Notes on Kipling

February 28, 2010 at 11:00 pm (Uncategorized)

After my recent post on CLR James, I decided to re-read James’ book on cricket Beyond a Boundary. I was never a cricket fan as a kid, but James’ book is so much more – history, class analysis, autobiography, and yes cricket too.

In the opening of the book, James references Kipling’s famous comment writing, “What do they know of cricket, who only cricket knows.” Kipling’s original comment, what do they know of England… has become part of the language, but is originally from a poem “The English Flag.”

My first conscious memory of  Kipling is his infamous poem ‘The White Man’s Burden”, his poem about the virtues of British imperialism, which I think I read in a history class in high school.  My general take on Kipling was with much of the left, dismissing him as a reactionary. A much more balanced treatment of Kipling can be found in  George Orwell’s essay Rudyard Kipling . Orwell notes that one need not defend Kipling the man or his odious views, to appreciate his work. As Orwell writes:

Kipling is a jingo imperialist, he is morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting. It is better to start by admitting that, and then to try to find out why it is that he survives while the refined people who have sniggered at him seem to wear so badly.

The first movie I ever saw in a theatre was Disney’s film, The  Jungle Book. I loved the film, and still do today (despite the rather dated quality of it), but it wasn’t until much later that I read the stories (I re-read them last year after reading Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book)  They are fantastic stories. The adventures of Mowgli and others mixed with Kipling’s poems are marvellous for a child and still great for adults. 

As I was writing this post, I was listening to Billy Bragg, and remembered Bragg set one of Kipling’s poems to music, “A Pict Song.” The poem is from Kipling’s book Puck of Pook’s Hill.  Bragg’s song appears on his William Bloke album. Bragg’s version makes several changes, most notably substituting state for great in the second stanza. The whole thing reminds me of “Song of the Worms” by Margaret Atwood.

A Pict Song

Rome never looks where she treads
Always her heavy hooves fall,
On our stomachs, our hearts or our heads;
And Rome never heeds when we bawl.
Her sentries pass on – that is all,
And we gather behind them in hordes,
And plot to reconquer the Wall,
With only our tongues for our swords.

We are the Little Folk  – we!
Too little  to love or to hate.
Leave us along and you’ll see
How we can drag down the Great!
We are the worm in the wood!
We are the rot at the room!
We are the germ in the blood!
We are the thorn in the foot!

Mistletoe killing an oak –
Rats gnawing cables in two –
Moths making holes in a cloak –
How they must love what they do!
Yes, – and we Little Folk too,
We are as busy as they –
Working our works out of view –
Watch, and you’ll see it some day!

No indeed! We are not strong,
But we know Peoples that are.
Yes, and we’ll guide them along,
To smash and destroy you in War!
We shall be slaves just the same?
Yes, we have always been slaves;
But you – you will die of the shame,
And then we shall dance on your graves!

We are the Little Folk, we!  etc.



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