’ is pronounced foolës. Gh is like loch in Scottish. So ‘night’ is pronounced with an ‘i’ as in lit or sin and the ‘gh’ sounding as in loch, to make it sound like the German word nicht. ‘Ich’ is pronounced itch, ‘michel’ sounds like mitchell. A’s are short as in cat.

Miri it is while sumer i-last
With foulës song;
Oc now neghëth windës blast
And weder strong.
Ei, ei, what this night is long,
And Ich with wel michel wrong
Sorwe and murne and fast.

So a phonetic version would go something like this:

Mirry it is weel soomer eelast
with foolës song
oc noo neiyeth windës blast
and weder strong.
Ei, ei, wat this nicht is long,
and ich with wel mitchell wrong
sorwe and mourne and fast.

You can make out the pronunciation in this medieval setting of the poem.

‘Mirie it is’ on the Luminarium website

Read out loud

As to the meaning, well, when I studied Middle English (and Anglo-Saxon) at university I found it was best to read the poetry aloud, over and over again, to get the pronunciation and rhythms and sounds into your mouth and mind for some time before worrying about the ‘meaning’.

The kind of crib Duncan provides – i.e. not a full translation into modern English, but just picking the hardest words or phrases and suggesting a meaning – helps because it is fragmentary and doesn’t swamp the poem with a full modern version but just guides you in interpreting some of the original medieval words.

This is one of the appeals of medieval poetry, that it speaks to us before we completely understand what it means and, even after we’ve read modern translations and ‘cribs’, it still says something more than a literal translation into modern English can do.

Thus Duncan helps by pointing out in his glosses that ‘i-last’ means lasts, ‘foulës song’ means birds’ song, ‘oc’ means ‘but’, ‘neigheth’ means ‘draws near’, ‘wat’ means ‘how’ (so the line means ‘how this night is long’), and – most suggestively – that ‘with wel michel wrong’ means ‘for very great wrong doing’…

Given these clues, the reader is forced to reread the poem and assimilate these new meanings to the lines. In effect, to begin to learn Middle English. Compare and contrast the effort required and the reward of trying to understand a different language, with simply swamping your mind with a brisk modern translation:

Merry it is while summer lasts with the song of birds;
but now draws near the wind’s blast and harsh weather.
Alas, Alas! How long this night is! And I, most unjustly,
sorrow and mourn and fast.

In my opinion all the power and mystery is lost in this or any modern translation. How much more powerful, mysterious and interesting (and difficult to scan) it is to say:

and ich with wel mickle wrong

than it is to say:

And I, most unjustly

If one of the purposes of poetry is to refresh the language, or our understanding and use of language, this can be done far more quickly and deeply by learning just one medieval lyric which transports you to a different universe, than by listening to a hundred rap songs which merely entrench you deeper and deeper into the baleful, violent present.

Scansion

Another cause of uncertainty, mystery and pleasure is the odd scansion of most of the lines. Some of them fall right into our modern-day feel for iambic pentameters and regular rhythms. But others just don’t. Duncan has a long essay explaining the scansion i.e. how the rhythm of the poems is made up of the emphases which should – in theory – be given to different vowels, consonants, or words which start lines or words which end them.

For example, it’s important to realise that Middle English had far more words ending in ‘e’ than we do and that sometimes the ‘e’ was voiced but sometimes it wasn’t. It is generally voiced before a consonant but if a vowel begins the next word, elided into that vowel and so not distinctly sounded.

This is why Duncan sometimes prints ‘e’ with a diaeresis over it – ë – when it is to be pronounced – as in ‘foolës song’ – but otherwise leaves the e plain, when it is to be elided into the following vowel to create just one syllable instead of two – ‘Sorwe and murne and fast’ where the e’s on the end of sorwe and murne blend into the a of the following and.

But – in practice – as Duncan admits, many of the poems seem to ignore these rules or to only obey them erratically. No manual or criticism or explanation survives by contemporaries to explain the thinking behind rhythm and syllables and beats, so scholars have had to reconstruct ‘the rules’ six or seven hundred years after the poems were written and there is still a lot of debate because whichever rules you devise, you can immediately find examples which seem to break them.

All this adds to the sense of mild challenge about the poems and forces you to read and reread each one until you think you’ve got the correct rhythm.

Music

And finally, all the poems were in fact lyrics, designed to be set to music and this music – genuinely medieval music – worked according to rules and values most of us find strange, lacking the basic ideas of a dominant key and a structured progression through related chords with the voice picking out melodies from the chord progressions. Instead, in medieval music, the voice was its own master, far less constrained by ideas of harmony and chord progression.

This is particularly true of a solo vocal rendition, as of ‘Wynter wakeneth’ which I quote below. In this instrumental version of ‘Miri it is’, there is a strong sense of rhythm which rides over the doubts and uncertainties you get from just reading the words.

For example, they sing just one ‘ei’ whereas the presence of two ‘eis’ in the original is one of the complicating factors in trying to scan that line. As so often in musical settings of a poem, the composer / performer just ignores the problems of scansion in order to produce a smooth product.

Amended spelling

I am intrigued that the singers in this performance pronounce the word Duncan has given as ‘sorwe’ as ‘sorrich’. This is because they have spelt it ‘soregh’ and not ‘sorwe’ which brings us to a big point.

In this edition Duncan has made the big editorial decision to change the spelling of all the poems in his collection to ‘bring them into conformity’ with the dialect of south-east England. During this period – 1200 to 1400 – there were many distinct regional variations of English, complete with different grammar, spelling and vocabulary. Duncan says he has brought all the spellings into line with the dialect of south-east England – or London – because that is the Middle English of Chaucer and so the version which most of his readers are likely to be familiar with.

I think this is a controversial decision. On the whole I think I would like to be in possession of what the medieval scribes actually wrote than a cleaned-up version which Duncan thinks will be easier for me to read and understand. I don’t want it to be easy. I want it to be accurate and faithful.

There’s a fascinating article devoted to this very song:

which contains a photo of the one and only surviving manuscript of the song (complete with stave lines indicating the note to be sung over each word).

