The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling (David Gilmour)

Rudyard Kipling, when remembered today, is usually snidely dismissed as a jingoistic Victorian, or as the writer of certain children’s books. “The Long Recessional” provides the modern reader with a concise biography of the multi-faceted Kipling, showing him as, if not a man for all seasons, surely a man for his time.

David Gilmour is also the author of an excellent biography of George Nathaniel Curzon, sometime Viceroy of India, and a contemporary of Kipling’s. Kipling was born in India and in the public mind is associated very much with India, but although he spent his formative years there, he did not visit India for most of the rest of his life. He remained very interested in what happened in India, but he focused in his adult life more broadly on the British Empire (he also spent time in America, memorably characterizing New York as “the shiftless outcome of squalid barbarism and reckless extravagance”). He also focused on the British working and middle classes, for whom he had great sympathy and empathy, and among whom he also spent much of his youth. And, over the years, his focus shifted from the Empire in its glory to the Empire in its decline, of which he was the prophet, and to the deep and abiding sorrow of the War (in which his son was killed). So Kipling was, again contrary to popular myth, a broad-minded man with the common touch—it was the elites who disliked him, not the normal Englishman. And, for that matter, it’s the elites who dislike him now.

As to India, and the Empire generally, Kipling was perhaps the exemplar of the “service model” of the Empire. Nowadays, the common view is that the Empire was purely about economic benefit (as in Sven Beckert’s puerile “Empire Of Cotton”), or about imperialism more generally, both Marxist-derived analyses. The reality is much different—a very significant fraction of Englishmen viewed England’s role as service, to the “lesser peoples,” and a very significant fraction thought the Empire was a bad idea (for a variety of reasons). Gilmour summarizes Kipling’s view as “The British were now in India for a moral purpose, for the good of the native inhabitants, whom it was their duty to lead through example to a safer and more prosperous future.” This, not racism, is the message of “The White Man’s Burden,” and Englishmen died in their thousands to bring it to the Indians. Kipling’s talents were used in service of this ideal, and whatever one may say about the ideal, it is an undeniable truth that the British succeeded. Who can doubt that India is both safer and more prosperous now as a result of colonialism than it would have been had the British never ruled? Only the ignorant and the politically blinkered.

Gilmour draws sharp portraits of the idiosyncrasies of the members of the English ruling class, such as the Admiral of the Channel Fleet until 1909, Lord Charles Beresford. His daily greeting was “Good morning, one day nearer the German war.” The writing is fluid and the biography is not over-long, considering the complexity of the subject. One oddity is that the beginning of the book is full of descriptions of Kipling’s relationship with his parents and his sister, which family unit they called the “Family Square.” His parents are mentioned intermittently throughout the book, and his sister is noted as having suffered a mental decline. But there is no mention at all of the deaths of Kipling’s parents—the book does not say when they died, or what effect that had on Kipling. This seems like a significant omission, for their death must have affected Kipling. Doubtless not as much as the deaths of two of his three children, but his parents were a formative influence, and their deaths must have mattered.

While Gilmour’s focus is largely on Kipling’s political views, and how those developed over time, naturally his voluminous writings provide the frame for any discussion of Kipling. These include famous writings: “Kim, “Recessional,” “If.” But they also include lesser known gems, some of which are very powerful, like “Gethsemane”:

The Garden called Gethsemane
In Picardy it was,
And there the people came to see
The English soldiers pass.
We used to pass—we used to pass
Or halt, as it might be,
And ship our masks in case of gas
Beyond Gethsemane.

The Garden called Gethsemane,
It held a pretty lass,
But all the time she talked to me
I prayed my cup might pass.
The officer sat on the chair,
The men lay on the grass,
And all the time we halted there
I prayed my cup might pass.

It didn’t pass—it didn’t pass—
It didn’t pass from me.
I drank it when we met the gas
Beyond Gethsemane!

