The Outsider - A Profile of the Restless Wanderer, Rudyard Kipling

Article excerpt

Scott Stanley is deputy managing editor of Insight magazine.

My grandmother, though she will be a hundred years old this month, is still a thoroughly modern old girl and not the least bothered by the fact that the Victorians and Edwardians she knew so well are gone now. In fact, mine is the last generation to have been educated by them and to have been touched personally in the process by their enthusiasms for such cultural atavisms as Wordsworth, Tennyson, the Brownings, Kipling, and other poets to whom narration, meter, and rhyme were not anathema. Kipling especially--whose poems "If," "Recessional," "Gunga Din," and the "The Ballad of East and West" were known to many a boy my age who came under the influence of maiden schoolteachers. Though today they would be lawyers or vice presidents of "dot.coms," in those days they took one of the few jobs then available to educated ladies of independent mind and inspired the generation of students between the world wars.

Well, they are gone now. Indeed, they were elderly when I knew them as a boy in the war years and just afterward. They were of the generation that fought in or remembered the era of World War I, when letters from private soldiers contained lines of serious poetry, verse, and other literature learned "by heart," as we used to say. The letters from Korea and Vietnam were far different stuff. And we were all poorer for it.

But where I was going when nostalgia broke in to threaten my readers with history was to Joseph Rudyard Kipling--whose thirty or so volumes of the wonderful Elephant Edition I used to read through in a year for pleasure. Ah, Kipling.

It is hard to say with what enthusiasm I received word that there was a new biography, Rudyard Kipling: A Life, by New Zealand poet Harry Ricketts. Wow, a colonial and son of a soldier of the empire had done a new book to be added to Lord Birkenhead's Rudyard Kipling, Charles Carrington's Rudyard Kipling: His Life and Works, Thomas Pinney's The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, and others on my shelves.

Ricketts gets the outline right enough. As this biographer tells it, Rudyard Kipling was born in Bombay, India, at 10:00 p.m. on December 30, 1865, after six days of labor, as the servants sacrificed a goat to ensure his safe delivery. His father was artist and educator John Lockwood Kipling, bald and just five feet three inches tall, a lover of poetry whose own father was a Methodist minister. Lockwood had met Rudyard's mother, Alice, in 1862 or '63 when her clergyman brother Frederick brought him home for a visit.

Alice Macdonald Kipling was above all a lover of poetry. Her letters crackled with gossip and mischief, though her own poetry tended to be melancholy. Her father was another Methodist minister. Once, while helping to pack the family for one of its triennial moves, the spunky Alice found a keepsake lock of Methodist founder John Wesley's hair in an envelope and immediately cast the clerical relic into the fire, declaring: "See! A hair of the dog that bit us!"

Rudyard was named for Rudyard Lake in Staffordshire. Lockwood and Alice had realized they were in love there when they found themselves exchanging lines from Robert Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," the favorite poem of both. They were twenty-six years old.

Lockwood was a prizewinning potter employed in South Kensington by the Department of Science and Art. A bureaucrat's pay being insufficient to support a wife, and the life of an artist being insecure, he leaped at an offer to become "artist-craftsman" at Sir Jamsetje Jejeeboy School of Art and Industry in Bombay at 400 rupees a month, about *430 a year, plus whatever else he could earn from giving private lessons.

Married in March 1865, the Kiplings honeymooned on a visit to the home of Lockwood's mother and sister at Yorkshire, where Rudyard was conceived. After a few days in London they sailed for Bombay aboard the SS Ripon, arriving in May. …