Kipling, Rudyard (Joseph Rudyard Kipling)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Kipling, Rudyard (Joseph Rudyard Kipling)

Kipling, Rudyard (Joseph Rudyard Kipling) (1865-1936) British journalist, poet, novelist, and short story writer

From Queen Victoria's reign through the uncertainties following World War I, Rudyard Kipling, a journalist, fabulist, balladeer, and fiction writer, exemplified the ambivalence of the British imperialist. Born in Bombay, India, he was the son of Alice MacDonald and John Lockwood Kipling, a sculptor and museum curator. Raised by a Portuguese nanny and a Hindu porter named Meeta, from his earliest years the bilingual author learned STORYTELLING along with a respect for the lower castes. In 1871, “Ruddy” and Alice Beatrice “Trix” Kipling, his three-year-old sister, traveled to the foster home of of Captain and Mrs. Holloway, a callous and uncaring couple living in Southsea, England. Until age 12, the author suffered a sadistic neglect that brought on psychological collapse. His only solaces were a month's vacation each December with his aunt Georgina and his uncle Edward Burne-Jones, a famous artist, as well as reading mysteries and adventure lore from the British Empire.

The author typified the life of the bicul- tural military child, as related in his autobiography, Something of Myself, For My Friends Known and Unknown (1937), left unfinished at his death. His mother finally rescued him from the Holloways, and in 1878, he entered a military prep school, the United Services College in North Devon. There he embraced a belief in British racial and cultural superiority. His schoolmates consisted mainly of fellow Anglo-Indians (British citizens born or residing in India), the sons of British officers: “Some seventy-five per cent of us had been born outside England and hoped to follow their fathers in the Army” (Kipling 1937, 23), a choice that severe myopia denied him. But life at Southsea in the Holloways’ “House of Desolation” and at school far from the India of his birth made a survivor of him (8). He compensated for eyeglasses and bookishness by writing. In the young adult novel Stalky & Co. (1899), he captured the adventures and squabbles of his adolescent peers, whom he dubbed Beetle, Stalky, and McTurk.

The author’s real education began at age 16 in Lahore, India (present-day Pakistan), on the editorial staff of the Civil & Military Gazette. His job was to turn reports from news agencies into vernacular and sensational news—abysmal sanitation standards, typhoid epidemics, murders, hoaxes, divorces from Egypt to Hong Kong, knighthoods in London, legislation from the British Parliament, and war diaries from Russia. In his AUTOBIOGRAPHY, Kipling reported bouts of dysentery, ambient fevers of 104°, and bribes from underlings seeking advancement. Upon receiving cash, a shawl, and a fruit basket, he insulted the opportunistic sender by returning the gift via a low-caste sweeper. A canny servant, hired by Kipling’s father as a bodyguard, declared, “’Till we get home you eat and drink from my hands” (28). A second fruit basket with money in it required more wit: Kipling pricked into the banknotes in Latin the words Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes (I fear Greeks bearing gifts), a line from VIRGIL’S AENEID (17 B.C.). In Kipling’s development into a writer, he became a bicultural specialist, and he predicted that he would never be fully English.

From Journalist to Published Author

From scouring for news and features, Kipling, then as earnestly patriotic as a raw recruit, proposed to enlighten the average English reader about the scope and purpose of the empire. He anthologized his first parodies of privileged white imperialists and their wives in a collection of juvenilia, Departmental Ditties and Other Verses (1886), issued by the Gazette. The anthology displays his gift for rollicking rhythms and rhymes conveying lower-class dialects and amusements common to soldiers. In the estimation of the critic Diane Simmons, Kipling exposed the fallacies of imperialism—“a muddle of bored and sometimes desperate young men, a place where very little is accomplished” (Simmons 2007, ix). He followed with his first 40 stories in Plain Tales from the Hills (1888), the majority of them newspaper stories and all admired by some critics for their layering of heat waves, disease, bewildering circumstance, pointless servitude, and treachery. In “Thrown Away,” the futility and venality of empire underlies a young English officer’s shooting himself in the head in a place where “good work does not matter, because a man is judged by his worst output and another man takes all the credit… . Nothing matters except Home furlough” (Kipling Plain Tales, 1888, 15, 16). The major’s cover-up of suicide exemplifies the author’s obsessive motif—the heavy task of men charged with patrolling the empire, the topic of NIKOLAY GOGOL’S The Government Inspector (1836) and GEORGE ORWELL’S classic essay “Shooting an Elephant” (1936). A reverse image in Kipling’s “The Story of Muhammad Din” enlarges on the trampling of a Muslim child’s mud buildings, an emblem of India’s vulnerability and innocence. The boys death follows his disillusion with the phony British pose of uplifting, Christianizing, and encouraging the Indian peasantry.

