The Polyphonous "Prophet of British Imperialism” Rudyard Kipling

30 December 1865, the short-story writer, poet and novelist Rudyard Kipling was born in Mumbai (Bombay).
“There will always be plenty in Kipling that I will find difficult to forgive; but there is also enough truth in these stories to make them impossible to ignore.”—Salman Rushdie

John Collier’s (1850 – 1934) portrait of Rudyard Kipling (1891)

When the Widow of Windsor died in 1901, an era ended and things would never be the same again. A sentiment not only developed by historians in hindsight, but already felt by the contemporaries. Accordingly, art historians and literary scholars mark the year as the beginning of Classic Modernism, even though authors expressed themselves at least since the Romantic era under the auspices of an apparently new epoch, with a fragmented world view, changes of narrative perspective and especially the heavy focus on things psychological, insights and perceptions, up to re-telling a stream of consciousness, the transient, the fleeting, the contingent, as Baudelaire put it already in 1862. Nevertheless, a traditional approach on telling a story, eloquent and captivating but without experimental embellishment was still cherished and writers like Wells, Conrad and Kipling continued the success they had during the last years of the 19th century, but few achieved a literary depth as Kipling without neglecting the story itself.

Kipling on the cover of Time magazine, 1926

To this day, Kipling, who saw himself as an Anglo-Indian, is one of the foremost writers of the short-story genre and his children’s books, especially the Just so Stories and the Jungle Books, became true classics. A wanderer between the worlds, east and west, Africa, the Americas and Great Britain, childhood and being adult, mysticism and realism, barrack rooms and nurseries, the colonials and the colonised, Kipling had a wonderfully sharp ear for language as well as tales told and an unrivalled talent to translate the things heard into the writing of stories. Immensely popular before 1914 and the youngest as well as the first English-speaking winner of Nobel Prize for Literature, the Great War was a caesura in Kipling’s life, work and success. His son Jack fell in France in 1915 and few still wanted to hear and read his ambiguous tales and poems from all over the Empire and Kipling became almost silent, besides hating Germans, Fascists and Bolsheviks alike. He died in 1936 at the age of 70, a few years before the outbreak of the next Great War he had dreaded.

The post-colonial dismantling of his ideals as well as his contemporary allegiances, culminating in Orwell’s appraisal of Kipling as being the “prophet of British Imperialism” brought Kipling into international disrepute for several decades. His arguably best known poem "If—" is still read as an expression of the alleged British national virtue of keeping a “stiff upper lip” under every imaginable circumstance while actually praising the colonial anti-hero Leander Starr Jameson. Kipling's infamous poem “The White Man’s Burden” is generally read as a maudlin justification and glorification of Imperialism along with other of his texts apparently not only glorifying the misdeeds of the colonial masters of old but war itself. That Kipling was political conservative is undisputed, his attitude towards Imperialism underwent a closer inspection during the last two decades and it became apparent that his relation with the Empire and Imperialism in general is anything but brazenly glamourising but often ambiguous and self-reflexive, even if it sounds bluntly exalting at first glance, like the fortunately forgotten legacy of his contemporaries and later apologists. Whatever the case may be, beyond being a witness and often mouthpiece of a very controversial period of history, Kipling’s timelessness as excellent narrator, especially of tales for children, is sans reproche.

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