Reconciliation? three –fights for the flag, Kipling
note. This is part of a series which sets out from the analysis of UKIP voters, by Matthew Goodwin, Rob Ford, and others, that said they were a marginalised group, left behind by globalisation and de-industrialisation, who had resentments against their ‘representatives’ in politics and media which were partially justified. Goodwin said that mainstream politics had to address their complaints. These notes ask how the ‘elite’ which decides poetic taste is itself legitimated. Further, whether the left-liberal tenor of poetry itself tends to exclude people whose attitudes or anxieties are more power-oriented. This time we go back and re-read a book by Kipling which straightforwardly presents poetry about imperialism, and in favour of more imperialism. The reaction against this in the 1920s was a “founding moment” for the poetry world, a turn which it has never gone back on. Evidently everyone who is now inside the poetry world partakes of that rejection. But the past ten years have seen a weakening of the consensus positions in politics, so the cultural consensus may also be under threat.
I have been reading The Five Nations. This is really powerful stuff. This poetry reminds me of Cecil B. de Mille’s silent films when you have a full orchestra blowing them along – it has that dreadful momentum even if you aren't going where it wants you to. It was published as a book in 1903 but the poems were in periodicals from 1897 on. You have to connect it with what was in the newspapers every day during that time – comments I have seen on the Net say it is “misunderstood”, but that is not really possible unless you don’t know what was in the papers at the time. This was mainly the failure of British arms in the Boer war and the expansion of the German Navy (and trained conscript army) undermining Britain’s ‘strategic position’. The poetry is so strong that it dragged English poetry behind it for 30 years. It is typical when you see poetry of this period that does not work that it is an attempt to relieve Kipling’s model. I have also been reading a volume of Alfred Noyes (vol.1 of the 1926 Collected), which I got from the second hand bookshop before it closed, as a comparison – Noyes’ poetry is also often about the Navy, and past naval victories, but isn’t very good.
As for the reading public, you can see that there might be a sector which wants Kipling-style rhythms and patriotism, but has no time for literary poetry. But obviously no-one can write this kind of poetry now. This isn’t so strange – Kipling was a one-off.
It’s different reading Noyes- he had a full-time job at the Admiralty writing propaganda, but he wasn’t really with militarist poetry. It’s all Kipling, really – him and the whole apparatus of imperialist patriotic tub-thumping. It’s delusional but it’s tied to something real. The empire was fragile, the forces inside it were too strong not to rip it apart over the course of several decades, but it was real in 1897. Why just him? I guess the mass of English poets were still bound to Romanticism, they were too fascinated by the sublime to want to include the reality of machines, money, and military violence. As a result they didn’t get hypnotised by those things. My feeling is that when Kipling writes, poems about the Royal Artillery in South Africa, all the details were right. And it’s full of details. But it’s also about blowing people’s bodies apart with HE shells. You can’t imagine Tennyson harnessing himself to that. His Morte d’Arthur warriors don’t have many reality-like qualities. Tennyson died in 1892, just after Kipling had started his rather sordid military poems (Barrack-Room Ballads, 1888). It’s still the sublime, the ideal which covers poetry in mist. Kipling took metre back to oral recitation and got rid of the sublime – modern reforms, but a kind of modernity which said yes to colonial wars and an arms race.
Noyes writes, “As on their ancient decks they proudly stood/ decks washed of old with England’s proudest blood". This is ridiculous (and the rhyme is fishy). Kipling is not ridiculous. Noyes gives the impression of knowing that he could be a best-seller by writing about warships, but not being really sincere about it. He was giving pacifist lectures shortly before the Great War – so far as he was emotionally involved, he wasn’t the bloodthirsty kind of patriot. Kipling is not ridiculous. He is critical of the imperial project but when you look at it he is saying you need to spend more money on cannon and warships. This is so much like Farage – the message that you aren’t looking after your own interests, cunning foreigners are running rings round you, you trust your enemies. It’s still the same tune. So I guess you could write Brexit poetry, and I could even list the themes it would foreground. It’s also the same tune as Hitler- you are the greatest people in the world but you need to pursue self-interest 25 hours a day, you are so naive and trusting.