Manuscript of Miri it is

Immediately you can see that the first word is a) missing the initial M b) is written [M]irie, not ‘miri as Duncan gives us. This is a vast difference. The article suggests it should be pronounced with three syllables: mi-ree-e (the last e pronounced as in web). That’s a hell of a difference from the two syllables of Duncan’s ‘miri’.

Similarly, on the second line you can quite clearly see that what Duncan has given as ‘foulës song’ is in fact written ‘fugheles song’. They both mean birds’ song, but Duncan has changed the northern dialect word fughel to the word Chaucer would use, ‘fowl or foul’.

I don’t want to be churlish, but I object to this. 1. I prefer to know what the scribe actually wrote and 2. fugheles quite obviously has three syllables unlike ‘foulës’. Or at least there is a flicker of hesitation over the ‘ughe’ which has been removed by turning it onto ‘ou’.

(Also, as explained, none of the originals have the diaeresis over the e – ë – because that is an entirely Duncan invention, put in hte poems to help the reader with the correct pronunciation.)

In other words, any effort made trying to scan Duncan’s version is effort wasted, or led astray, by the fact that he doesn’t print the words of the actual poem! The online article I’ve referred to gives this as the poem’s correct, unexpurgated text:

[M]Irie it is while sumer ilast
with fugheles song
oc nu necheth windes blast
and weder strong.
Ei ei what this nicht is long
And ich with wel michel wrong.
Soregh and murne and [fast].

(Note that the final word, ‘fast’, is not included in the text as we have it, but is a guess by all succeeding editors.)

Conclusion

Study of this one short poem suggests an approach to Duncan’s entire book which is:- to use it to ramble and surf and browse through the wonderful world of medieval lyrics, to let yourself be caught and captivated by individual poems and work with Duncan’s cribs and read up his notes on each one…

But then to use the wonders of the internet to search for the actual original text of each poem, and to get to know that and not the bowdlerised version Duncan has confected for us.

I sing of a mayden

One hundred and thirty-two is a lot of poems and they range from short seven-liners like the above, to the five short stanzas of a classic like ‘I sing of a mayden’, to much longer, wordier, and more complex poems, poems with elaborate refrains such as ‘Alysoun’, or even dialogue poems where alternate verses are spoken by characters.

‘I sing of a mayden’ is a favourite among fans of this period and has been set to music by many modern composers. Duncan’s version is:

I syng of a mayden
that is makëles:
King of alle kingës
to her sone she chees.

He cam also styllë
ther his moder was
As dewe in Aprylle
that fallëth on the gras.

He cam also styllë
to his moderës bowr
As dew in Aprille
that falleth on the flour.

He cam also stillë
ther his moder lay
As dewe in Aprille
that fallëth on the spray.

Moder and mayden
was never non but she:
Wel may swych a lady
Godës moder be!

It appeals:

  • because of the short simplicity of the lines
  • because of the repetition of the three central verses which vary only the rhyme words was/gras, bowr/flowr, lay/spray
  • because of the sweet innocent purity of the floral imagery
  • and because of the way the simplicity, repetition and natural imagery convey an immensely gentle, sweet and loving relationship between Mary and her beloved son

Does it need translating? As mentioned, Duncan has already bowdlerised it a little, converting the original ‘þ’ into modern ‘th’, and adding his diaeresis e’s to clarify pronunciation and emphasis. The original version of the first two verses reads:

I syng of a mayden
þat is makeles,
kyng of alle kynges
to here sone che ches.

He came also stylle
þer his moder was
as dew in aprylle,
þat fallyt on þe gras.

You can feel the rhythm and the meaning, cant you, but your mind just needs guiding and supporting at a few of the more obscure moments, and this is the merit of Duncan’s ‘cribs’ i.e. printing the meaning of some of the more obscure terms on the same page as the poem. Thus you need to know that ‘makeles’ means ‘matchless’, ‘ches’ means ‘chose’ and that ‘þ’ is pronounced as ‘th’ as in this or that. Once you know that you’re away!

I sing of a maiden
That is matchless,
King of all kings
For her son she chose.

He came as still
Where his mother was
As dew in April
That falls on the grass.

He came as still
To his mother’s bower
As dew in April
That falls on the flower.

He came as still
Where his mother lay
As dew in April
That falls on the spray.

Mother and maiden
There was never, ever one but she;
Well may such a lady
God’s mother be.

As to pronunciation, key points would be that ‘makeles’ is not pronounced like modern ‘make’, but mack-e-less, and that maiden is pronounced my-den. Again, once you’ve grasped its meaning and a feel for the pronunciation, how much cooler and slicker it is to say:

Moder and maiden
Was neverë noon but she

Than:

Mother and maiden
There was never, ever one but she;

Just as it is cooler and slicker to refer to someone’s savoir faire than to their ‘knowledge of how to do things properly’. Learning Middle English is like learning another language which 1. is not, at the end of the day, that difficult because so much of it is similar, sometimes identical, to modern English, and 2. you don’t have to learn well enough to have conversations in it, just well enough to begin to have a feel for the words and phrases, enough of a feel to bring these magical poems to life.

Rhythm and repetition

These two poems epitomise one aspect of Middle English, its ability to make brief, punchy phrases pregnant with meaning:

[M]irie it is while sumer ilast

I syng of a mayden
þat is makeles,

But ‘mayden’ also highlights the ability of what are, for the most part, songs made to be sung, to use repetition with variation to create beautiful rhythms. (In this example remember ‘bounden’ is pronounced ‘boonden’.)

Adam lay ybounden
bounden in a bond,
fowre thousand winter
thoughte he not too long;

And al was for an appil
an appil that he took,
As clerkes finden writen
writen in hire book.

Ne hadde the apple taken ben
the apple taken ben,
Ne hadde nevere Oure Lady
ybeen hevene Quen.

Blessed be the time
that appil taken was:
Therfore we mown singen
Deo Gratias.

Even if you’re not sure what ‘Adam lay ybounden, bounden in a bond’ exactly means, it’s not hard to 1. get a feel for the nice rhythm of the thing and 2. get the gist of the meaning – that Adam paid dearly for his original sin of eating the forbidden appil, and defying God’s ordinance, and triggering the Fall of Man.

