Kipling v Lawrence

Kipling, decadent or hearty?”I heard a good lecture with this title the other day, by Jad Adams (who wrote a very enjoyable biography of Dowson a while back.)

His thesis was the conflict beween Kipling’s upbringing and temperament, which gave him much in common with the decadents, and his opinions and loyalties, which were with Henley and the hearties of the Saturday Review. This conflict added to the confusions of The Light that Failed, that unsatisfactory but actually rather enjoyable novel. Jad Adams showed rather convincingly how Kipling’s inability to resolve the problems of the novel came from his inability to resolve the complications of his emotional life.

Kipling’s alter ego in the novel is Dick Heldar, a painter – but of military scenes, so having a foot in both aesthetic and hearty camps.

A scene in the book that I like is when Dick takes his immensely annoying girl-friend Maisie to see one of his pictures. It’s in the window of a print shop:

A small knot of people stood round a print-shop that Dick knew well. ‘Some reproduction of my work inside,’ he said, with suppressed triumph. Never before had success tasted so sweet upon the tongue. ‘You see the sort of things I paint. D’you like it?’

Maisie looked at the wild whirling rush of a field-battery going into action under fire. Two artillery-men stood behind her in the crowd.

‘They’ve chucked the off lead-’orse’ said one to the other. ‘’E’s tore up awful, but they’re makin’ good time with the others. That lead-driver drives better nor you, Tom. See ’ow cunnin’ ’e’s nursin’ ’is ‘orse.’

‘Number Three’ll be off the limber, next jolt,’ was the answer.

‘No, ’e won’t. See ‘ow ’is foot’s braced against the iron? ’e’s all right.’

Dick watched Maisie’s face and swelled with joy—fine, rank, vulgar triumph.

This has to be Kipling, the writer who discovered the Imperial army as a literary subject, enjoying the praise of his huge non-elitist audience – an audience who appreciated him because he got things right, he showed things as they were, and gave them the shock of recognition.”Getting it right” seems rather a philistine criterion for judging a work of art, but it mattered to Kipling. He loved technicalities and jargon. These abound in all his work. They clog up some of the weaker stories, but are essential to a masterpiece like Dayspring Mishandled.

I rather like writers who get things right (It’s one reason why I think William Golding is a less impressive writer than R.M. Ballantyne, whose work he travestied). So what to think about D.H. Lawrence?

Some things Lawrence gets dead right – he’s brilliant at looking at flowers. He’s very sharp about people, too, when he’s on form.
But in England,my England he wrote about the war. His hero, Evelyn (in the 1915 version – changed to Egbert in the 1921 rewrite) enlists in 1914. This means he wouldn’t have got to Flanders till mid-1915 at the very earliest – but Lawrence shows him engaged in the kind of war of movement that no longer happened after the first months of the war. Evelyn is one of a party looking after three machine guns – but here’s how Lawrence describes the guns being used:

Out of the sky came the sharp cry of the directions, then the warning numbers, then “Fire!” The shot went, the piston of the gun sprang back, there was a sharp explosion, and a very faint film of smoke hung in the air.”

He has confused machine-guns with field artillery. Does it matter? Lawrence fans would say no, it’s the deep perceptions about human nature that are important in the story. Maybe, but for me a mistake like this is like the thirteenth stroke of the clock. If we can’t trust him on machine guns, can we trust his portrait of the character? Well, probably not. Evelyn/Egbert is based on an acquaintance called Percy Lucas (closely enough for Percy’s family to be offended by it, especially when Percy was killed in the first week of the Battle of the Somme). Should we trust the story’s vision of doomed England luxuriating in its death-wish? Well not really. It’s so excessive.

Can we even trust Lawrence’s language? For me there are too many phrases that sound good, but don’t make much sense when you think about them. Like: “She was young and beautiful and strong with life like a flame in the sunshine.”

Eh? Sunshine? Why should a flame be stronger with life on a sunny day? A flame is actually less impressive in sunshine than it is in the dark. Surely this is writing making its effect by just piling up the vaguely emotive words.

Give me Kipling every day. He’d have known everything about that machine gun. His myopic eyes would have greedily devoured the manual, and he’d have puffed companionably on his pipe as he watched a Tommy strip it down and clean it. Then he’d have been ready to write about it.

If you want really good writing about the Great War, read Kipling’s regimental history of the Irish Guards.

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