Kipling Collected – and misunderstood

kipling poems

The excellent news is that a new three-volume edition of Kipling’s poems is being published by Cambridge University Press. It is edited by Thomas Pinney, who knows just about everything there is to know about Kipling, and it contains, apparently, some fifty previously unseen poems,  including several from the War years.

The less good news? It costs a painful £200 for the set, and so I suppose will be bought mostly by libraries, and not by human beings. But don’t get me started on academic publishers…

The even less good news? It has given a journalist called Alison Flood the opportunity to churn out one of the standard myths about Kipling in today’s Guardian:

After his son’s death at the Battle of Loos in 1915, Kipling regretted his earlier enthusiasm for the conflict, writing in his “Epitaphs of the War”: “If any question why we died / Tell them, because our fathers lied”.


In fact, of course, Kipling became even more belligerent after his son’s death. His increased feelings of loathing for the Germans are expressed in the poem ‘The Beginnings’, which he appended to ‘Mary Postgate’ after John’s death:

It was not preached to the crowd,
It was not taught by the State.
No man spoke it aloud,
When the English began to hate.

It was not suddenly bred,
It will not swiftly abate,
Through the chill years ahead,
When Time shall count from the date
That the English began to hate.

As for that epitaph:

If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.

Alison Flood is giving it the interpretation that modern futility-of-war critics would like it to have. But the lies that Kipling was decrying before the War were those of politicians who were in denial about the need to finance Britain’s defences. This is from a speech given in the year before the War:

…we have no security within our borders; that is why we tell each other lies to cover our own fears and yet know all the time our lies are useless.
In this matter we must take refuge behind no self-paid member of Parliament. The power to change this wasteful state of affairs lies in the hands of the people of England. The responsibility is ours and the punishment if we persist in our folly, in our fraud, and in our make-believe – the punishment will fall not only upon us, but upon the third and fourth generation of those that have betrayed their country.

Which seems to me to be making exactly the same point as the ‘Epitaph’ – but before the fact.
I don’t think that Alison Flood would have got her notion about the poem from Thomas Pinney’s book. She’s just reproducing the version of Kipling that has been standard since My Boy Jack. Some people can’t understand that Kipling might have been personally devastated by the loss of his son, and that it might have made him even more aware of the cost of the War, but that it would not have deflected him from the belief that the War, terible as it was, must be fought to the end.
But enough of carping. Here is a very good poem from the collection (printed on the Guardian website, but not in my paper edition. It is from 1899, and is made up of the silly questions that journalists of the time asked celebrities like Kipling. If there are many more in the collection like this, maybe that £200 might not be too steep a price…
The Press

Why don’t you write a play –
Why don’t you cut your hair?
Do you trim your toe-nails round
Or do you trim them square?
Tell it to the papers,
Tell it every day.
But, en passant, may I ask
Why don’t you write a play?

What’s your last religion?
Have you got a creed?
Do you dress in Jaeger-wool
Sackcloth, silk or tweed?
Name the books that helped you
On the path you’ve trod.
Do you use a little g
When you write of God?

Do you hope to enter
Fame’s immortal dome?
Do you put the washing out
Or have it done at home?
Have you any morals?
Does your genius burn?
Was you wife a what’s its name?
How much did she earn?

Had your friend a secret
Sorrow, shame or vice –
Have you promised not to tell
What’s your lowest price?
All the housemaid fancied
All the butler guessed
Tell it to the public press
And we will do the rest.

Why don’t you write a play?

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3 Comments

  1. Tim Kendall
    Posted February 26, 2013 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Thanks, George. I saw that article, too, and I was about to write almost the same response. You saved me a job. Remarkable the currency of these myths.

    If anyone has any doubt about Kipling’s attitudes to the War, and to Germans in particular, they might look up his letter to Stanley Baldwin dated 21 September 1918. There he reports with some glee the near lynching in Newquay of a ‘party of Huns’—’dog and three dry bitches’. Kipling seems quite giddy at the prospect that ‘a wandering Hun visitor’ might be ‘actually killed’, and celebrates the ‘very laudable intent’ of ‘heaving’ the ‘Huns’ over the cliffs.

  2. Ed
    Posted February 26, 2013 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    Kipling did write a poem called The Press, but I’m not sure that’s it . . .

    Thought it was the one that started

    The Soldier may forget his Sword,
    The Sailorman the Sea,
    The Mason may forget the Word
    And the Priest his Litany:
    The Maid may forget both jewel and gem,
    And the Bride her wedding-dress;
    But the Jew shall forget Jerusalem
    Ere we forget the Press!

    • Posted February 26, 2013 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

      This is another with the same title, previously unpublished, I gather. that stray last line makes it look unfinished, so it may be just a draft.


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  1. [...] at his enthusiasm for the war, but that’s wrong. George Simmers at an excellent little blog, Great War Fiction, has this to [...]

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