Rudyard Kipling, New Englander (Grieving parents in war, Part III)
Rudyard Kipling's name has come up in the comments section twice recently. The first time was in the context of this comment, in which Richard Aubrey mentions that:
Kipling, in his "Kim" has a retired officer of Indian cavalry talking to a Buddhist monk. I believe the officer's comment to the monk's reproach to his career of fighting went like, "War is an ill think, as I surely know. But 'twould be an ill world for weaponless dreamers if evil men were not now and then slain."
Not a bad description of the way in which the military makes the world safe for pacifists.
And then, in my poetic thread of yesterday, commenter Ymarsakar mentions Kipling's poem "If," and offers up a sampling of his other work, including "The White Man's Burden."
That was enough to get me started on doing some research on Kipling--a man who was a giant in his own day, then faded in public estimation, but is undergoing a recent revival. The reasons for his rise, fall, and then slight rise again involve both literary fashion and the political.
Kipling was a very traditional poet; and in particular a rhyming, storytelling, and dialect-using poet; certainly not the type of thing that's been in vogue for quite some time. But, as Ymarsakar points out, his is a type of poetry people can really understand; it's very accessible.
Of course, the second (and perhaps even more relevant) reason for the ups and downs of Kipling's career is his politics. He is seen--rightly or wrongly--as an apologist for colonialism and imperialism, and the "White Man's Burden" poem (and the phrase itself), are considered un-PC to the max, the very essence of what's wrong with imperialism.
I'm not a Kipling expert, and I'm not yet ready to write the definitive post on his work; this certainly isn't it, if that's what you're looking for. But in doing my research I was reminded of the fact that Kipling, the quintessential author of the age of the British Empire at its zenith, was also a New Englander.
What, you ask? Yes, a New Englander. Kipling married a Vermont woman and they lived there for four years early in their marriage. I once knew that fact (although I'd certainly forgotten it) because about thirty years ago I'd happened across the house where they'd lived in Brattleboro while snowshoeing with some friends who lived in the town. They pointed it out; at the time, it wasn't open to the public, but now it is:
They make an unlikely group of New Englanders: Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves and who talked with the animals; Shere Khan, the ruthless tiger; Bagheera, the fearsome panther. Indeed, though the jungle boy and the creatures who inhabit The Jungle Books of Rudyard Kipling were conceived in India during the author's childhood, they were given birth half a world away in the thoroughly unexotic setting of a small Vermont village. The first portion of The Jungle Books was published in the U.S. in 1894 (a second followed in 1895).
...Recently, the house where Mowgli was born has been restored by the Landmark Trust, a British nonprofit foundation devoted to preserving historic British homes. Landmark Trust properties are not restored to be museums, but for use as unconventional guest homes.
On a bluff outside Brattleboro, the library, gardens and spacious living quarters at "Naulakha" are active again, reincarnated as perhaps Vermont's most unusual summer vacation home/winter ski chalet.
So, this is where some of the Jungle Books were written and Kipling's first two children were born. He and his wife had retreated there after being repulsed by New York City:
If his American surroundings are any indication, the Kipling of Naulakha hardly resembled the imperial father figure he later became. Wandering the house, a visitor inevitably attempts to conjure the man with the assistance of an amusing contemporary newspaper report: "he wears shabby clothes, drives shaggy horses, is always saying, 'Begad' and plays with the baby."
Rural Vermont or not, though, he never failed at Naulakha to dress for dinner. Remarkably, Kipling even played games at Naulakha -- the USGA credits him with inventing snow golf there (a winter version played with distinctive red balls and tin cans for cups), and à la Mark Twain, he installed a billiards table in the attic. On a visit from Britain, Arthur Conan Doyle brought Kipling a pair of skis and, it is said, introduced the sport to Vermont.
The thematic principle of the house's design is decidedly playful, too. In a curious conceit, Kipling intended Naulakha to resemble a ship. At 90 feet by 24 feet, the house is unusually long and narrow with the author's library and office at the "bow," the kitchen at the "stern." According to David Tansey, an architectural historian and the Landmark Trust's US representative, the author was possibly inspired by elegant Kashmiri houseboats he had known in India.
I don't know about you, but the idea that skiing came to Vermont via Kipling via Arthur Conan Doyle fills me with wonderment. And I love the fact that Kipling invented winter golf, a sport I didn't even know existed.
Kipling's American sojourn--though filled with joy at the beginning--had a sad, and then an even sadder ending:
When a family quarrel erupted between Kipling and an alcoholic brother-in-the law, the fallout obliterated whatever joy had formerly illuminated Naulakha. The author's family left Vermont in 1896, and they returned to America only once with tragic consequences. Following a rough Atlantic crossing to New York in 1899, Kipling and six-year-old daughter Josephine fell seriously ill. He fought pneumonia and recovered; his "little American" and the "best beloved" child to whom he had recited the Just-So Stories in the Naulakha nursery did not. The Kiplings soon left America heartbroken and forever.
And then things got even worse; Josephine was not the only child Kipling lost. His son John was killed at the age of eighteen in World War I, leaving only one surviving child, a daughter.
The death of his son fighting in WWI engendered a lifelong grief in both Kipling and his wife. The body of John ("Jack") Kipling was never found, although there were false claims in the 1990's that it had been:
Triumphant official claims to have ended the 83-year search for the body of John Kipling, only son of the patriotic author Rudyard Kipling, are wrong, according to a six-year investigation due out this autumn.
The soldier, only 18 when he was killed in September 1915, remains one of Britain's half million "lost boys" missing in the first world war. His headstone, placed on a grave in France by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in 1992, is false.
This is the verdict - reached "with much sadness" - of My Boy Jack?, a study by two long-established military authors. Their finding is endorsed by an expert panel, which includes a judge and the museum curator of Lieutenant John Kipling's old regiment, the Irish Guards.
Last night, Michael Smith, secretary of the Kipling Society, said: "This is a shame. Most people had been led to believe by the commission that John had at last been laid to rest - and that Rudyard's soul need no longer be in torment".
The "My Boy Jack" reference is to a poem Kipling wrote on the subject after his son's death:
“Have you news of my boy Jack?”
Not this tide.
“When d’you think that he’ll come back?”
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.
“Has any one else had word of him?”
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.
“Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?”
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind—
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.
Then hold your head up all the more,
And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!
[NOTE: See, also, my series "Grieving parents in war," Part I and Part II.]