But all’s well that ends well, because if that appil had never been taken, there would have been no need for Christ to have been conceived and born and crucified to redeem us all, in which case there would have been no Virgin Mary, and imagine the world without the Virgin Mary! No, it can’t be done!

And therefore Adam lying bounden in a bond is a small price to pay for having the Mother of God reigning in heaven to guard over us poor sinners and hear our prayers.

(Duncan’s note explains that in medieval theology, Adam was supposed to have remained in bonds with the other patriarchs in the limbus patrum from the time of his death until the crucifixion of Christ, and that this was estimated to have lasted four thousand winters.)

There’s something immensely powerful in the way the entire theology of the Christian religion, with its vast holy books and thousands of theologians, can all be compressed down into this simple carol, whose well-chosen repetitions can all be sung in less than a minute, and bring great spiritual and psychological reassurance.

The literary critic John Spiers makes the acute point that part of the poem’s appeal is the way the idea flows so naturally. ‘The doctrine of the song is perfectly orthodox… but here is expressed very individually and humanly. The movement of the song reproduces very surely the movements of a human mind.’

I think of Shakespeare with his colourful conceits, of John Donne with his far-fetched similes or John Milton with his heavy Latinate tread. Compared to all those later poets, this poem flows as simply but as profoundly as a fairy tale.

Four categories

Duncan divides his book up into four categories:

  • Love Lyrics
  • Penitential and Moral Lyrics
  • Devotional Lyrics
  • Miscellaneous Lyrics

In the modern, post-romantic world almost all the poetry and certainly all the songs we are subjected to are about worldly love. Another appeal of medieval poetry is the way it transports you beyond the limits and clichés of modern poetry to an entirely different world, which had different priorities and perspectives.

Some of the love poetry has a familiar feel, and Duncan makes the point that it was during this period that the notion of courtly love, of romantic love for a powerful and demanding mistress which originated among the troubadours of the South of France, first entered English culture. He goes on to make fine distinctions between the highly sophisticated and deliberately intellectual poetry of the troubadours and the more relaxed, more sensuous love poems to be found in medieval England.

The frailty of man’s estate

But personally, I never get tired of the central medieval theme of the decline and fall, the turn of Fortune’s wheel, the inevitable decay of all earthly success, wealth and love, the frailty of man’s estate, and so liked the section of Penitential and Moral Lyrics most. Take ‘Wynter wakeneth’. Here’s Duncan’s made-easy version.

Wynter wakenëth al my care,
Nou this levës waxeth bare.
Ofte I sike and mournë sare
When hit comth in my thought
Of this worldës joie hou hit goth al to nought.

Here’s the original text:

Wynter wakeneth al my care,
Nou this leves waxeth bare.
Ofte y sike ant mourne sare
When hit cometh in my thoht
Of this worldes joie, hou hit goth al to noht.

Remembering medieval pronunciation, here’s my phonetic interpretation:

Winter whackeneth Al me ca [a as in car]-rë
Noo this lay-vës waxeth ba[a as in bar]rë
Ofte ee sick ant mournë sa[a as in saab]re
When hit comëth in mee thocht
Of this worldës joy, hoo hit goth Al to noght.

Once you’ve got the pronunciation right and rolled it round your mouth a few times, it shouldn’t take much translating; you just need to know that that ‘leves’ means leaves, ‘waxeth’ means grow, ‘y’ means I, ‘sike’ (pronounced sick, the final e elided into the a of ant) means sigh, ‘sare’ means sore or sorely or bitterly, ‘goth’ means goeth i.e. goes. Thus a modernisation would read:

Winter wakens all my grief,
Now these leaves grow bare.
Often I sigh and sorely mourn,
When it enters my thoughts,
Regarding this world’s joy,
how it all comes to nothing.

But once you’ve really processed and absorbed the meaning, how much smoother and more musical it is to say:

Wynter wakëneth al me care

which is strange and far more invigorating, than:

Winter wakens all my grief

Which is boring.

Wele and wo

The poems describing spring and maidens and love and flowers and bowers contain sweet simple imagery, dance along with gladsome rhythms, and have been turned into songs of striking happiness and joy.

Lenten ys come with love to toune,
With blosmen & with briddes roune,
That al this blisse bryngeth;
Dayes eyes in this dales,
Notes suete of nyhtegales;
Uch foul song singeth.

Translated:

Spring has come with love to town,
With blossoms and with birds’ song
Which all that this bliss bringeth;
Daisies in these dales,
Notes sweet of nightingales;
Each bird his song singeth.

‘Lenten is come with love to toune’ (pronounced toon’), isn’t that a great opening line? In fact it’s a noticeable characteristic that many of the poems, short or long, announce their presence with a striking first line.

But by the same token, the poems lamenting man’s brikkelness and the unpredictable turns of destiny also have just such a primitive, almost primeval force, reeking of a society with no safety nets, where most people were close to famine and disease all their lives, where average life expectancy was around the mid-30s.

This rendition of ‘Wynter wakeneth’ captures perfectly the sound of a lone survivor of the Black Death or one of the period’s endless wars, sitting in the pew of a burnt-out church, sole survivor of his family and his community, lamenting his fate as the cold snow falls endlessly all around, smothering the land.

Luminarium

If you want to browse further, check out the Luminarium website which has a selection of about 40 medieval poems, giving the original text alongside a translation, almost all of them accompanied by a snippet of the poem in a musical setting, some by modern composers, some reconstructions of medieval tunes.


Related links

Other medieval reviews

The Muse Among the Motors by Rudyard Kipling

‘A series of verses on motoring and motorists, in the form of parodies in the style of earlier writers’

a) Kipling was an early enthusiast for motor cars from the moment his friend, the newspaper tycoon Lord Harmsworth, arrived at his Sussex home in one in 1900. He quickly bought a very early model – in fact a soon-to-be redundant steam-powered car, a ‘Locomobile’ – and employed the first of a series of chauffeur-engineers to drive and maintain it for him.

b) Kipling’s family was very artistic and throughout the children’s childhood and youth, the whole family read poetry and plays together, especially Shakespeare. Encouraged by this cultured environment, Kipling showed a precocious ability at writing pastiches and parodies from an early age. One of his first books was a self-published collection of parodies titled Echoes, printed when he was just 19.