The anthology includes a variety of stories touching on aspects of Indian culture that were strange and fanciful to the average British reader. By setting fantasy fiction in India, Kipling coupled the refined European’s fear of the irrational with the outre details of an incomprehensible Asian culture. The immediate result was an audience for Kipling’s stories, which expressed his and the world’s anxiety about imperialism and the posting of refined urbanites to global backwaters. For the reader, vicarious participation in British dominion fostered the illusion of power and triumph. For the author, anxiety developed into an emotional impasse.

In addition to the autobiographical “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” at age 23, Kipling composed an adventure novella, “The Man Who Would Be King,” anthologized in The Phantom Rickshaw and Other Ghost Tales (1888). The story discloses a mounting tension in the author’s mind between a suspicion of individual motives and the supposed altruism of the British Raj. The narrative portrays the con artists Danny Dravot and Peachey Carnehan as presumptuous outsiders: “We have been boiler-fitters, engine-drivers, petty contract- ers … and we have decided that India isn't big enough for such as us” (Kipling Phantom Rickshaw, 1888, 252). The duo generates a deadly backlash by discounting the beliefs and taboos of a subject people on India's northwest frontier. Replete with episodic romance, marching songs, suspense, and situational irony, the quest tale follows the army pals to Kafiristan (in present-day Afghanistan) among “an all-fired lot of heathens” (128), a comment rich with working- class white disdain for Asians. The plot turns on local reverence for extremes of past and present—the conquests of Alexander the Great and the Masonic symbol, an emblem of male lodge membership that the author wore from his late 20s. Kipling concludes with a grisly paean to brotherhood in Peachey's return of Danny's dried skull to India, the result of a response by the uncivilized Asians to the bungled intrusion of British adventurers into an area even Alexander could not subdue.

From East to West

As a roving reporter for the Allahabad Pioneer, Kipling globetrotted from southern India to Rangoon, Singapore, Hong Kong, Auckland, Adelaide, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Yokohama, and Vancouver. After crossing the United States from west to east, he worked in London and wrote his first novel, The Light That Failed (1891), a study of the fictional artist Dick Heldar, whose eye injuries lead to blindness. The loss results after his service in the Sudanese War of 1881, when the Mahdi attempts unification of Sudanese tribes. Kipling subsequently chose the GOTHIC convention of transmutation as a punishment for sacrilege in “The Mark of the Beast,” a cautionary tale in Life’s Handicap: Being Stories of Mine Own People (1891), which features the des- ecrator of an Indian temple.

A romantic dirge, “Without Benefit of Clergy,” published in the June 1890 issue of Macmillan’s Magazine and anthologized in Life’s Handicap, describes a biracial pairing that the author observed repeatedly and introduced in Danny Dravot's marriage to an Afghan and Trejago's romance with Bisesa in the story “Beyond the Pale” (1888). A racial cloud hovers over the pregnant woman Ameera, who fears that the love of John Holden, like other British commitments to nonwhite women, is “at the best an inconstant affair” (Kipling Life’s Handicap, 1891, 132). Extolled by the writers GRAHAM GREENE, Henry James, Somerset Maugham, and Oscar Wilde; by the poets W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, and William Butler Yeats; and by the critics Kingsley Amis and Edmund Wilson, the elegy depicts Holden's double life as an ostensible bachelor and as the proud father of a mixed-race son. The auguries of a broken knife hilt and a blood sacrifice of two goats precede a cholera epidemic that robs him of his unofficial family. The combination of color prejudice and endemic tropical diseases highlights the threats to common-law Anglo- Indian marriage for colonial officials. The novelist Angus Wilson felt that the story's poignance hinted at its being autobiographical.

The Late Victorian Age

After his marriage to the American Caroline “Carrie” Starr Balestier in 1892, Kipling settled at her family's property outside Brattleboro, Vermont. For martial verse, march chants, and ballads in Barrack-Room Ballads and Other Verses (1892), he detailed the soldier's life of cheroots, gin halls, brothels, and murder, a capital crime charged against Danny Deever, a title figure in Kipling's most famous gallows tribute. In a salute to sacrifice, “That Day” honors the slaughter of British soldiers at Maiwand in south-central Afghanistan during the Anglo-Afghan War of 1880. “The Widow at Windsor,” a view of royalty from the perspective of underpaid soldiers on the frontier, characterizes the social and economic gap between ordinary troops and the monarch they serve, Victoria, the queenempress of India, then entering her fourth decade of grief for Prince Albert, her consort, who had died of typhoid fever in 1861. For “Mandalay,” Kipling applies soldierly jocularity and infantry slang to the conquest of Burma; for the sentimental narrative poem “Gunga Din,” dialect testimony enlivens the abuse of laborers employed by the colonial regiments. The author's sympathy for a fallen waterboy contrasts with the normal prejudice against Indians who served Britain well.

