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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936)

RUDYARD KIPLING has been for over a quarter of a century a dominant figure and force in current English literature. He has passed successfully through the preliminary stages of uncritical popularity to receive the most careful critical consideration as story-teller and poet. He has brought a new and striking personality into the literature of the day: with a splendid vigor, breadth, and directness he has given literary expression to entirely fresh and interesting phases of the life in wide regions of the English-speaking peoples; and he has with a noble realism proved in his work the possibility, to genius, of using the practical rushing late nineteenth century—with its machinery, science-worship, and struggle for place—as rich material for imaginative treatment in literature. In a fairly epic way he has constituted himself, in song and story, the chronicler and minstrel of the far-scattered colonial English.

Kipling’s birth, education, and early experience were such as to qualify him for his elected work in the world. He was born in Christmas week, 1865, in Bombay, a city he has celebrated in verse:

  • “A thousand mills roar through me where I glean
  • All races from all lands.”
  • His father, Mr. Lockwood Kipling, is a cultured writer, art teacher, and illustrator, who has used his talent in making pictures and decorations for the “In Black and White” standard edition of his son’s works, published by the Scribners in New York in 1897. Rudyard’s school-life was passed in England, giving him the opportunity to see the Britisher in his native island. Then, when he was but seventeen, came the return to India for rough-and-ready journalistic work, as sub-editor of the Lahore Civil and Military Gazette,—with all its necessity of close observation and inevitable assimilation of that life. Kipling took the shortest cut to the writer’s trade; namely, he wrote daily and under pressure. Some of his best tales—notably ‘The Man Who Would Be King’—vividly present this newspaper experience, which was indubitably a good thing for a man like Kipling. Meanwhile, in the intervals of supplying mere prosaic “copy,” for which there was a loud call in the composing-room, he was doing what many another hard-worked newspaper man has done before him: turning out stories and verses—which were quickly caught up by the press and circulated through East India. Then Kipling, in 1886, having attained to man’s estate in years, had bound up in rough fashion in his office a small volume of his verse: “a lean oblong docket, wire-stitched, to imitate a D. O. government envelope, printed on one side only, bound in brown paper and secured with red tape.” And this bard’s bantling had a good sale thereabouts; and as he himself puts it, “at last the book came to London with a gilt top and a stiff back.” Its subsequent history is not private: few first volumes have had so cordial a reception. The Indian stories too, ‘Plain Tales from the Hills’ (1888), were collected in book shape, eagerly read by the writer’s local clientèle, and found a continually widening public. Kipling’s verse and prose were of honestest birth: sprung from local experience, his writings appealed primarily to a local audience; but possessing the essential qualities and interests, the work proved acceptable to anybody on earth capable of being moved by the earnest, truthful, forcible portrayal of life in words. When ‘Plain Tales from the Hills’ appeared as a book, it was seen to be the manifesto of a new talent. The vitality, distinction, newness of theme, the pathos, drama, and humor of the work, set it clean aside from anything else contemporaneous in fiction of the short-story kind. The defects in the earlier books were an occasional abuse of the technical in word or allusion, and a young-man cynicism, appearing especially in the Gadsby series,—a mood soon sloughed off by the maturer Kipling. But the merits were of the overpowering sort, and the dynamic force of the tales was beyond question. That a man but little more than twenty should have written them made the performance spectacular. In the use of plain Biblical language and the selection of realistic themes there was something of the audacity and immediateness of journalism; but the result almost always justified the method.

    The tales found in the volumes—about a dozen in number—published between 1886 and 1895, are of several kinds. Some treat pathetic, realistic, or weirdly somber situations, either of native or soldier life: a class containing some masterpieces, of which ‘The Man Who Would Be King,’ ‘The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes,’ ‘The Mark of the Beast,’ ‘Without Benefit of Clergy,’ ‘The Phantom Rickshaw,’ and ‘Beyond the Pale’ are illustrations. Another division, of which ‘Wee Willie Winkie’ is the type, grouped in the book ‘Wee Willie Winkie and Other Stories’ (1888), deals with children, and exhibits a very winning aspect of the author. Still another contains the humorous cycle personified in the inimitable triad Mulvaney, Ortheris, and Learoyd, brought into an artistic unity by their common lot as British-Indian privates (with Dinah Shadd as a minor deity), one of the most spontaneous and successful of Kipling’s ventures. The three sharply differentiated individualities have a reality as tangible as Dumas’s Guardsmen. The range and variety of the stories under these heads furnish an emphatic testimonial to Kipling’s many-sidedness. The successive volumes of short stories, from ‘Plain Tales’ to ‘Many Inventions’ in 1893, have only strengthened the feeling made by his début. The work has been prevailingly, though by no means exclusively, inspired by Anglo-Indian motives;—one such exception as the superbly imaginative psychologic study, ‘A Disturber of Traffic,’ indicates his independence of any prescribed place or subject. Kipling went to England in 1889, and a little later settled in the United States, where he married Miss Balestier, the sister of his friend Wolcott Balestier, with whom he collaborated in the novel ‘The Naulakha’; a name he afterwards gave to the sightly house he has built in Brattleboro, Vermont. His English and American experience has entered into and somewhat conditioned his fiction, which so far however has made its most distinct impression when it has come out of the East. But whatever the material of the art, the Kiplingesque attributes are pretty steadily present: a sinewy vernacular strength and beauty of diction; a wonderful power to see and to represent with bold synthetic effect; and a deep, broad, brotherly apprehension of the large fundamental passions and interests of humanity. If one had to name off-hand the qualities most noticeable in Kipling’s short stories, one would say, strength and democratic sympathy.

