Latest Readings - Clive James (2015)

Kipling and the Widow-maker

BACK IN 2010, during my first year of illness, I added to my woes by stupidly contriving to remain immobile in my cabin throughout an Atlantic crossing to New York, instead of walking around the deck a few times each day as I should have done. It rained all the way, but that was no excuse, because on a ship as big as the Queen Mary 2 you can do a satisfactory deck walk just by using the internal corridors. Instead, I did a long lie-down, and paid the penalty by finding out, when I arrived in New York, that I had contracted a thrombosis. After ten days in Mount Sinai hospital there was the long trip back to England, and even then I was not free of the effects. The price of safety from a further occurrence, I was told, lay in Ambulation. The doctors managed to pronounce the word with a capital “A,” and I still do so myself. Every day I Ambulate for at least half an hour, to make sure that my legs get some work to do. In the summer months the walk to town and back counts as Ambulation. I Ambulate to the bookshops, load up with a few books, and Ambulate back again. But in cold or wet weather, Ambulation must be done inside the house. It felt like a perfect waste of time until I hit upon the device of reading while I Ambulated. All I needed was a fair mental map of where the furniture was and I could Ambulate while reading Kipling’s poetry. It seemed a fitting activity because so many of his poems are written in a kind of march rhythm. They are soldierly stuff.

And yet, how brilliant. Technically, he could do anything. Here is the whole of his little four-line epic “The Sleepy Sentinel.”

Faithless the watch I kept: now I have none to keep.

I was slain because I slept; now I am slain I sleep.

Let no man reproach me again, whatever watch is unkept—

I sleep because I am slain. They slew me because I slept.

The trouble with the owner of the technique that can do anything is that he is continually tempted to do everything at once. Left to their own impulses, his poems make so much noise that they seldom settle into the condition of a statement: they are always giving you a whole symphony. Yet one must confess to a certain relief that so many of Kipling’s poems rule themselves out: whether because they are burdened by too much dialect, or too much flashy wordplay, they usefully tell us that we need not go back to them. If he had reined himself in, he would have been a poet the way he was a writer of short stories: one of the supreme exponents in the language. Even as things are, with your capacity for attention automatically whittling down the number of his poems that you would wish to revisit—and perhaps your capacity for attention is declining anyway—there is more than enough of him to keep you murmuring with admiration. He has the knack, peculiar to the poetic genius, of speaking in your own throat. It would be the wish of any poet to attain the phonetic force of the first stanza of “Harp Song of the Dane Women.”

What is a woman that you forsake her,

And the hearth fire and the home-acre,

To go with the old grey Widow-maker?

Unforgettable for the power of its movement, the whole poem is like that. If that one poem had ten companions, he would have changed the history of English poetry. But of course it has, scattered about in his works; and he almost did. It’s just that his influence proved impossible to absorb. Kipling deserves all the praise he gets from Craig Raine’s introductory essay to Rudyard Kipling: Selected Poems, a Penguin of the perfect weight and dimensions for the Ambulatory student. T. S. Eliot once did a good selection too, with an essay presaging Raine’s in its analytical approval. Both Eliot and Raine, inventors of their own manner, can be seen struggling, however elegantly, with the self-imposed task of coaxing a raging bull into the back of a small truck. The urge, for any poet who reads Kipling, is to get his energy under control before it infects everybody with the ruinous urge to emulate him.