National Poetry Day #5: Two by Rudyard Kipling

She-Hulk has a joke for you!

Original art by John Byrne, tweaked a bit by me.

With apologies to Marvel and John Byrne, I’ve stolen this joke from a postcard that I remember reading about when I was a kid, in, of all places, The Guinness Book of World Records. According to the Guinness folks, this postcard was actually the best-selling postcard of all time:

Yes, I could have just posted this all by itself, but I always like dusting off the She-Hulk pie-in-the-face cartoon, so.

The postcard was created by illustrator Donald McGill, but he didn’t even originate the joke! It goes back farther, as early as 1907. Which means that the joke was around during Kipling’s lifetime!

Rudyard Kipling lived 1865 to 1936, and he was a prolific writer and journalist who wrote short stories, novels, and poetry in addition to his journalism. Kipling’s legacy is complicated, or even controversial, given his reputation as being a chief voice of the high point in British Empire colonialism. There is a certain stuffy feeling to reading Kipling now; even in his lyric descriptions of far-off lands he feels like the kind of poet one reads in an oak-paneled study with a fire in the hearth, a clock ticking on the mantel, and perhaps a smoldering pipe in the hand that’s not holding the book. Kipling really does seem to be the voice of the “stiff upper lip, lads!” era of Proper Britain. In a large way, Kipling seems to occupy a similar space in his writing that Edward Elgar does in his music. (Hence my choice for today’s Tone Poem Tuesday, coming up later!)

All that is a bit simplistic, though, because Kipling is still a fine poet, with a keen command on how to deploy rhythm, meter, and rhyme to the emotions he wants to illustrate in his work. These two poems illustrate this particular well, in the service of two common themes: love, and death.

First, love. The Lovers’ Litany is a catalog of failed loves and a hope of more to come. “Love like ours can never die!” says the narrator, but he says it of four different loves, each one gone into memory. But even though he has been “bankrupt in quadruplicate”, he would endure the same fate a full forty more times if he could.

“The Lovers’ Litany”, Rudyard Kipling
Eyes of grey—a sodden quay,
Driving rain and falling tears,
As the steamer wears to sea
In a parting storm of cheers.
Sing, for Faith and Hope are high—
None so true as you and I—
Sing the Lovers’ Litany:—
Love like ours can never die.”

Eyes of black—a throbbing keel,
Milky foam to left and right;
Whispered converse near the wheel
In the brilliant tropic night.
Cross that rules the Southern Sky
Stars that sweep and wheel and fly
Hear the Lovers’ Litany:—
Love like ours can never die.”

Eyes of brown—a dusty plain
Split and parched with heat of June
Flying hoof and tightened rein;
Hearts that beat the old old tune.
Side by side the horses fly,
Frame we now the old reply
Of the Lovers’ Litany:—
Love like ours can never die.”

Eyes of blue—the Simla Hills
Silvered with the moonlight hoar;
Pleading of the waltz that thrills,
Dies and echoes round Benmore.
Mabel,” “Officers,” “Goodbye,”
Glamour, wine and witchery—
On my soul’s sincerity,
Love like ours can never die.”

Maidens of your charity
Pity my most luckless state.
Four times Cupid’s debtor I—
Bankrupt in quadruplicate.
Yet despite this evil case,
And a maiden showed me grace,
Four-and-forty times would I
Sing the Lovers’ Litany
Love like ours can never die.”

And then, death. Here, in Possibilities, Kipling ruminates on how those who die are mourned all too briefly before their places are taken again amongst the living by someone else, so that the ghosts who gather to cavort when the living have retired must disperse again by sunrise. The thing that catches me in this poem is in the second stanza, when Kipling describes death as “the Great Perhaps”; this is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s “undiscovered country”.

“Possibilities”, Rudyard Kipling

Ay, lay him ‘neath the Simla pine —
A fortnight fully to be missed,
Behold, we lose our fourth at whist,
A chair is vacant where we dine.

His place forgets him; other men
Have bought his ponies, guns, and traps.
His fortune is the Great Perhaps
And that cool rest-house down the glen,

Whence he shall hear, as spirits may,
Our mundane revel on the height,
Shall watch each flashing ‘rickshaw-light
Sweep on to dinner, dance, and play.

Benmore shall woo him to the ball
With lighted rooms and braying band,
And he shall hear and understand
“Dream Faces” better than us all.

For, think you, as the vapours flee
Across Sanjaolie after rain,
His soul may climb the hill again
To each of field of victory.

Unseen, who women held so dear,
The strong man’s yearning to his kind
Shall shake at most the window-blind,
Or dull awhile the card-room’s cheer.

In his own place of power unkown,
His Light o’ Love another’s flame,
His dearest pony galloped lame,
And he an alien and alone.

Yet may he meet with many a friend —
Shrewd shadows, lingering long unseen
Among us when “God save the Queen”
Shows even “extras” have an end.

And, when we leave the heated room,
And, when at four the lights expire,
The crew shall gather round the fire
And mock our laughter in the gloom.

Talk as we talked, and they ere death —
Flirt wanly, dance in ghostly-wise,
With ghosts of tunes for melodies,
And vanish at the morning’s breath.

Two geographical notes: Simla is a city and region in Northern India, where Kipling spent most of his time when was in that country (it is called Shimla today), and Benmore was a mansion with a ballroom that was a hub of social activity in the Simla region.

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1 Response to National Poetry Day #5: Two by Rudyard Kipling

  1. Roger says:

    I should note that I HAVE kippled, and it was quite enjoyable.

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