After the turn of the century, when the South African war was over and Kipling had settled into his new home in rural Sussex, the two interests came together in a series of light-hearted pastiches of early, medieval and romantic poetry, with Kipling copying the styles of various classic poets (Chaucer, Ben Jonson, Donne, Milton, Byron Wordsworth and so on) as if they’d written poems about motor cars.

The first 14 were published in the Daily Mail in 1904 – to which he added six more in 1919, and a further six in 1929, making 26 in total. Some are very short. None are masterpieces. Some are mildly amusing. I like his take on the alliterative four-stress line of Anglo-Saxon poetry:

The Advertisement

(In the Manner of the Earlier English)

Whether to wend through straight streets strictly,
Trimly by towns perfectly paved;
Or after office, as fitteth thy fancy,
Faring with friends far among fields;
There is none other equal in action,
Sith she is silent, nimble, unnoisome,
Lordly of leather, gaudily gilded,
Burgeoning brightly in a brass bonnet,
Certain to steer well between wains.

and his spoof of Chaucer (I particularly like the line about Paris, that is exactly the kind of thing Chaucer says about his characters):

The Justice’s Tale

(Chaucer)

WITH them there rode a lustie Engineere
Wel skilled to handel everich waie her geere,
Hee was soe wise ne man colde showe him naught
And out of Paris was hys learnynge brought.
Frontlings mid brazen wheeles and wandes he sat,
And on hys heade he bare an leathern hat.
Hee was soe certaine of his governance,
That, by the Road, he tooke everie chaunce.
For simple people and for lordlings eke
Hee wolde not bate a del but onlie squeeke
Behinde their backés on an horné hie
Until they crope into a piggestie.
He was more wood than bull in china-shoppe,
And yet for cowes and doggés wolde hee stop,
Not our of Marcie but for Preudence-sake—
Than hys dependaunce ever was hys brake.

and this one, copying Adam Lindsay Gordon who I’ve never heard of, but which has the combination of sentimental pathos and humour of the Barrack-Room Ballads and also the punchiest final line.

The Dying Chauffeur

(Adam Lindsay Gordon)

WHEEL me gently to the garage, since my car and I must part –
No more for me the record and the run.
That cursèd left-hand cylinder the doctors call my heart
Is pinking past redemption – I am done!

They’ll never strike a mixture that’ll help me pull my load.
My gears are stripped – I cannot set my brakes.
I am entered for the finals down the timeless untimed Road
To the Maker of the makers of all makes!

Related links

Other Kipling reviews

Charles Carrington on Kipling’s verse (1955)

Charles Carrington’s biography of Kipling is a masterpiece, not only of privileged research (he had access to family papers and diaries which were later destroyed, as well as close advice from Kipling’s only surviving child, Elsie, b.1896) but of balance and careful judgment, and with wonderfully evocative passages of its own.

For a whole generation homesickness was reversed by Kipling’s magic spell. Englishmen felt the days of England sick and cold and the skies grey and old, heard the East a-calling, fawned on the younger nations, learned to speak the jargon of the seven seas; while, in the outposts of empire, men who read no other books recognised and approved the glimpses of their own lives in phrases from Kipling’s verse: the flying-fishes and the thunder-clouds over the Bay of Bengal, the voyage outward-bound till the old lost stars wheel back, the palm-tree bowing down beneath a low African moon, the wild tide-race that whips the harbour-mouth at Melbourne, the broom flowering above the windy town at Wellington, the islands where the anchor-chain goes rippling down through the coral-trash. (Rudyard Kipling His Life and Work by Charles Carrington, Penguin paperback edition p.398)

Carrington on Kipling’s verse

Two thirds of the way through the 600-page book, Carrington pauses his narrative to give a ten-page essay on Kipling’s verse, which is packed with insights:

The ballad

Carrington draws a direct link between Kipling and Sir Walter Scott, another writer prolific in popular verse and tales, who dominated his age. Kipling’s mother (Alice MacDonald) was Scottish, and he showed a marked fondness for Scottish characters (notable the famous engineer McAndrew) and Scots dialect.

Carrington summarises on page 413 the elements of Scott’s use of Lowland popular verse as including:

  • the free borrowing or adaptation of  his predecessors
  • stylised imagery
  • the use of incantatory repetitions
  • harmonics of words meant to be recited against the background of simple instrumental music
  • changes of sentiment indicated by changes of rhythm
  • the violent alternations of the grotesque, the horrible and the pathetic

To this list I’d add the deliberate use of older ‘poetic’ words and phrases. But whereas in Scott these are references to older Scots speech and pseudo-medievalisms, Kipling’s poems are drenched with the lexicon and rhythms of the Bible.

Influence of the Bible

Both Kipling’s parents were the children of Methodist ministers, reared in God-fearing, Bible-quoting households. In his horrible childhood in Southsea the young Kipling was tyrannised by a tub-thumping, Evangelical housewife in a household where Bible readings and hymn singing were compulsory.

This was the common fare of the great bulk of the English people in the nineteenth century – of almost all of them, it may be said, except the deracinated intellectuals. It was precisely because Kipling’s prose repeatedly echoes Biblical rhythms and turns of phrase that it was accepted and understood by a public that read the Bible, but did not read Walter Pater. (p.415)

His more serious poems were written in a didactic and sonorous style which directly derives from Hymns Ancient and Modern, ‘by far the most popular volume of verse in nineteenth century England’.

Popular tunes

But Carrington’s biggest insight into Kipling’s verse is the fact that he composed it to the rhythm of musical tunes. From his Methodist parents, from his harsh Evangelical upbringing, from weekly attendance at school chapel, Kipling knew a wide range of hymn tunes and, once he’d moved to London in 1889, he developed an enthusiasm for the London music hall, which introduced him to all the popular hits and melodies of the age – ‘The Man Who Broke The Bank At Monte Carlo’, ‘Knocked ‘Em In The Old Kent Road’ – as well as American classics from earlier in the century like ‘John Brown’s Body’, ‘Marching Through Georgia’ and so on.

