Friday, April 2, 2010

A Recantation, by Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling is difficult. He wrote wonderfully, but he also wrote badly, thought and felt deeply, but he was also a bore, a jingo and a bit of an ass. For every masterpiece in prose he wrote, and every memorable line in his poetry, there are almost as many times, reading Kipling now, that one has little choice but to close the book on him. It is in Kipling's verse that I find myself both most impressed and least.

My idea for this National Poetry Month is to put up some poetry by poets less well known. Kipling qualifies, despite his fame for "If" and like favorites of elderly Scouting types, because there is so much of his verse that is unread and there is so much that, frankly, is unreadable. The unfortunate result is that there is so much that is good that no one now will be likely to ever read.

The poem I read tonight is one with a history that makes it all the more interesting as an example of the better Kipling. Taken from his collection, The Years Between, this poem was one of a number written immediately after the loss of Kipling's seventeen year old son, Jack, in the First World War. The poem is addressed to Marie Lloyd, the great star of the English Music Halls, herself something of a jingo, famous during the War for calling recruits to the footlights to sign up. Marie Lloyd was a great star, a charming performer, know for her slightly naughty interpretations of songs that would seem to have had little sex in them, until Marie, "The Lyde of the Music Halls," goosed them up a bit. She was a dearly loved, and much applauded performer in London, but she was also much disapproved of by the stuffier sort of proper middle-class Briton, personified at this time by Rudyard Kipling. As he says in the poem, "I judged thee, Lyde, and thy art / Overblown and over-bold." What then changed Kipling's mind about dear old Marie Lloyd? Kipling's boy was a fan; saw her perform, played her records on the Victrola -- "the magic coffer stocked / with convoluted runes" in Kipling's archaism -- had her picture posted in his quarters. What changed the father's mind about the saucy singer, what made him write of her as an artist, in her way, was when he read of the night when Marie Lloyd learned of the death of her own son in the War. She went on, that night, and sang and did her turn, just as she would have done otherwise. That shamed the poet a little, and his new respect for her, and his new-found affection for the woman who had been a favorite of his own lost son, made this beautiful poem.

Kipling wrote other, more famous poems about the War, and the death of his son, poems like "My Boy Jack," but this poem I think shows the poet at his most self aware, at his gentlest and saddest. In this, Kipling acknowledges that what may be of greater value to the bereaved than all the tributes and memorials and monuments to the dead, may well be the memory of a former happiness, of a son playing a record he loved. Kipling, here at least, offers his sympathy not only to an artist he might have disdained to consider as such before, but to another parent suffering as he did. It is a humbling thing to read, as it must have been to write. I like Kipling better for it.


  1. Although Marie Lloyd did sing a recruiting song at the beginning of the war (including such lyrics as "I didn't like you much before you joined the army, John, but I do like you cocky now you've got your khaki on"), this was the only directly pro-war she sang. Unlike several other music hall stars of the time, she did not go full on to jingoism

  2. I thought Marie Lloyd only had one child? A daughter also called Marie Lloyd. Where are you getting this information about a son from? There was something on wikipedia about it, but that was unreferenced and the wiki article actually says in a different section that she only had one child.

  3. Perhaps I'm wrong -- marie Lloyd and the music halls haven't featured much in my experience -- but the story of the poem I remember, or so I thought, from a biography of Kipling. If I'm wrong, I apologize to those who know better. Perhaps this is just one of those apocryphal stories so likely to attach themselves to war. It is a good story, though, which of course is not to say it is true, is it?