Kipling incorporates the working class into his poems. He shed all those mediaeval knights, who were land-owners almost by definition. But, this welcoming-in is co-axial with a new kind of war which needs mass levies as opposed to a small professional army, and which would therefore need the working class to step up as participants in the shared endeavour, for it to work. Kipling’s populism is double-edged. My reading of this democratic imperialism is that it involves a minority who know what the plot is and a majority who are doing the fighting or the factory work and only hear the intoxicating foreground music. The acute aspect of this is that you can accuse the ones who see through it of lack of patriotism. Oh, you say no to our big music.
The corrupt part of all this is how hard it is to bring the non-white races of the Empire on stage when Kipling pushes them off it so effectively. I can analyse his relationship with his audience but there is nothing to say about the people whose land is the main object of all this imperialist endeavour. Germany is expansionist and wants to take colonies away from “satiated” and “ageing” empires, this fills the foreground and the question of why the natives of those colonies were being prevented from governing themselves vanishes behind the action.
I will quote again the passage that Norman Jope highlighted from the “Plymouth Laureate” –
Now comes the hour. Where comes the man
to free the blade its sheath;
and raise again quick ‘Albion’,
lay bare its razor teeth?
To set Britannia’s heart arace,
and gorge those veins with flame;
cleave free her ill forged foreign chains,
this sceptred isle reclaim.
Britannia sounds like a bulldog on a chain. The poem (by the ‘Laureate’ of Plymouth) is completely a Kipling knock-off, as I recognise now after reading “The Five Nations”. And it’s basically an attack on Brussels.
While reading, I kept hearing lines from Johnny Cash’s recital of “Oh bury me not (on the lone prairie)”. They just popped into my head. I guess this was a recitation piece from roughly the date of ‘Five Nations’, and that there was a whole genre of stage recitations which Kipling fitted into – he went to music halls and wrote poems which sounded like music-hall stage poems. Before radio, people made their own entertainment, and a wide range of people could memorise these pieces and deliver them at amateur concerts. Kipling’s poems are always dramatic monologues, they lend themselves to colourful delivery, and the rhythm makes them easy to memorise. There is a recognisable affinity between Kipling and country and western songs. I think this rhetorical populism has a much wider presence than Kipling, but it does not normally surface in literary anthologies. Tennyson wrote those terrific dialect poems which anticipate Kipling – a lot of Tennyson editions don’t print them. It is hard to get a complete Tennyson.
The historian of music-hall, Peter Bailey, describes it as Kipling’s ‘perfect bully-pulpit’, because ‘its ritual antiphony of posture and response inherited from melodrama with its hagio-demonology of heroes and villains', encouraged tribal patriotism, ‘a sort of incantatory collective self-admiration among audiences flushed with enthusiasm for themselves’.”
(from the Oxford Handbook of Victorian Poetry, on-line; Peter Howarth is probably quoting Bailey from Popular Culture and Performance in the Victorian City.)
This could also be a reason why that sort of poetry doesn’t exist any more – it was linked to a genre of verse recitals which itself does not exist. TV closed down the music halls, during the 1950s. Radios and the gramophone displaced the amateur performance tradition. So, why doesn’t his poetry sound like the cultured poetry which existed before 1888? His metrics are new– free from Latin influence. This is a possible form of nativism, tainted almost at source by its link with the wish to dominate people from other nationalities. The gap between the cultivated and the popular ear connects to learning Latin through the medium of poetry as the main content of schools’ offering. The story of the 20th C is the story of the vacuum after the disappearance of Latin influence. The change (pointed to by the historian RCK Ensor) is due to the rise of intelligent people who had a secondary education which did not include Latin – a new class, almost. Their victory was due to a change of opinion affecting everyone, not literally to overrunning and wiping out their peers from grammar schools and public schools. Because Kipling was writing about working-class characters, it was convincing if he used a non-Latin, uncultivated metric to record their monologues. The old metrics collapsed – this is the shattering of the upper stratum. Does this sound like the message of UKIP about metropolitan elites? The literary audience hears sounds which other people don’t. That’s the point which makes their legitimacy vulnerable. Another literary system could vanish like the Latin-based ones. The question about natural English rhythms is an interesting one. There are so many answers – Kipling might be one. Many of the lines in ‘Five Nations’ are in two parts –like this:
Swift to my use in my trenches, where my well-planned ground-works grew,
I tumbled his quoins and his ashlars, and cut and reset them anew.
