Listening to Kipling

Yesterday I spent a very enjoyable evening listening to Kipling.

The Kipling Society has for a while organised regular Zoom get-togethers where memebers and enthusiasts take turns to read favourites from the Kipling canon – poems, or parts of stories, or songs. Yesterday, there were about twenty of us reading, and I came away with renewed respect for Kipling – both the variety of his work and the quality of his writing in so many genres.

Excerpts from the Just-So Stories worked their ususal magic. Are there any pieces better-designed bor reading aloud? And it was good to hear lesser-known poems such as ‘His Apologies’ and His Disciple.

The highlight of the evening, however, was Alex Bubb singing a setting of Poor Honest Men – a reminder of how very funny Kipling can be.

My own contribution was to read a poem that I have previously mentioned on this blog – ‘The Sons of the Suburbs.’ This was a poem commissioned by the editors of Blighty, a magazine for soldiers. Kipling came up with a poem celebrating the metamorphosis of respectable young men from the suburbs into fearsome soldiers, and packed it with the sort of humour that would appeal to soldiers of the type who enjoyed the Wipers Times.

Unfortunately, the editorial board of Blighty contained some respectable ladies and clergymen for whom Kipling’s realism was too much. They rejected his poem, and printed a dreadful one by the Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges, instead.

Here’s Kipling’s poem:

The Sons of the Suburbs
The sons of the suburbs were carefully bred
And quite unaccustomed to strife;
The lessons they learned in the books they had read
Had taught them the value of life.
From Erith to Ealing they cherished a feeling
That battle and slaughter were sin;
From Hendon to Tooting they didn’t like shooting
And did not intend to begin.
If the clergyman’s daughter drinks nothing but water
She’s certain to finish on gin

The tribes of the Teutons were otherwise trained,
And accustomed to bloodshed from birth.
Their ministers preached and their masters maintained
That they had only one duty on earth,
And what they were for was sanguineous war
The rest didn’t matter a damn.
Being also intent on culture, they went
For the voters of Wanstead and Ham;
But reading the name on the tin of the same
Doesn’t give you the taste of the jam.

The sons of the suburbs were firm but polite;
Each rose in his place with a gun
And a live bayonet to express his regret
At the actions of Herman the Hun.
It likewise appears they flung bombs round his ears,
Which caused a percentage of slain,
And finding it sport, I regret to report,
They did it again and again.
If the wife of the vicar never touched liquor,
Look out when she finds the champagne.

The sons of the suburbs awoke to the fact
That fighting has points of its own,
As giving a spice their existence had lacked
So they rarely left Herman alone.
They were young it was true, and the business was new,
But youth is the key to all arts,
That’s why a beginner’s so often a winner
At capturing trenches or hearts.
If the churchwarden’s wife never danced in her life
She’ll kick off your hat when she starts.

There are things in the breast of mankind which are best
In darkness and secrecy hid;
For you never can tell, when you’ve opened a hell,
How soon you can put back the lid.
Now Herman’s annoyed with East Finchley and Croyd-
On, Penge, Tottenham, Bromley and Kew.
It wasn’t their fault they commited assault
But the rest, I’ll leave it to you.
If you and your friend never go on a bend
It’s Bow-street and gaol when you do.

And here, for contrast, is the poem, by poor old Robert Bridges, that the magazine published. I feel sorry for him. He was an accomplished poet at his best, but his best work is intimate, rather private. In the role of laureate, he floundered, and in the face of a challenge like the Great War, when he was expected to express the nation’s sentiments, he could only flounder. This poem is sub-Hallmark, with its clunky metre and obvious rhymes. But he was probably very sincere, poor man.


  1. Tom Deveson
    Posted December 9, 2021 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for all this!

    The Bridges is a sad lapse, isn’t it?

    An anthology of bad laureate poems – a sort of Five-Star Stuffed Owl – would be fun.

    Armitage, Duffy, Motion, Hughes….back to Austin et al. There wouldn’t be a shortage.

    • Posted December 9, 2021 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

      I like some of Ted Hughes’s Laureate poems. He’d write a standard length of typical Hughes nature stuff, then tag on a bit about the Queen Mother. Good tactic.
      I’m sad about Armitage. I remember when he was an original poet, a promising new voice who seemed to be writing about the world we live in. He gave up his job as a probation officer, became a professional poet, and now seems to have nothing to write about.

      • Tom Deveson
        Posted December 9, 2021 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

        Yes, to both points.

        I frequently cite [with acknowledgement] your account of Duffy’s verse on the 1914 truce.

        It’s a fine piece of criticism, informed by sense, sensibility, knowledge and moral seriousness.

  2. Roger Allen
    Posted December 9, 2021 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

    Also proof of Kipling’s wisdom in refusing to be a respectable official laureate!

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