Don’t Count John among your Victims, Helen

Anyone investigating the dull smugness of much contemporary poetry could maybe start with a poem by Helen Dunmore, a well-known and prize-winning poet. Her Don’t Count John Among the Dreams (i.m. John Kipling, son of Rudyard Kipling, who died in the Battle of Loos in 1915) is mentioned in Dorothy Flotow’s interesting paper on recent accounts of Kipling’s relations with his son. It is in the Dunmore collection that can be downloaded here , so I took a look at it.

The imperative mood of the title is kept up throughout the poem, as she orders Kipling about:

Don’t count John among the dreams
a parent cherishes for his children –
that they will be different from him,
not poets but the stuff of poems.

Don’t count John among the dreams
of leaders, warriors, eagle-eyed stalkers
picking up the track of lions.
Even in the zoo he can barely see them –

Like a bossy headmistress telling parents how to bring up their children, she seems to imply that Kipling was not aware of his son’s short-sightedness, though she acknowledges that Kipling himself had the same handicap (“his eyes, like yours, are half-blind”). What she doesn’t stop to consider, though, is that short-sightedness had not prevented Kipling from becoming just those things that she says his son could never have been – a leader, definitely, of opinion, a warrior, with words if not guns, and one who saw animals clearly enough to describe them (in the Jungle Books) far better than most other writers could.

With self-righteous hindsight she goes on to lecture Kipling about helping his son get a commission in the Irish Guards:

Don’t count John among your dreams.
Don’t wangle a commission for him,
don’t wangle a death for him.
He is barely eighteen.

This implies several things.

  • First, that John’s becoming a soldier was just Kipling’s fantasy, and that John’s opinion played no part in the matter. This is speculation at best, and highly unlikely. In 1914 almost all young men of John Kipling’s class and education were eager to enlist. Many welcomed it as an adventure and a chance to prove themselves; others went soberly into it as a moral duty.
  • Second, that wangling a commission automatically meant wangling a death. To suggest so is hindsight; in 1914 the high casualty rate of the war was still unsuspected. And the easy linking of commission and death in parallel means that the poet is contributing to the exaggerated modern myth of 1914-18 as a war that murdered every soldier. In fact, most survived.
  • Thirdly, that wangling a commission was hastening John’s entry into the War. In fact, in meant a training period that would delay his embarkation for France by at least six months. At a time when it was generally assumed that the war would be short, wangling a commission might be seen as keeping John Kipling out of battle.

Being Kipling’s son cannot always have been easy. He was a loving father who told his children marvellous bedtime stories, but his enormous reputation put a weight of expectation onto his children that must have been difficult to cope with. There is maybe a good poem waiting to be written about the pressures on John, but Helen Dunmore’s is not it. Because in her poem, John Kipling does not exist at all. He is conjured up only through negatives, and then presented as a helpless victim, suffering abjectly, and “able to see nothing.” She nags Kipling “Don’t count John among the dreams” while herself confidently enlisting John as a voiceless figure in a moral lesson that she can belabour his father with.

At the end she accuses Kipling

You will write a poem.
You will count him into your dreams.

Presumably she means the beautiful bleak elegy My Boy Jack:

“HAVE you news of my boy Jack? ”
Not this tide.
“When d’you think that he’ll come back?”
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

“Has any one else had word of him?”
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

“Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?”
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind –
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.

Then hold your head up all the more,
This tide,
And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide.

By her last line “You will count him into your dreams.” Helen Dunmore seems to imply that Kipling has commandeered his son for this poem, and taken control of him. Yet My Boy Jack is a poem about a son who is independent, and who in the turmoil of war maintains his dignity (“ he did not shame his kind”).

In Helen Dunmore’s poem, on the other hand, he is allowed no scrap of independence or dignity, just helplessness in the face of horror:

Without his spectacles, after a shell-blast,
he will be seen one more time
before the next shell sees to him.
Wounding, weeping from pain,

What an odd mixture this is, of hindsight and the future tense, like a lecturer pointing out some inevitable trajectory. So, she implies, the violence of war ought to be teaching Kipling a lesson. In other words, she is one of those writers who, preaching the horror of war, is secretly complicit with its power, and using it for her own purposes.

So convinced is she that she is right that she doesn’t even feel the need to craft the poem carefully (There’s a sort-of half-rhyme-scheme based on assonances that she can’t be bothered to keep up for the length of the poem.) My Boy Jack, on the other hand, is made to last, one of the many Kipling poems that continues to astonish, however often you read it.

3 Comments

  1. Posted September 18, 2013 at 6:45 am | Permalink

    In the Kipling Journal for September 2013, there is a good article by Major-General Sebastian Roberts , setting the record straight about John Kipling’s brief military career.

  2. Posted September 30, 2013 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    Does your site have a contact page? I’m having problems locating it but,
    I’d like to send you an e-mail. I’ve got some recommendations for your blog you might be interested in hearing.
    Either way, great website and I look forward
    to seeing it develop over time.

  3. Posted September 30, 2013 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    Ulysses –
    Email me at simmersgeorge@yahoo.co.uk


Post a Comment

%d bloggers like this: