Kipling, Deserters and Outcasts

One of the Boer War poems that Tim Kendall’s excellent book reminded me about was this one:

“Wilful-Missing”

(Deserters of the Boer War)

THERE is a world outside the one you know,
To which for curiousness ’Ell can’t compare—
It is the place where “wilful-missings” go,
As we can testify,—for we are there.

You may ’ave read a bullet laid us low,
That we was gathered in “with reverent care”
And buried proper. But it was not so,
As we can testify,for we are there!

They can’t be certain—faces alter so
After the old aasvogel’s ’ad ’is share.
The uniform ’s the mark by which they go—
And—ain’t it odd?—the one we best can spare.

We might ’ave seen our chance to cut the show—
Name, number, record, an’ begin elsewhere
Leavin’ some not too late-lamented foe
One funeral—private—British—for ’is share.

We may ’ave took it yonder in the Low
Bush-veldt that sends men stragglin’ unaware
Among the Kaffirs, till their columns go,
An’ they are left past call or count or care.

We might ’ave been your lovers long ago,
’Usbands or children—comfort or despair.
Our death (an’ burial) settles all we owe,
An’ why we done it is our own affair.

Marry again, and we will not say no,
Nor come to barstardise the kids you bear.
Wait on in ’ope—you’ve all your life below
Before you’ll ever ’ear us on the stair.

There is no need to give our reasons, though
Gawd knows we all ’ad reasons which were fair;
But other people might not judge ’em so—
And now it doesn’t matter what they were.

What man can weigh or size another’s woe?
There are some things too bitter ’ard to bear.
Suffice it we ’ave finished—Domino!
As we can testify, for we are there,
In the side-world where “wilful-missings” go.

 

Kipling’s often thought of a militarist (and goodness knows there are some bloodthirsty and warlike pages in his works) but the truth is more that he was someone who was fascinated by the army, and did his best to think his way into the minds of its soldiers, whoever they were – officers, troopers, “gentlemen-rankers”, deserters…

In his early work especially, Kipling was drawn to outcasts, and had an appalled sympathy for them. Appalled because he realised how terrible the revenges of society could be. The story Beyond the Pale is one I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. It starts with the complacent sentence “A man should, whatever happens, keep to his own caste, race and breed.” That is the received wisdom of English society in India, and the sentence has been used as ammunition against Kipling by serious-minded post-colonial thinkers. I think, though, that it’s intended as ironically as the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice (Kipling was nothing if not a Janeite) because the rest of the story exposes it as glib and shallow. Here’s the story: Englishman – Trejago – falls for a Muslim girl, the Muslim girl, and visits her secretly wearing a “boorka” (which, Kipling tells us, “cloaks a man as well as a woman” – Jack Straw please note.) When her relatives find out, they cut her hands off, and try to kill Trejago.

The story shows the terrible consequence that comes to someone who has crossed the line, but its sympathies are all with the lovers. That first sentence is a terrible truth because it is what the respective societies believe – both the girl’s relations, and the English society ladies who, we are told, would refuse to know Trejago if they had heard of his affair. Kipling notes the truth as a sociological fact, not as an ethical maxim.

Even in his Great War writing, Kipling could give a voice to the outcast:

THE COWARD

I could not look on Death, which being known,
Men led me to him, blindfold and alone

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  1. […] Simmers, on his blog devoted to Great War Fiction, has written a piece entitled Kipling, Deserters and Outcasts. There you can read the full poem, as well as George’s interesting thoughts on Rudyard […]

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