Magazine article The Spectator

Sources of Inspiration

Magazine article The Spectator

Sources of Inspiration

Article excerpt

'The Craftsman' is one of my favourite Kipling poems: 'Once, after long-drawn revel at The Mermaid, /He to the overbearing Boanerges /Jonson, uttered (if half of it were liquor, /Blessed be the vintage! )' Then, in four stanzas he has Shakespeare reveal originals of his most famous female characters: Cleopatra, Juliet, Lady Macbeth, Ophelia, until: 'London wakened and he, imperturbable, /Passed from waking to hurry after shadows . . . / Busied upon shows of no earthly importance? / Yes, but he knew it!' Kipling, master-craftsman himself, is concerned to show how little it may take to set a writer's imagination alight, how a mere hint may give birth to a character or scene or story. His Shakespeare found 'his very Cleopatra' in a Cotswold alehouse, 'Drunk with enormous, salvation-contemning/ Love for a tinker.' As for Juliet, he heard a gipsy girl 'Rail at the dawning', as he himself hid, 'Crouched in a ditch and drenched by the midnight/ Dews.' Lady Macbeth? Well, on Bankside, he saw a boy shrink from the task of drowning kittens, till his sister, aged seven, 'thrust 'em under, / Sombrely scornful.' And Ophelia? 'How on a Sabbath, hushed and compassionate -- / She being known since her birth to the townsfolk -- / Stratford dredged and delivered from Avon/ Dripping Ophelia.' These are all of course conjectures, might-have-beens, one poet's imagination playing on the works of another. Kipling, compelling though I have always found his poem to be, doesn't suggest more than that. Nevertheless he is drawing attention to something important: the relation of art to life, the manner in which the artist draws from experience and then re-shapes it. This was something that fascinated him, as his account of the genesis of one of his finest and most puzzling stories shows:

All I carried away from the magic town of Auckland was the face and voice of a woman who sold me beer at a little hotel there. They stayed at the back of my mind till ten years later when, in a local train of the Cape Town suburbs, I heard a petty officer from Simons Town telling a companion about a woman in New Zealand who 'never scrupled to help a lame dog or put her foot on a scorpion'. Then -- precisely as the removal of a key-log in a timber-jam starts the whole pile -- these words gave me the key to the face and voice at Auckland, and a tale called 'Mrs Bathurst' slid into my mind, smoothly and orderly as floating timber on a bank-high river. …

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