Joseph Rudyard Kipling

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Joseph Rudyard Kipling

The British poet and story writer Joseph Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) was one of the first masters of the short story in English and the first to use Cockney dialect in serious poetry.

Rudyard Kipling's early stories and poems about life in colonial India made him a great favorite with English readers. His support of English imperialism at first contributed to this popularity but caused a reaction against him in the 20th century. Today he is best known for his Jungle Books and Kim, a story of India.

Kipling was born on Dec. 30, 1865, in Bombay, India, where his father was professor of architectural sculpture in the School of Art. In 1871 he was sent to England for his education. In 1878 Rudyard entered the United Services College at "Westward Ho!," a boarding school in Devon. There young "Gigger" endured bullying and harsh discipline but also enjoyed the close friendships, practical jokes, and merry pranks he later recorded in Stalky & Co. (1899). Kipling's closest friend at Westward Ho!, George Beresford, described him as a short, but "cheery, capering, podgy, little fellow" with a thick pair of spectacles over "a broad smile." His eyes were brilliant blue, and over them his heavy black eyebrows moved up and down as he talked. Another close friend was the headmaster, "Crom" Price, who encouraged Kipling's literary ambitions by having him edit the school paper and praising the poems which he wrote for it. When Kipling sent some of these to India, his father had them privately printed as Schoolboy Lyrics (1881), Kipling's first published work.

In 1882 Kipling rejoined his parents in Lahore and became a subeditor for the Civil and Military Gazette. In 1887 he moved to the Allahabad Pioneer, a better paper which gave him greater liberty in his writing. The result was a flood of satiric verses, published as Departmental Ditties in 1886, and over 70 short stories published in 1888 in seven paperback volumes. In style, the stories showed the influence of Edgar Allan Poe, Bret Harte, and Guy de Maupassant; but the subjects were Kipling's own: Anglo-Indian society, which he readily criticized with an acid pen, and the life of the common British soldier and the Indian native, which he portrayed accurately and sympathetically.

Fame in England and America

In 1889 Kipling took a long voyage through China, Japan, and the United States. When he reached London, he found that his stories had preceded him and established him as a brilliant new author. He was readily accepted into the circle of leading writers, including William Ernest Henley, Thomas Hardy, George Saintsbury, and Andrew Lang. For Henley's Scots Observer, he wrote a number of stories and some of his best-remembered poems: "A Ballad of East and West," "Mandalay," and "The English Flag." He also introduced English readers to a "new genre" of serious poems in Cockney dialect: "Danny Deever," "Tommy," "Fuzzy-Wuzzy," and "Gunga Din." Kipling's first novel, The Light That Failed (1891), was unsuccessful. But when his stories were collected as Life's Handicap (1891) and poems as Barrackroom Ballads (1892), Kipling replaced Tennyson as the most popular English author.

In 1892 Kipling married Caroline Balestier. They settled on the Balestier estate near Brattleboro, Vt., and began 4 of the happiest years of Kipling's life, during which he wrote some of his best work—Many Inventions (1893), perhaps his best volume of short stories; The Jungle Book (1894) and The Second Jungle Book (1895), two books of animal fables which attract readers of all ages by illustrating the larger truths of life; The Seven Seas (1896), a new collection of poems in experimental rhythms; and Captains Courageous (1897), a novel-length sea story. These works not only assured Kipling's lasting fame as a serious writer but also made him a rich man.

His Imperialism

In 1897 the Kiplings settled in Rottingdean, a village on the British coast near Brighton. The outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898 and the Boer War in 1899 turned Kipling's attention to colonial affairs. He began to publish a number of solemn poems in standard English in the London Times. The most famous of these, "Recessional" (July 17, 1897), issued a warning to Englishmen to consider their accomplishments in the Diamond Jubilee year of Queen Victoria's reign with humility and awe rather than pride and arrogance. The equally well-known "White Man's Burden" (Feb. 4, 1899) clearly expressed the attitudes toward empire implicit in the stories in The Day's Work (1898) and A Fleet in Being (1898). He referred to less highly developed peoples as "lesser breeds" and considered order, discipline, sacrifice, and humility to be the essential qualities of colonial rulers. These views have been denounced as racist, elitist, and jingoistic. But for Kipling, the term "white man" indicated citizens of the more highly developed nations, whose duty it was to spread law, literacy, and morality throughout the world.

During the Boer War, Kipling spent several months in South Africa, where he raised funds for soldiers' relief and worked on an army newspaper, the Friend. In 1901 Kipling published Kim, the last and most charming of his portrayals of Indian life. But anti-imperialist reaction following the end of the Boer War caused a decline in Kipling's popularity. When he published The Five Nations, a book of South African verse, in 1903, he was attacked in parodies, caricatures, and serious protests as the opponent of a growing spirit of peace and democratic equality. Kipling retired to "Bateman's," a house near Burwash, a secluded village in Essex.

Later Works

Kipling now turned from the wide empire as subject to England itself. In 1902 he published Just So Stories for Little Children. He also issued two books of stories of England's past, intended, like the Jungle Books, for young readers but suitable for adults as well: Puck of Pook's Hill (1906) and Rewards and Fairies (1910). But his most significant work was a number of volumes of short stories written in a new style: Traffics and Discoveries (1904), Actions and Reactions (1904), A Diversity of Creatures (1917), Debits and Credits (1926), and Limits and Renewals (1932). These later stories treat more complex, subtle, and somber subjects in a style more compressed, allusive, and elliptical. Consequently, these stories have never been as popular as his earlier work. But modern critics, in reevaluating Kipling, have found a greater power and depth that make them his best work.

In 1907 Kipling became the first English writer to receive the Nobel Prize for literature. He died on Jan. 18, 1936, and is buried in Westminster Abbey. His autobiography, Something of Myself, was published posthumously in 1937.

Further Reading

The definitive critical biography of Kipling is Charles Edmund Carrington, Rudyard Kipling: His Life and Work (1955), which is excellently developed with extensive quotations from memoirs and from letters to and from Kipling. A number of well-known modern critics have reassessed Kipling as a writer: Edward B. Shanks, Rudyard Kipling: A Study in Literature and Political Ideas (1940); Edmund Wilson, "The Kipling That Nobody Read," in The Wound and the Bow (1941); and T. S. Eliot, "Introduction," in A Choice of Kipling's Verse (1943). Recommended for general historical background are George Malcolm Young, Victorian England: Portrait of an Age (1936; 2d ed. 1960); George Macaulay Trevelyan, British History in the Nineteenth Century, and After, 1782-1919 (1938); and David Thomson, England in the Nineteenth Century, 1815-1914 (1950). □