Carrington here and elsewhere in the biography quotes eye-witness accounts of the way his wife, friends and visitors would see and hear Kipling humming a tune as he walked round his study or up and down the garden or along the deck of an ocean liner, humming and singing to himself and slowly forming words which matched the rhythm of the song. His wife noted in her diary ‘Ruddy was singing a new poem today…’

He would say ‘Give me a hymn-tune’ and, when someone suggested one, would go about for days humming it over, drumming it out with his fingers until words framed themselves to the tune, intent upon that and oblivious of the world, until he had finished his verse. It did not matter, for that purpose, that the song whose tune he borrowed was quite incongruous with the poem he intended; it was the rhythm he wanted and made his own. (p.321)

It is best to think of many of his poems as music hall songs, which aren’t designed to evoke sensitive emotional responses from an aesthete drawling on a divan, but are intended to be recited and even sung, to a wide audience. Like music halls songs, they adopt a character or persona and are replete with comic ‘patter’, as a music hall star might intersperse jokes and comments into a song. And, like a song, instead of evoking a range of emotions in a range of readers, they are meant to unite an audience of listeners onto one clear and forceful message.

Carrington exemplifies the relevance of the musical interpretation over a purely technical interpretation by pointing out that both Kipling’s ‘Mandalay’ and Tennyson’s ‘Locksley Hall’ are written in trochaic lines of eight feet.

Kipling

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
‘Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!’

Tennyson

Thro’ the shadow of the globe we sweep into the younger day;
Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay.

The rhythm of the Kipling is more emphatic, as is the break or ‘caesura’ in the middle of each line – made crystal clear by the use of a comma – because it is a song and even if we read it silently, it still rings in our heads more like a song than a poem.

Carrington notes that Kipling himself fictionalised the process of ‘adapting’ a popular song in his comic story ‘The Village That Voted The World Was Flat’, where the village is pilloried in a popular song created by its enemies which is a straight lift of the tune of ‘Here We Go Gathering Nuts In May’. The title of the story is the title of the song and fits the tune perfectly.

Carrington identifies some tunes with specific poems: ‘Mandalay’ with a contemporary waltz tune; the refrain of ‘Follow Me ‘Ome’ with the Dead March; ‘Birds of Prey’ with ‘Knocked ‘Em In the Old Kent Road’ and, strikingly, the rhythm of ‘A School Song’ with ‘Pop Goes The Weasel’!

Let us now praise famous men’ –
Men of little showing –
For their work continueth,
And their work continueth,
Broad and deep continueth,
Greater than their knowing!

Kipling’s daughter is among the many witnesses quoted as to the importance of music in the composition process and herself suggests musical bases for some poems:

R.K. usually worked in the morning, if he had anything in hand, either doing the actual writing, or pacing up and down his study humming to himself. Much of  his best known verse was written to a tune, the ‘Recessional’ to ‘Melita’, the tune usually sung to ‘Eternal Father, strong to save’; ‘Mandalay’ to an old waltz tune: and so on; this was curious as R.K. was quite unmusical. (Quoted on page 481)

The story about ‘Recessional’ fits. You can indeed fit the words of Kipling’s poem to the hymn tune:

God of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far-flung battle-line,
Beneath whose awful Hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Ghostly presences

Carrington’s last thought is that most of the poems can’t be easily identified with specific songs: only Kipling knew their derivation and source, and kept his secrets. But – and this makes them all the more effective – the ghosts and hints of old-time music hall songs, popular tunes or classic hymns known to millions float across the poems, underpin them, appear and disappear in their rhythms. And this deeper fugitive layer of meaning, of rhythmic and harmonic meaning, is one of the reasons why poems which, so often, ought to be trite and vulgar, in fact possess a strange and eerie power.

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Rudyard Kipling: Selected Verse edited by James Cochrane (1977)

This Penguin edition from 1977 has neither introduction nor end notes, in fact there is no editorial matter of any kind. It also contains only 119 poems, compared to 183 in the Craig Raine selection and 123 in the T.S. Eliot edition. On the face of it, the Raine edition is the best paperback selection, casting its net widest, including more of the early light verse, and more oddities and rarities: it’s the most diverse and the most entertaining.

Where this edition does score over both the others is in its layout. Each new poem starts at the top of a page. Both the other editions run one poem straight on after the previous one, so poems start mid-page or right at the bottom of a page, with maybe just one stanza visible before you have to turn over and continue. Sometimes, given that Kipling poems often comes in sets and also often have a preliminary stanza in italics before the main poem begins, this layout can lead to real confusion.

Trivial though this may sound, the layout of this Cochrane edition does actually give each poem a kind of dignity and space in which to operate. When a poem ends the rest of the page is blank. You turn over – and a new one begins. It’s much clearer and easier to read than the other two.

Partly because of this, reading this edition I noticed poems which, although they’re included in the other editions, are broken up across several pages whereas here, starting at the top of their own dedicated page, they immediately had more presence and made more impact.

And once again, the poems amazed me with Kipling’s range. I was particularly struck by The Way Through The Woods (1910). A world away from the bouncy music hall ballads or the sonorous hymns of the 1890s, it could be by the sensitive Georgian poet Edward Thomas.

The Way Through The Woods

They shut the road through the woods
Seventy years ago.
Weather and rain have undone it again,
And now you would never know
There was once a road through the woods
Before they planted the trees.
It is underneath the coppice and heath,
And the thin anemones.
Only the keeper sees
That, where the ring-dove broods,
And the badgers roll at ease,
There was once a road through the woods.

Yet, if you enter the woods
Of a summer evening late,
When the night-air cools on the trout-ringed pools
Where the otter whistles his mate,
(They fear not men in the woods,
Because they see so few.)
You will hear the beat of a horse’s feet,
And the swish of a skirt in the dew,
Steadily cantering through
The misty solitudes,
As though they perfectly knew
The old lost road through the woods.
But there is no road through the woods.


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Rudyard Kipling: Selected Poetry edited by Craig Raine (1992)

Fifty-one years after T.S. Eliot’s selection of Kipling’s verse, with an accompanying essay, was published in 1941, the poet Craig Raine was invited to make a new selection and write a new introduction. His selection is larger (183 poems compared to Eliot’s 123) and ranges further, including much more of the early verse (a generous selection of the ‘Departmental Ditties’) and more of the ‘incidental’ poems which Kipling attached to his many short stories.

