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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsBooks And Persons: Being Comments On A Past Epoch 1908-1911 - Rudyard Kipling
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Books And Persons: Being Comments On A Past Epoch 1908-1911 - Rudyard Kipling Post by :Beier Category :Nonfictions Author :Arnold Bennett Date :May 2012 Read :1352

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Books And Persons: Being Comments On A Past Epoch 1908-1911 - Rudyard Kipling

(_4 Nov. '09_)

After a long period of abstention from Rudyard Kipling, I have just read "Actions and Reactions." It has induced gloom in me; yet a modified gloom. Nearly a quarter of a century has passed since "Plain Tales from the Hills" delighted first Anglo-Indian, and then English society. There was nothing of permanent value in that book, and in my extremest youth I never imagined otherwise. But "The Story of the Gadsbys" impressed me. So did "Barrack-room Ballads." So did pieces of "Soldiers Three." So did "Life's Handicap" and "Many Inventions." So did "The Jungle Book," despite its wild natural history. And I remember my eagerness for the publication of "The Seven Seas." I remember going early in the morning to Denny's bookshop to buy it. I remember the crimson piles of it in every bookshop in London. And I remember that I perused it, gulped it down, with deep joy. And I remember the personal anxiety which I felt when Kipling lay very dangerously ill in New York. For a fortnight, then, Kipling's temperature was the most important news of the day. I remember giving a party with a programme of music, in that fortnight, and I began the proceedings by reading aloud the programme, and at the end of the programme instead of "God Save the Queen," I read, "God Save Kipling," and everybody cheered. "Stalky and Co." cooled me, and "Kim" chilled me. At intervals, since, Kipling's astounding political manifestations, chiefly in verse, have shocked and angered me. As time has elapsed it has become more and more clear that his output was sharply divided into two parts by his visit to New York, and that the second half is inferior in quantity, in quality, in everything, to the first. It has been too plain now for years that he is against progress, that he is the shrill champion of things that are rightly doomed, that his vogue among the hordes of the respectable was due to political reasons, and that he retains his authority over the said hordes because he is the bard of their prejudices and of their clayey ideals. A democrat of ten times Kipling's gift and power could never have charmed and held the governing classes as Kipling has done. Nevertheless, I for one cannot, except in anger, go back on a genuine admiration. I cannot forget a benefit. If in quick resentment I have ever written of Kipling with less than the respect which is eternally due to an artist who has once excited in the heart a generous and beautiful emotion, and has remained honest, I regret it. And this is to be said: at his worst Kipling is an honest and painstaking artist. No work of his but has obviously been lingered over with a craftsman's devotion! He has never spoken when he had nothing to say--though probably no artist was ever more seductively tempted by publishers and editors to do so. And he has done more than shun notoriety--Miss Marie Corelli does that--he has succeeded in avoiding it.

* * * * *

The first story, and the best, in "Actions and Reactions" is entitled "An Habitation Enforced," and it displays the amused but genuine awe of a couple of decent rich Americans confronted by the saecular wonders of the English land system. It depends for its sharp point on a terrific coincidence, as do many of Kipling's tales, for instance, "The Man Who Was"--the mere chance that these Americans should tumble upon the very ground and estate that had belonged to the English ancestors of one of them. It is written in a curiously tortured idiom, largely borrowed from the Bible, and all the characters are continually given to verbal smartness or peculiarity of one kind or another. The characters are not individualized. Each is a type, smoothed out by sentimental handling into something meant to be sympathetic. Moreover, the real difficulties of the narrative are consistently, though I believe unconsciously, shirked. The result, if speciously pretty, is not a bit convincing. But the gravest, and the entirely fatal fault, is the painting of the English land system. To read this story one could never guess that the English land system is not absolutely ideal, that tenants and hereditary owners do not live always in a delightful patriarchal relation, content. There are no shadows whatever. The English land system is perfect, and no accusation could possibly be breathed against it. And the worst is that for Kipling the English land system probably _is perfect. He is incapable of perceiving that it can be otherwise. He would not desire it to be otherwise. His sentimentalization of it is gross--there is no other word--and at bottom the story is as wildly untrue to life as the most arrant Sunday-school prize ever published by the Religious Tract Society. Let it be admitted that the romantic, fine side of the English land system is rendered with distinction and effectiveness; and that the puzzled, unwilling admiration of the Americans is well done, though less well than in a somewhat similar earlier story, "An Error in the Fourth Dimension."

* * * * *

An example of another familiar aspect of Kipling is "With the Night Mail." This is a story of 2000 A.D., and describes the crossing of the Atlantic by the aerial mail. It is a glittering essay in the sham-technical; and real imagination, together with a tremendous play of fancy, is shown in the invention of illustrative detail. But the whole effort is centred on the mechanics of the affair. Human evolution has stood stock-still save in the department of engineering. The men are exactly the same semi-divine civil service men that sit equal with British military and naval officers on the highest throne in the kingdom of Kipling's esteem. Nothing interests him but the mechanics and the bureaucratic organization and the _esprit de corps_. Nor does he conceive that the current psychology of ruling and managing the earth will ever be modified. His simplicity, his naivete, his enthusiasms, his prejudices, his blindness, and his vanities are those of Stalky. And, after all, even the effect he aims at is not got. It is nearly got, but never quite. There is a tireless effort, but the effort is too plain and fatigues the reader, forcing him to share it. A thin powder of dullness lies everywhere.

* * * * *

When I had read these stories, I took out "Life's Handicap," and tasted again the flavour of "On Greenhow Hill," which I have always considered to be among the very best of Kipling's stories. It would be too much to say that I liked it as well as ever. I did not. Time has staled it. The author's constitutional sentimentality has corroded it in parts. But it is still a very impressive and a fundamentally true thing. It was done in the rich flush of power, long before its creator had even suspected his hidden weaknesses, long before his implacable limitations had begun to compel him to imitate himself. It was done in the days when he could throw off exquisite jewels like this, to deck the tale:

_To Love's low voice she lent a careless ear;_
_Her band within his rosy fingers lay,_
_A chilling weight. She would, not turn or hear;_
_But with averted, face went on her way._
_But when pale Death, all featureless and grim,_
_Lifted his bony hand, and beckoning_
_Held out his cypress-wreath, she followed him,_
_And Love was left forlorn and wondering,_
_That she who for his bidding would not stay,_
_At Death's first whisper rose and went away_.

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