The Kipling Journal arrived yesterday. The journal is now eedited by Janet Montefiore, who seems to be full of good ideas, especially about special issues devoted to a particular Kipling topic. This issue concentrates on Kipling’s poetry, and includes a range of his poems, each with a commentary by an expert or enthusiast.
All are good to read, but I was especially pleased to be reminded of ‘A Recantation’ of 1917, subtitled ‘To Lyde of the Music Halls’.
Here’s the poem, in full:
What boots it on the Gods to call?
Since, answered or unheard,
We perish with the Gods and all
Things made–except the Word.
Ere certain Fate had touched a heart
By fifty years made cold,
I judged thee, Lyde, and thy art
O’erblown and over-bold.
But he–but he, of whom bereft
I suffer vacant days–
He on his shield not meanly left
He cherished all thy lays.
Witness the magic coffer stocked
With convoluted runes
Wherein thy very voice was locked
And linked to circling tunes.
Witness thy portrait, smoke-defiled,
That decked his shelter-place.
Life seemed more present, wrote the child,
Beneath thy well-known face.
And when the grudging days restored
Him for a breath to home,
He, with fresh crowds of youth, adored
Thee making mirth in Rome.
Therefore, I humble, join the hosts,
Loyal and loud, who bow
To thee as Queen of Song – and ghosts,
For I remember how
Never more rampant rose the Hall
At thy audacious line
Than when the news came in from Gaul
Thy son had – followed mine.
But thou didst hide it in thy breast
And, capering, took the brunt
Of blaze and blare, and launched the jest
That swept next week the front.
Singer to children! Ours possessed
Sleep before noon- but thee,
Wakeful each midnight for the rest,
No holocaust shall free!
Yet they who use the Word assigned,
To hearten and make whole,
Not less than Gods have served mankind,
Though vultures rend their soul.
Perhaps carelessly, I had previously assumed that this poem was about Marie Lloyd (with ‘Lyde’ a cockney pronunciation of her surname). Since John Lee in his commentary on the poem says that ‘No one has persuasively identified Lyde’, I did some checking. Marie Lloyd certainly fits the bill as being ‘o’erblown and overbold’, and for delivering audacious lines, and she doubtless cheered many soldierly hearts with:
I didn’t like yer much before yer join’d the army, John
But I do like yer, cocky, now you’ve got yer Khaki on.
But, as I should have remembered, Marie Lloyd had no son, so the crucial part of the poem, about Lyde’s continuing to sing and caper despite her son’s death, is inapplicable. Also, ‘Lyde’ is a name from Horace, and the metre makes it two syllables, so my cockney idea doesn’t work
The most celebrated Music Hall performer to lose a son and yet still keep performing tirelessly for the troops was Sir Harry Lauder (whose name also has a promising chime with ‘Lyde’). Yet he could hardly be described as a ‘Queen of Song’.
So is there another, as yet unidentified, Music Hall star, who exactly fits the bill? A daring and immensely popular female singer who lost a son in France?
Or have I been reading the poem in the wrong way?
In the past I’ve been critical of those who read ‘My Son Jack’ as autobiography. Clearly that poem draws on Kipling’s own feelings about the loss of his son, but it is not ‘about’ John Kipling. It is a dramatisation of a situation that allows the poet to explore themes of loss and consolation.
Yet I had been reading ‘A Recantation’ as a direct personal statement, as though ‘Lyde’ was an actual overbold star whose picture was actually pinned up in John Kipling’s shelter-place (his bedroom? his study?) and who actually lost a son in the War. I had forgotten, I suppose, that Kipling was generally far less direct than this, and that he was, above all, a creator of fictions.
Clearly he wanted to pay tribute to the Music Hall stars who did so much for national morale during the War. The war had narrowed Siegfried Sassoon’s response, and increased his scorn for the ‘prancing ranks/ Of harlots’ of the variety show chorus, but it had widened Kipling’s appreciation, and enhanced his admiration for the stars whose performances could connect with the anxieties and fears of a wartime audience, ‘To hearten and make whole’.
To make his point dramatically clear he needed a composite figure. Someone with the ripe (to the fastidious, over-ripe) humanity of Marie Lloyd, but also with the sense of duty and commitment that characterised Lauder. Put together, these summed up the Music Hall, in its glorious unrespectability and in its deep response to the nation’s needs.
John Lee’s conclusion exactly sums up what the poem is about:
Kipling’s ode questions what role the poet must play in a new, uncivil era defined by the loss of a generation. The artist’s role is no longer to celebrate art’s traditions and powers, but rather to work selflessly and self-mortifyingly for the consolation of survivors.