Lime is milled of the marbles; burned it, slacked it, and spread;
Taking and leaving at pleasure the gifts of the humble dead.
This AB structure is based on Biblical verses, what Louth described as parallelismus membrorum. But, if you read the Bible, you can hear that the sound of the parallelism is all over Kipling. So – it is not native English, or not all over. He was deeply influenced by the patterns of Hebrew poetry. (Which possibly come from Egyptian – but that’s a tangle of tempting issues.) It’s from the Authorised Version and it’s not free of foreign influences at all. There was a nativist metric during the first 30 years of the 20th C – with Masefield and Kipling, notably. This was in parallel with the rise of free verse, which was part of the same movement of liberation. It was an exploratory period. Meanwhile – Noyes actually writes some poems in hexameters. Kipling’s nativist sense of rhythm matches queasily well with his populist-nativist politics.
Did he give up writing poetry?The Years Between, in 1919,, was the last one – so his spring stopped flowing. It seems to have stopped during the War. No repentance but a dreadful silence. Unbelievable that the torrent of energy in 'Five Nations’ would just stop. But writing in favour of an arms race and mass conscription was going to lose its verve when you had a tangible arms race in being and an army of dead conscripts.The affair of poetry with imperial politics was really an affair with the Devil. The breakdown of that affair was utterly inevitable and even the poets most involved gave up on it, during the 1920s. Nobody could pick it up in the 1930s because it wasn’t there any more. It wasn’t silenced from outside – Kipling and Newbolt just lost their wish to write in that way. Unlike any other visionary poets, their fantasy became reality – and it struck them dumb.
Charles Jencks’ essay on Prince Charles as architectural critic has several sarky remarks about architects telling the wider public what they ought to like. This also applies to the patriotic poets – they are telling people they want to go out and die for the Empire. So there is a level of distrust of the “cultured class” based on its record of complying with what the government wants and getting a free ride off campaigns launched by the right-wing press. OK, but note that this is part of the UKIP message and a doctrine supporting right-wing populism. It follows from this history of complicity that the “left liberal bubble” have been right to take Kipling, Noyes, Newbolt and Watson off the menu. (It’s a simplification to connect imperialism with “the government”, actually it’s more accurate to point to commercial and business interests seizing assets, and white settlers seizing land, and a pressure from these two groups which the government too frequently gave way to. Imperialism was the early stage of globalisation, and in its ‘production model’ of 1850 to 1940 already had the media and business as powerful and irresponsible agents which governments tried to satisfy.)Noyes’ poem ‘Forty Singing Seamen’ starts from a passage in the 14th C fake "travellers’ tales” collection by Bernard de Mandeville and constructs a sort of dream-poem about drunken seamen in a wonderland somewhere in the realm of Prester John, so Ethiopia (a Christian land beyond the Moslem lands). It uses Mandeville as a sort of “naive art”, and uses a verse form which alludes to sea shanties and ballads, in fact several lines of folk-song. Although it doesn't show colonising activity, it has a sort of patriotic sludge underlying it – we are supposed to identify with the sailors because they “fight for the flag” on other occasions. This is a truly phoney poem, the language is inconsistent and unconvincing. I mention it because that deployment of naive imagery and of folk song is often seen as a sign of authenticity, but is equally compatible with the manipulation of opinion– a function necessary when the electorate includes everyone. I haven’t read Noyes “Drake – an English epic” (1908), but the catalogue entry tells me it is 497 pages long.
As for legitimation, the bottom line is that people who read modern poetry also own it and can legislate for taste around it. It is direct democracy, if you take part in the game you can have a say in what the rules are. The idea that people who don’t read modern poetry can decide what is good or bad about it is inherently stupid.
I think that octosyllabics are a natural rhythm for English poetry – Masefield was good at these. My reading of early north-west European cultures is that they had a whole variety of metres. These carried out various functions, or were just separate for no special reason. They just rolled that way. This suggests to me that a natural English rhythm would come in numerous varieties. Defining what is unnatural is also debatable. You could say that all art is unnatural –and you could say that any linguistic behaviour is natural.