The 16-page introduction is puzzlingly diffuse, making a handful of useful points but rather buried among lengthy digressions on a range of subjects. Half way through I began to wonder whether he had some kind of bet with a friend on how many other writers (and painters and musicians) he could name drop in such a short space.

Name-dropping

Oscar Wilde’s catty criticism of Plain Tales From The Hills is quoted on page one (‘one feels as if one were under a palm tree reading life by superb flashes of vulgarity’) as is some Eliot; on page two he mentions Matthew Arnold’s famous criticism of Alexander Pope and John Dryden (he dismissed them as ‘classics of our prose’), which Eliot then reversioned in his criticism of Walt Whitman in his essay about Ezra Pound. This leads into a page extensively quoting and praising Pope’s style, before going on to a one-page analysis of a witty piece of light verse by contemporary American writer Garrison Keillor. Then there is an extended consideration of how the metres of Russian poetry (with name-checks for the poets Pushkin, Pasternak and Mayakovsky) demonstrate enormous subtlety but, alas, translate badly into English where convoluted metres and rhythms tend to be associated with comedy.

None of this really sheds much light on Kipling and feels a lot like name-dropping padding.

1. Kipling and the underdog

Wilde is mentioned early on not only to squeeze in his famous quote but to emphasise Kipling’s own early remark that he was well aware he wrote only verse – and this leads Raine to make one of the three or so substantial points which emerge from his essay:

What Wilde ruefully perceives as a limitation is precisely what Kipling knew to be his originality – the discovery for literature of the underdog… Kipling’s uncommon fascination with the common man and the common woman – his helpless underdoggedness.

Raine immediately moves on without exploring the idea any further, which is a missed opportunity. It is pretty well known that all through his career Kipling sang the praises of the forgotten and ignored soldiers, sailors, engineers and administrators who kept the vast machinery of the Empire going, who kept the peace and enforced the law and built the bridges and created the railroads and maintained the vast fleet of merchant ships which brought the luxuries of life to a pampered elite in London who made it their life’s work to mock and scorn the very people their lifestyle depended on. You can see why he was almost permanently cross, and why his criticisms of the pampered, ignorant English are sometimes so bitter.

In a way Raine’s selection speaks more clearly than this confusing introduction. Thus around page 80 of the book he includes three poems in succession which aren’t in the Eliot selection and which powerfully convey the underdog idea, the plight of the ‘few, forgotten and lonely’.

An interlude of scansion

The introduction jumps suddenly to a consideration of two lines in The Ballad of the Bolivar and rather abruptly introduces some highly technical terms from the study of scansion – telling us that one line contains a trochaic tetrameter catalectic followed by a trochaic trimeter catalectic, being:

Leaking like a lobster pot, steering like a dray

In other words, the line consists of a tetrameter of four beats, with a pause (or caesura) at the comma, and the second half is a trimeter i.e. has three beats.

Leaking like a lobster pot, steering like a dray
… /  v       /   v  /     v     / ,    /     v     /    v   /

(where the oblique stroke indicates a stressed syllable and the v indicates an unstressed syllable). If this had been the start of an extensive consideration of Kipling’s metres or how he adapted metres of Tennyson or Swinburne, this might have been illuminating – but the subject appears with this one example and just as abruptly disappears.

2. Kipling and dialect

Buried among the blizzard of names and digressions, there are some reasonably forthright statements:

Dialect is Kipling’s greatest contribution to modern literature – prose and poetry – and he is the most accomplished practitioner since Burns.

But even this insight is restricted to one sentence which is swiftly buried in a fog of references to other writers and other texts: in this instance Raine moves swiftly on to a consideration of George Orwell’s essay on Kipling, published in 1942, and itself a long review of the Eliot selection & essay, before progressing to quote from a pamphlet by the critic D.J. Enright’s about Eliot – this is a lot of distracting digression instead of simply unpacking the importance of Kipling’s use of dialect with some examples and analysis.

Virtuosity

Raine moves on to mention Kipling’s virtuosity, his astonishing fluency, which many critics and readers in his time and ours have found ‘suspect’, under the impression that poetry should somehow be ‘difficult’ and show signs of artistic ‘struggle’.

Raine gives as an example Kipling’s mastery of the difficult verse form of the sestina, in his poem ‘Sestina of the Tramp-Royal‘ – although, characteristically, even this requires a knowing reference to Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘A Miracle for Breakfast’, as a ‘perfect example’ of the form instead of an analysis of how a sestina is constructed, and how cunningly Kipling constructed this one.

3. Stravinsky and Picasso

The artificiality of this sestina’s form (the use of six lines which are reshuffled in each of the poem’s six verses) is partly concealed by Kipling’s use of dialect. It would have been useful to have a bit more about dialect, maybe a survey of the different dialects Kipling uses. Instead Raine goes on to suggest that, instead of being associated with music hall and popular forms as most people tend to, maybe ‘it would be more helpful and truer’ to classify Kipling’s poetry with the modernism of Stravinsky and Picasso, who used contemporary rags and tags of tunes and material to construct collages, cubist pictures, fractured music.

This seems, frankly, wrong.

Unsparing imagery

Having made this bold suggestion, the introduction jumps to a completely new topic, which is Kipling’s unsentimental eye for realism, for the often stomach-churning detail. Raine gives a good selection of Kipling’s vivid imagery, starting with the description of a leper in Gehazi.

The boils that shine and burrow,
The sores that slough and bleed.

Or the violent description of Matun, the beggar whose entire face was ripped off by a bear in The Truce of the Bear:

Flesh like slag in the furnace, knobbed and withered and grey –

Going on to quote other vivid descriptive phrases, like the:

  • beefy face an’ grubby ‘and [of London housemaids]
  • breech-blocks jammed with mud
  • the ten-times fingering weed
  • blanket-hidden bodies, flagless, followed by the flies
  • [on] ‘Is carcase past rebellion, but ‘is eyes inquirin’ why

He’s onto something here, several things:

  • One of the several reasons Kipling’s poetry rises above the level of ‘verse’ – beside the seriousness and intensity of the feeling – is for the sheer vividness of his imagery.
  • But the violence of these images are a continual reminder that there is a strongly aggressive strand in Kipling’s poetry which wants to sicken and disgust the reader, to appal and nauseate us with the reality of the India or war or the devastation he is describing.