And there are powerful political poems, still powerful despite the conflicts that inspired them having faded into gray obscurity. The best example of this is “Gehazi,” tied to a political corruption scandal. The poem revolves around an analogy to Naaman, the leper cured by the prophet Elisha, whose servant Gehazi then tried to extort money from Naaman, and was himself turned into a leper. You have to read the whole poem to appreciate it:

“Whence comest thou, Gehazi,
So reverend to behold,
In scarlet and in ermines
And chain of England’s gold?”
“From following after Naaman
To tell him all is well,
Whereby my zeal hath made me
A Judge in Israel.”

Well done, well done, Gehazi!
Stretch forth thy ready hand,
Thou barely ’scaped from judgment,
Take oath to judge the land
Unswayed by gift of money
Or privy bribe, more base,
Of knowledge which is profit
In any market-place.

Search out and probe, Gehazi,
As thou of all canst try,
The truthful, well-weighed answer
That tells the blacker lie—
The loud, uneasy virtue
The anger feigned at will,
To overbear a witness
And make the Court keep still.

Take order now, Gehazi,
That no man talk aside
In secret with his judges
The while his case is tried.
Lest he should show them—reason
To keep a matter hid,
And subtly lead the questions
Away from what he did.

Thou mirror of uprightness,
What ails thee at thy vows?
What means the risen whiteness
Of the skin between thy brows?
The boils that shine and burrow,
The sores that slough and bleed—
The leprosy of Naaman
On thee and all thy seed?
Stand up, stand up, Gehazi,
Draw close thy robe and go,
Gehazi, Judge in Israel,
A leper white as snow!

Unfortunately, as can be seen from these two examples, many of Kipling’s poems depend for understanding on deep familiarity with both the Old and New Testaments, so even now they are probably incomprehensible to many, and in a few decades in the post-Christian West, only experts will be able to grasp the metaphors. This is hardly Kipling’s fault, though; it is ours.

Kipling seems to have been a difficult man. While he always empathized with the common man (unlike the “Decadents,” such as Oscar Wilde, who viewed the common man with contempt), he grew away from immersing himself in popular culture over time. And in his upper class milieu, he viewed most relationships through a political prism, and he was very good at hating others and accumulating enemies. This seems like it would have been exhausting, but it worked for him.

Kipling was also a pessimist throughout his life. As Gilmour says, “Pessimists and reactionaries make the best prophets because they are without illusions, because they can see behind as well as beyond contemporary viewpoints. . . . . Prophets, as the Old Testament reveals, say unpalatable things and say them in provocative and unpleasant language. So did Kipling. . . . . But there was an excuse for his bitterness, as there was with Jeremiah—he KNEW what was going to happen.” Kipling predicted various bad things—the disappearance of Empire; that the Boers would impose apartheid if the English let them run South Africa; that the Kaiser would bring about a war; that if England left India there would be carnage between Hindu and Muslim; and much more. But he was always proven right, even after his death, as with the military resurgence of Germany. He would have agreed with Winston Churchill, whom he loathed as a “political whore,” that “the Hun is always either at your throat or your feet” (although now, courtesy of Angela Merkel, the Hun has prostrated itself voluntarily to a new enemy, whom it has welcomed in their migrant millions—something of which Kipling would doubtless have clearly seen the results). We could use Kipling’s pessimism, to counteract the combination of Pollyanna and ostrich that characterizes the political whores of today, such as Merkel.

And, most importantly, as Gilmour again says, “The spirit of Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain owed much to Kipling.” Of course, that spirit is long gone, in an enervated England ruled by faithless globalist elites. Most likely it can never be restored, despite the good sense of the slight majority of Britain’s inhabitants recently voting to exit the EU and restore some small measure of British sovereignty. But that’s a long cry from the spirit of World War II, which was itself a long cry from the spirit of 1890. The breath of Empire, once gone, does not return, but perhaps an appreciation of the virtues of Kipling, and some hard choices and hard deeds, could restore England to once again be an example for the world.


Against Nostalgia

Elon Musk (Walter Isaacson)

Tucker (Chadwick Moore)

On Marriage

On Manual Work for Men