Somebody Else's Poem: Poetry and Fiction in Rudyard Kipling's "Wireless" and "Dayspring Mishandled" 1*

By Hesse, Beatrix | Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate, May 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Somebody Else's Poem: Poetry and Fiction in Rudyard Kipling's "Wireless" and "Dayspring Mishandled" 1*


Hesse, Beatrix, Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate


For any scholar interested in the relationship between poetry and narrative fiction, the oeuvre of Rudyard Kipling immediately suggests itself as an appropriate example. For not only was Kipling equally prolific and popular as a poet and as a writer of short fiction, he also tended to incorporate examples of his verse in editions of his short fiction in the form of mottoes or epigraphs. Although this is an aspect of his short story collections that is immediately visible at first glance, there exists no consensus in the academic community as to the status and purpose of this interpolated verse. In a new German book on Kipling, Christine Müller-Scholle argues that his method of introducing short stories by a brief poem or fragment from a poem is related to the practice of baroque emblem poetry. According to Müller-Scholle, while the motto of the story recalls the motto of the emblem poem, the visual image (pictura) corresponds to the text of the story itself, and the epigrammatic subscription is relegated to the reader who has to draw the necessary inferences concerning the relationship between motto and picture (cf. Müller-Scholle 28). It is certainly correct that, in Kipling, the task of unearthing the relationship between the epigraph and the story generally becomes the responsibility of the reader; but this is particularly hard because the relationship tends to vary from story to story. A scholarly article of average length is clearly not the place for an in-depth investigation of all of Kipling's stories and their accompanying poems. For this reason I will consider two stories, "Wireless" and "Dayspring Mishandled," that recommend them- selves for analysis because they are not merely introduced by poems but also deal with the process of poetic production itself. Hence, besides the epigraph, we also find a poem "inside" the text, which- for want of a better term-I will be calling the "embedded" poem. A poem introducing the story (or following it), by contrast, will be termed an "accompanying" poem. The two stories I have selected are moderately well-known, but still a brief plot synopsis at the outset may prove helpful.

"Wireless" was first published in Scribner's Magazine in 1902, probably prompted by the recent experiments in wireless telegraphy conducted by Guglielmo Marconi (cf. Stewart 108). The seminal idea for the story is the parallel between the (then) mysterious process of telegraphic communication and the (still) mysterious process of artistic inspiration. In the story, an early experiment in wireless telegraphy is conducted in the back room of a chemist's shop. While the technical preparations are performed, the narrator has a conversation with Shaynor, the chemist's assistant, who is young, tubercular and in love with a young woman named Fanny Brand, who comes in to take him for a short walk "by St. Agnes"-a first hint of the way the story is to develop. The narrator concocts a "medicine" for Shaynor's cough from various drugs he finds in the shop, and the combined influences of drug, disease and love trigger off a fit of literary composition during which Shaynor produces some remarkable verse that the narrator recognizes as a more or less distorted version of Keats's "The Eve of St. Agnes," although Shaynor (as he later declares) has never read Keats. The narrator concludes that identical circumstances must indeed beget identical effects, and that Shaynor at least temporarily was a minor Keats. This process of imperfect transmission is mirrored by the purely technical experiment in telegraphy which also ends unsuccessfully.

While in "Wireless," the presiding genius is Keats, in "Dayspring Mishandled" (first published in McCall's Magazine in 1928), the revered dead poet is Chaucer. "Dayspring Mishandled" is the story of an elaborate hoax: Alured Castorley and James Andrew Manallace, both formerly employed as hack writers in the Fictional Supply Syndicate, a factory for the industrial production of formulaic literature, become deadly foes out of rivalry for the love of an unnamed woman. …

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