Kipling wrote CHILDREN’S LITERATURE as well, with the boy Mowgli featuring in two bestiaries, The Jungle Book (1894) and The Second Jungle Book (1895). The narratives compile allegories of animal daring based on the Roman myth of Romulus and Remus, the feral twins suckled by a she-wolf in 753 B.C. The motif of the “man's cub”—Mowgli is an abandoned male child raised by wolves, a panther, and a bear—echoes a common Kipling scenario, the protagonist’s life as a fragile child of the empire. The two books anticipate the orphaned title figure of KIM (1901), a self-reliant young HERO on a par with Marie McSwigan’s Norwegian sledders in Snow Treasure (1942) and the underground rescuers in Adeline Yen Mah’s Chinese Cinderella and the Secret Dragon Society (2005). Another story from Kipling’s collection, “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” pictures the rescue of a small Anglo-Indian boy named Teddy from a krait (a venomous snake)and a pair of cobras by the title figure, a foundling mongoose named from the local slang for “hurry.”

After leaving Vermont and returning to England in 1896, Kipling published Captains Courageous: A Story of the Grand Banks (1897), a standard coming-of-age tale dramatizing the maturation of Harvey Cheyne, a boy washed overboard and rescued by a fishing trawler off Newfoundland. As in much of Kipling’s fiction about preteens, meeting the challenge on the edges of civilization is proof of manhood, a dare that the bespectacled author accepted in his own youth.

The Empire's Spokesman

In the last years of Queen Victoria’s 64-year reign, Kipling wrote two famous works: the declamatory hymn “Recessional” (1897), which honors the queen’s diamond jubilee, and the polemical verse “The White Man’s Burden” (1899). Both poems debuted in the Times and, in 1903, appeared in The Five Nations. “Recessional” is a public apologia for British imperialism and hold on colonies around the globe. Kipling voices the common British view in his descriptions of the peoples of undeveloped countries as “heathen hearts” and lawless “lesser breeds” (Kipling 1999, 340), a phrase that the Indian novelist Nayantara Sahgal used for a title in 2007. “The White Man’s Burden” champions the United States’s appropriation of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War. Phrases in the first stanza depicting nonwhite people as sulky, demonic children justify imperialism as a rescue of the uncivilized from their own benightedness. The terms precede a call to America to join Britain in tackling war, epidemic, hunger, and ignorance. The concept of a “white man’s burden” has since become extremely unpopular as world opinion turned against Eurocentric leadership and American imperialism.

Also in 1899, the Daily Mail printed “The Absent-Minded Beggar,” a salute to the soldier. Kipling intended his sentimental poem to elicit donations for the families of reservists fighting the Second Boer War (1899-1902). The popular line “Duke’s son—cook’s son—son of a hundred kings” (Kipling “Absent-Minded,” 1899) precedes a reminder to civilians to support the wives and children left impoverished by Britain’s struggle in South Africa.

At his peak during the bridge between the Victorian and Edwardian ages, Kipling, like Sigmund Freud and Mark Twain, battled skepticism and misanthropy. A dual bout of influenza and whooping cough weakened the author and killed his firstborn, seven-year-old Josephine. At the nadir of his pessimism, he noted, “When a man has come to the turnstiles of Night, all the creeds in the world seem to him wonderfully alike and colorless” (Kipling Light That Failed, 1891, vii). He extended his fame with more poetry, prose, and children’s stories— Kim and Just So Stories for Little Children (1902), a collection of 12 pourquoi (why) tales that refute the British conceit that the empire represented the apogee of civilization. For a short time in 1900, Kipling was a roving reporter and associate editor of the Friend, a newspaper dedicated to military men published in Bloemfontein, Orange Free State. From close observation, he lambasted British leadership for the blunders of the Second Boer War and predicted apartheid, a subject that later absorbed the creative energies of NADINE GORDIMER.

Despite some concerns, Kipling remained an idealist about imperialism. The dystopian novelist George Orwell later claimed that Kipling had been naive about the money-making aims of world domination. In the poem “A Song of the White Men” (1900), the poet champions his race and gender: “Well for the world when the White Men drink / To the dawn of the White Men's day” (Ralph, Doyle, and Kipling 1901, 301). Reluctant to accept official honors, he rejected a knighthood and, twice, the honor of being England's poet laureate, but he accepted honorary degrees from Cambridge, Durham, Edinburgh, McGill, Oxford, and Strasbourg universities and the Sorbonne. In 1907, he became the youngest writer and first Anglophone to receive the Nobel Prize in literature.

As well as speaking for Indian natives, civil servants, engineers, and soldiers, Kipling became the spokesman for Anglo-Saxon instincts. He sided with the average citizen against the world of the privileged and the cruel civil bureaucrats exposed in the short story “The Head of the District.” He lost some respect due to his repudiation of machine gun and mustard gas use during World War I, which he named the Great War. In the story “The Vortex,” published in A Diversity of Creatures (1917), one character admits that the military tax burden unfairly charges the average British subject with defending an ungainly empire, a size and distance problem that contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire. Another character proposes a federation by which each colony has a vote before committing its army to British wars.