    Having done short-story work of so much power and flexibility, Kipling in 1894 produced that unique and wonderful series of animal fables, ‘The Jungle Book’; a ‘Second Jungle Book’ following in 1895. Here was an absolutely fresh handling of the beast-epic,—a theme familiar since the Middle Ages. But Kipling’s attitude is new: the beast kind are considered from their own side of the fence, and man is an inferior rather than superior race. The writer’s marvelous comprehension of animal life, and his equally marvelous technical knowledge of the Indian beast haunts, combine to give to what might have been grotesquely imaginative the realism of a latter-day annal; and a rich ethical suggestion covers it like an atmosphere. Kipling has given no plainer proof of his rightful claim to greatness than these Jungle fables. His Mowgli is a creation as definite as any of Æsop’s; and its note of sympathy has a modernness which appeals to the present-day reader.

    The essays in full-length fiction also call for attention. They were not at first strikingly successful. In 1890 appeared ‘The Light that Failed,’ a novelette which certainly possesses strength of description and characterization, with some very dramatic scenes, but which does not strike one as having the form germane to the writer’s genius. ‘The Naulakha’ (1892) is a very readable novel, the second part of which, where the scene shifts from the western United States to India, and some gruesomely powerful situations are well handled, Kipling is responsible for. The book as a whole is not close-knit enough nor homogeneous enough to make it an impressive piece of sustained art-work. Nor, judging Kipling by the high standard set by his own short tales, can the ‘Captains Courageous’ (1897)—a spirited narrative of the Gloucester (Massachusetts) fishermen.

    The South African situation in 1897–8 took Kipling across the sea, and the Boer War brought new material to his hand, which had by no means lost its cunning. On his return to England he made his home at Rottingdean, and very soon published a new volume of short stories ‘The Day’s Work,’ but he had not relinquished the ambition of writing a good novel. ‘Stalky and Company’ (1899) was a long story of school life, which won cordial appreciation from some of his old admirers, but was criticized by others as falling short not only in some matters of taste, but in its general conception. Undaunted, he returned to the field in which he had won his first success, and in 1901 published ‘Kim,’ a well-sustained novel touching upon the deeper as well as the more picturesque phases of Indian life, and universally acclaimed as his masterpiece in fiction. Two charming volumes for children, ‘Just So Stories’ (1902) and ‘Puck of Pook’s Hill’ (1906), were immediately followed by the well-deserved award of the Nobel prize, 1907.

    It remains to speak of his poetry, which is now seen to be one of the most important outcomes of his literary genius. Readers of Kipling’s short stories were early attracted by the snatches of verse mysteriously prefixed thereto and ascribed to imaginary sources. These fragments were sometimes startling for power and felicity in the pathetic, dramatic, and satiric veins. But before long the books of verse which appeared were a notification—if any were needed, for Kipling is a prose poet in much of his fiction—that the virile young Anglo-Indian must be reckoned with both as singer and sayer. ‘Departmental Ditties and Other Verses’ (1891), ‘Barrack-Room Ballads and Other Verses’ (1892), ‘The Seven Seas’ (1896), ‘The Five Nations’ (1903), are collections of steadily ascending worth and importance. Kipling has come to his position as poet later and more slowly than was the case with his fiction; but his seat will be quite as secure, for recognition among the judicious is now general and hearty. His first appeal was as a maker of rollicking rhymes, in which the common British soldier in his picturesque variations was hymned and limned. Kipling became the barrack-room bard whose seamy heroes, Danny Deever, Tommy Atkins, Bill ’Awkins, and their likes, were drawn in their habits as they lived, in their dramatic virtues and equally dramatic sins. The zest, the high-heartedness, and the infectious lilt of these verses were such as to commend them not only to the military of many lands, but to the great international democracy of civilians who love vital literature. The accent was caught, the epic of the rank-and-file revealed.

    Had Kipling done no more than the barrack-room songs, he would have won place as a verse-writer; but his flight has been freer and higher. In his latest poetic utterance he established himself as the “bard of the greater Britain,” the uncrowned laureate of the whole English-speaking folk wherever they are found. He has shown himself the strongest living ballad-writer of the tongue. Tennyson, shortly before his death, wrote Kipling concerning ‘The Ballad of East and West’ that it was the finest thing of the kind in English verse. ‘The English Flag,’ ‘The Last Chantey,’ ‘A Song of the English,’ ‘McAndrew’s Hymn,’ ‘The Native Born,’—such pieces as these could come only from a man of puissant power. Kipling has seized, with superb courage and strong grasp, upon contemporaneous motives whose connotation is what we call practical, even vulgar; and as only the largely endowed, truly called poet can, has lifted the bald subject into the higher realms of imaginative thought and feeling. This is the truest of all idealism, because it stands four-square upon fact. A horny-handed and sin-seared skipper, a lawless soldier with a light-o’-love in every port, a cattle-keeper on shipboard, an engineer amidst his oily engines, are put before us so that we recognize them as lovable fellow-creatures, responsive to the “thousandfold thrill of life.” An electric cable, a steam-engine, a banjo, or a mess-room toast offer occasion for song; and lo, they are converted by the alchemy of the imagination until they become a type and an illumination of the red-blooded life of human kind. The ability to achieve this is a crowning characteristic and merit of Rudyard Kipling’s poetry.

    It is too soon to pass any permanent judgment upon Kipling’s genius, but it is safe to say that he will take an abiding place in literature as one of the most vigorous and original writers of his time. Though he was by no means the first to find romantic material in India and the Colonies, he made English-speaking people conscious of their imperial inheritance to a degree and to an extent unknown before. For good or ill he was a potent force in the development of the imperialistic spirit, with its high ambitions and heavy responsibilities. His fine poem ‘The Recessional’ shows that he is not unaware of the graver side of the creed of power he has preached. Of the sincerity and forcefulness of his utterance there can be no question.