Kipling’s seascapes

Raine points out Kipling’s many wonderful descriptions of the sea, painted in numerous poems with wonderful fluency, although – typically – he can’t do so without reference to another canonical writer, in this case superfluously comparing Kipling’s sea verse with James Joyce’s description of the sea at Sandymount Strand outside Dublin, in Ulysses. Well, they’re both good descriptions of the sea, but that basic level of similarity doesn’t make Kipling part of Joyce’s Modernism. There’s a wonderful poem The Bell Buoy in which a bell in a buoy at sea contrasts his lot with the other bells cast in the same foundry which have ended up in churches inland.

The beach-pools cake and skim,
The bursting spray-heads freeze,
I gather on crown and rim
The grey, grained ice of the seas,
Where, sheathed from bitt to trees,
The plunging colliers lie.
Would I barter my place for the Church’s grace?
(Shoal ! ‘Ware shoal!) Not I!

Kipling and the contemporary world

Raine says that Kipling is concerned not with poeticisms or the high-toned poetic rhetoric of his day – the flowery ‘thees’, ‘thous’ and periphrases which make the poets of the 1880s and 1890s unreadable to us now. Kipling endures because he is interested in the actual world he lives in – with its trains and cars and electric lights and steam engines. It is this unembarrassed consideration of the present, Raine asserts, which places Kipling in the company of poets like Baudelaire and Eliot, laureates of the modern city. And leads up to a repeat of his earlier point about Stravinsky and Picasso:

Kipling, then, is a modernist rather than the dated Edwardian of conventional criticism.

Raine backs this up by claiming that T.S. Eliot himself, dean of Modernist poets, used Kipling’s metres in poems like his ‘Preludes’ and ‘The Hollow Men’, before giving half a page asserting Kipling’s influence on the closing pages of Ezra Pound’s ‘Pisan Cantos’. Well a) Kipling used so many rhyme schemes, formats and rhythms that it would be difficult for any poet not to overlap with him in some places b) the chaotic formlessness of Pound’s Cantos and the gasping pitifulness of the Pisan Cantos in particular, seems to me miles away from the permanent bumptious confidence of Kipling. In fact it’s the very lack of doubt or emotional vulnerability that many people so dislike in Kipling’s poetry and stories.

Now we see the reason for the thin unconvincing comparison with Stravinsky or Picasso, and the reason for yanking Joyce into the text – they’re all to bolster Raine’s counter-intuitive argument that, far from being a stylistic and political reactionary, Kipling was in fact a radical and modernist. The argument is padded out with another extraneous comparison, this time contrasting Kipling’s descriptions of war zones with those of W.H. Auden, concluding that Kipling’s are ‘less mannered and contrived’. Well, it’s true that Auden’s are done with a kind of cosmopolitan urbanity and Kipling’s are done with the bloody-minded grittiness of the man on the spot. The lines quoted are from The Return (1903):

Towns without people, ten times took,
An’ ten times left an’ burned at last;
An’ starvin’ dogs that come to look
For owners when a column passed…
An’ the pore dead that look so old
An’ was so young an hour ago,
An’ legs tied down before they’re cold –
These are the things which make you know.

Summary

In conclusion, the three main points of Raine’s essay are that:

  1. Kipling was a master of dialect – which nobody would deny
  2. Kipling was in favour of the underdog, the unsung heroes of Empire, the suffering soldiers and sailors and engineers – again, fairly obvious
  3. Kipling was, despite all indications to the contrary, a Modernist poet – which I don’t think anybody could really accept. Was he like Stravinsky and Picasso in revolutionising the art form he worked in, leaving it irrevocably transformed for all his contemporaries and successors? No. Are his sea descriptions as good as James Joyce’s? Yes, but their aims and methods were very different, Joyce dissolving the English language while Kipling made the existing language more forceful.

The selection not the introduction

Where Raine’s introduction does succeed is in selecting snippets and excerpts which cumulatively give you a vivid feel for just how good a poet Kipling was, gifted not only with the journalist’s or political propagandist’s turn of phrase, but regularly – in poem after poem – surprising us with the acuity and precision of his word selection and phrasing. And this is made much clearer by the range and variety of Raine’s actual selection.

Contrast with Eliot’s selection

Raine points out that T.S. Eliot’s selection was made in 1941, at the darkest point of the Second World War, when all of Europe was occupied by the Nazis who had undertaken what looked likely to be a successful invasion of Russia, and therefore the establishment of a continent-wide totalitarian regime based on mass slave labour, concentration camps and genocidal extermination. Not surprising then, Raine claims that Eliot’s selection emphasises Kipling’s patriotic works, with a predominance of the ‘hymns’ and the high-flown calls to Duty.

By contrast (although he doesn’t explicitly state this anywhere) Raine’s own selection is much broader, including a larger number of more diverse poems. The bits of Kipling which Raine quotes in the introduction (when he stops referencing Arnold, Wilde, Poe, Dryden, Whitman, Pound, Auden, Bishop and so on) suggest that what particularly attracts him is Kipling’s vivid turns of phrase – not just Kipling’s brilliance at painting the contemporary world, his use of dialect or his mastery of complex forms – but his continual brilliance with the unexpected word and phrase which brings so many of the poems to life.

In ranging wider than Eliot, Raine’s collection includes more of the precocious juvenilia and Departmental Ditties (published when Kipling was just 21) which Eliot consciously excludes. Raine includes more of the broadly comic and satiric poems and ‘trivia’, like his pastiches of classic English poets writing about motor cars which, one feels, were beneath Eliot’s notice.

Right from the first pages, Raine’s selection is more fun than Eliot’s.

