Rudyard Kipling: Patriot or Prophet?

By Timko, Michael | The World and I, September 2009 | Go to article overview

Rudyard Kipling: Patriot or Prophet?


Timko, Michael, The World and I


Rudyard Kipling, poet, novelist, and short story writer, was born on 30 December 1865 in Bombay (now Mumbai) India, the son of Alice and John Lockwood Kipling. In 1871, at the age of six, Kipling and his sister were sent to school in Southsea, England. They resided with a Captain Holloway and his wife, and it was the latter, along with her son, as Kipling was later to record in "Baa Baa, Black Sheep" and other stories, who often beat him. A voracious reader, Kipling soon learned that he could escape from his miserable existence by devouring the magazines and books that his parents regularly sent him.

In 1877 his misery ended when his mother returned to England and rescued him from the "House of Desolation" (as he was later to call it). He then enrolled in the United Services College, becoming the editor of the school newspaper and writing poetry, which was later published as "Schoolboy Lyrics" (1881) by his parents. In 1882 he returned to India, where he followed a journalistic career and wrote poetry and stories, many of which were later collected as "Departmental Ditties" (1886) and "Plain Tales from the Hills" (1887).

In 1889, now a well known and highly regarded author, he returned to London. In 1892 he married Caroline Starr Balestier, an American, the sister of his American publisher; and, after some extensive traveling, the couple settled in the United States, first living in 'Bliss Cottage' in Brattleboro, Vermont. They returned to England in 1896 with their three children and settled at 'The Elms' in Rottingdean, Sussex.

In addition to continuing to write his fiction and poetry, Kipling served as a reporter during the Boer War and World War II. He died of a hemorrhage on January 18, 1936, and is buried in the Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1907. His best known novels are "The Light that Failed" (1891), "Captains Courageous" (1897), "Stalky & Co." (1899), and "Kim" (1901), which is set in India and deals with the relationship of the British and the Indians. This is also the chief subject of much of his poetry and many of his short stories, found in such collections as "Plain Tales from the Hills," "Under the Deodars" (1888), "Wee Willie Winkie" (1888), and "Life's Handicap" (1891).

Kipling enjoyed early success with his poems but his fame also rests on his short stories and novels; in all three genres he demonstrates his ability to portray the people and culture of his era, especially the relationship between the British and India. In his essay titled "Rudyard Kipling" George Orwell called him "the prophet of British Imperialism in its expansionist phase." Through all his works, one critic has written, "Kipling often focused on the British Empire and her soldiers," especially depicting what is regarded as British imperialism, what the British Empire regarded as "taming the natives." Understandably, this aspect of his fiction and poetry has limited his popularity. As one of his critics has said, "He is both one of the most beloved of British authors and one of the most vilified for the patronizing colonialist attitudes in his work." Today he is best known for his two "Jungle Books" (1894, 1895), "Captains Courageous," and "Kim," a novel dealing the religious and philosophic aspects of Indian culture.

All of Kipling's works, his poetry, short fiction, and novels, reflect his interest in India, the land of his birth. They also reflect the period in which he lived and the environment he knew, that of the late nineteenth early twentieth century. The views expressed in his various writings, especially his poetry, might strike the modern reader as offensive, even racist; but the author's attitudes, as one critic has written, "constitute an historically accurate account of how a late 19th-century British soldier viewed the strange lands in which he was stationed." This view comes out most strongly in the poems contained in his Barrack-Room Ballads, the poetry that most clearly reflects the influence of the music-hall entertainments that he so much enjoyed, poems that could easily be set to music. …

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