After his 18-year-old son John “Jack” Kipling died on September 27, 1915, while serving with the Irish Guards on the Western Front at the battle of Loos, France, the author devoted himself to military monuments and graves and served as lord rector of St. Andrews University in Scotland. Orwell dubbed Kipling the unofficial historian of the British army and the “prophet of British Imperialism in its expansionist phase” (Orwell 1970, 118) but felt that Kipling never gave up allegiance to the ruling class: “This warped his political justment … and it led him into abysses of folly and snobbery” (132).

Loss changed Kipling. He struck back at the barbarism of Germany's clash with Britain in “Mary Postgate” (1915), a revelation of savagery in an otherwise sedate Englishwoman. In 1916, he published Sea Warfare, a collection of articles that commemorates efforts of the British navy in such clashes as the battle of Jutland on May 1, 1916. He takes the opportunity to censure British duplicity: “The English are the worst … liars in the world, they have been rigorously trained since their early youth to live and act lies for the comfort of the society in which they move, and so for their own comfort” (Kipling 1916, 27). Without hedging, he charges the empire with “racial snobbery” (27). While composing “The Fabulists” (1917), a salute to AESOP and his imitators, Kipling stated that FABLE is less controversial than the realistic views of insanity, suicide, and death he recorded in “At the End of the Passage,” “The Mark of the Beast,” “To Be Filed for Reference,” and “Thrown Away.”

After Kipling's death from a perforated ulcer on January 18, 1936, his remains were cremated and his ashes interred in Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey. The foundering of the British Empire reduced his reputation from skilled writer to propagandist, xenophobist, and Victorian chauvinist reviled by such critics as Lionel Trilling. Nevertheless, the vigor and simplicity of his verse has meant that he is still widely quoted at every level of British society.

Many of Kipling's writings survive on film: Shirley Temple as the female heroine in Wee Willie Winkie (1937); three versions of Captains Courageous (1937, 1977, 1996), the second starring Karl Malden and Ricardo Montalban; Gunga Din (1939), enacted by Sam Jaffe, Cary Grant, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.; The Light That Failed (1939), with Ronald Colman cast opposite Ida Lupino; several versions of Kim, including a 1950 film starring Dean Stockwell and Errol Flynn; a Disney adaptation of The Jungle Book (1967) and Rudyard Kipling’s The Second Jungle Book: Mowgli and Baloo (1997); and the mythic tale of The Man Who Would Be King (1975), starring Michael Caine and Sean Connery as buffoonish standard bearers for the empire. In 2007 the television movie My Boy Jack depicted Kipling's distress over having helped his son enlist in the army.


Kipling, Rudyard. “The Absent-Minded Beggar,” Daily

Mail (London), 1899, n.p.

----- . Barrack-Room Ballads and Other Verses. London: Methuen, 1892.

------- . Captains Courageous: A Story of the Grand

Banks. London: Macmillan, 1897.

----- . The Collected Poems of Rudyard Kipling. London: Wordsworth Editions, 1999.

----- . Departmental Ditties and Other Verses. Lahore: The Civil and Military Gazette Press, 1886.

----- . A Diversity of Creatures. London: Macmillan, 1917.

------- . The Five Nations. London: Methuen, 1903.

------- . The Jungle Book. London: Macmillan, 1894.

----- . Just So Stories for Little Children. London: Macmillan, 1902.

----- . Life’s Handicap: Being Stories of Mine Own People. London: Macmillan, 1891.

----- . The Light That Failed. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1891.

----- . The Phantom Rickshaw and Other Tales. Allahabad, India: A. H. Wheeler, 1888.

----- . Plain Tales from the Hills. London: W. Thacker, 1888.

------- . Sea Warfare. London: Macmillan, 1916.

----- . The Second Jungle Book. London: Macmillan, 1895.

----- . Something of Myself and Other Autobiographical Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1937.

------- . Stalky & Co. London: Macmillan, 1899.

Orwell, George. A Collection of Essays. Fort Washington, Pa.: Harvest Books, 1970.

Ralph, Julian, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Rudyard Kipling. War’s Brighter Side: The Story of “The Friend” Newspaper Edited by the Correspondents with Lord Roberts’s Forces, March-April, 1900. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1901.

Simmons, Diane. The Narcissism of Empire: Loss, Rage and Revenge in Thomas De Quincey, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, and Isak Dinesen. Eastbourne, U.K.: Sussex Academic Press, 2007.

Sullivan, Zohreh T. Narratives of Empire: The Fictions of Rudyard Kipling. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.