The early poems showcase how astonishingly fluent Kipling was even as a teenager, and how this fluency was directed, to begin with, into poems written to entertain and fill up the daily newspaper he worked on. For example, the witty and cynical The Post That Fitted written when he was just 20. Instead of comparisons with Pope or Auden, it would have been really useful to have this early work set in the context of contemporary Victorian light verse and/or the Gilbert and Sullivan light comic operas (which we know were popular in Kipling’s school from his Stalky and Co. stories). A very early poem like Way Down the Ravi River in its gruesome humour reminds me of Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear. Forget the accusations of racism and sexism – what we want to know is who was he influenced by, who was he competing with, where did he pinch his ideas from – and then the amazing way his deeper, more assured gift slowly emerged from the jungle of ephemeral entertainments to become, at its peak, the prophetic voice of the greatest Empire the world has ever seen. It’s an incredible story!

Notes and biography

Unlike Eliot’s selection, this edition has editorial footnotes at the end. Not many, but they are welcome. Eventually, as the era of Empire recedes over the horizon, Kipling’s poetry will need a full textual apparatus, beginning with a potted biography. Maybe both Eliot and Raine assume that the outlines of Kipling’s life – the toddler years in India, public school in England, working as a journalist back in India, arriving in 1890s London afire with ambition, the years in Vermont, America where he wrote the Jungle Books, the close involvement in the Boer War (travelling to South Africa to help set up a newspaper for the troops), and then the long second half of his life happily settled in rural Sussex, with the great disaster of the First World War which transformed his poetry and prose – are well enough known not to need describing, or linking to the changing interests of his poetry.

But I don’t think they are, and Kipling’s poetry awaits an edition which will clearly explain the life, his fundamental aesthetic and political beliefs, and then relate this to the full body of work. Both the Eliot and Raine essays are interesting and insightful, but neither is anything like definitive.

Two sample poems

The Return is written in the style of one of the Barrack-Room Ballads from the early 1890s but in fact describes the feelings of a soldier returning from South Africa after the end of the Boer War (May 1902) and how difficult he finds it settling back into cramped, dirty, foggy London after the wide open spaces of the African veldt.

The Return

PEACE is declared, and I return
To ‘Ackneystadt, but not the same;
Things ‘ave transpired which made me learn
The size and meanin’ of the game.
I did no more than others did,
I don’t know where the change began;
I started as a average kid,
I finished as a thinkin’ man.

If England was what England seems
An’ not the England of our dreams,
But only putty, brass, an’ paint,
‘Ow quick we’d drop ‘er! But she ain’t!

Before my gappin’ mouth could speak
I ‘eard it in my comrade’s tone;
I saw it on my neighbour’s cheek
Before I felt it flush my own.
An’ last it come to me – not pride,
Nor yet conceit, but on the ‘ole
(If such a term may be applied),
The makin’s of a bloomin’ soul.

Rivers at night that cluck an’ jeer,
Plains which the moonshine turns to sea,
Mountains that never let you near,
An’ stars to all eternity;
An’ the quick-breathin’ dark that fills
The ‘ollows of the wilderness,
When the wind worries through the ‘ills –
These may ‘ave taught me more or less.

Towns without people, ten times took,
An’ ten times left an’ burned at last;
An’ starvin’ dogs that come to look
For owners when a column passed;
An’ quiet, ‘omesick talks between
Men, met by night, you never knew
Until – ‘is face – by shellfire seen –
Once – an’ struck off. They taught me, too.

The day’s lay-out – the mornin’ sun
Beneath your ‘at-brim as you sight;
The dinner-‘ush from noon till one,
An’ the full roar that lasts till night;
An’ the pore dead that look so old
An’ was so young an hour ago,
An’ legs tied down before they’re cold –
These are the things which make you know.

Also Time runnin’ into years –
A thousand Places left be’ind –
An’ Men from both two ’emispheres
Discussin’ things of every kind;
So much more near than I ‘ad known,
So much more great than I ‘ad guessed –
An’ me, like all the rest, alone –
But reachin’ out to all the rest!

So ‘ath it come to me – not pride,
Nor yet conceit, but on the ‘ole
(If such a term may be applied),
The makin’s of a bloomin’ soul.
But now, discharged, I fall away
To do with little things again….
Gawd, ‘oo knows all I cannot say,
Look after me in Thamesfontein!

If England was what England seems
An’ not the England of our dreams,
But only putty, brass, an’ paint,
‘Ow quick we’d chuck ‘er! But she ain’t!

Just as Kipling modified our reading of his stories by placing poems before and after them as oblique commentary, so even within poems he uses the possibilities of verse and chorus to create all kinds of dynamics. The refrain, in italics, comments quite harshly on the nature of England – the reference to putty, brass and paint is to the cheap fixtures of a music hall or theatre – and contrasts it with ‘the England of our dreams’ which – rather forlornly, I think – the speaker hopes England really is.

But all the imaginative force has gone into some of the wonderful moments of a soldier’s life in South Africa which the main verses capture so vividly.

The Harp Song of the Danish Women is in an unusual metre for Kipling, an obvious attempt to convey the simple power of Anglo-Saxon or of Norse poetry. Maybe it’s not a great poem but, as always, it’s well made and interesting. It was published in Puck of Pook’s Hill to accompany the story about medieval knights who are captured by Vikings and taken on a wild adventure south to Africa. As usual, it doesn’t comment on the events of the story directly, but conveys an atmosphere or backdrop which deepens its impact.

The Harp Song of the Danish Women

What is a woman that you forsake her,
And the hearth-fire and the home-acre,
To go with the old grey Widow-maker?

She has no house to lay a guest in—
But one chill bed for all to rest in,
That the pale suns and the stray bergs nest in.

She has no strong white arms to fold you,
But the ten-times-fingering weed to hold you—
Out on the rocks where the tide has rolled you.

Yet, when the signs of summer thicken,
And the ice breaks, and the birch-buds quicken,
Yearly you turn from our side, and sicken—

Sicken again for the shouts and the slaughters.
You steal away to the lapping waters,
And look at your ship in her winter-quarters.

You forget our mirth, and talk at the tables,
The kine in the shed and the horse in the stables—
To pitch her sides and go over her cables.

Then you drive out where the storm-clouds swallow,
And the sound of your oar-blades, falling hollow,
Is all we have left through the months to follow.

Ah, what is Woman that you forsake her,
And the hearth-fire and the home-acre,
To go with the old grey Widow-maker ?


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