Sunday, February 21, 2010

Kipling, again

Kipling has come up here before -- see this post and Hank's comment on it. Now I notice a BBC piece about Kipling's boyhood home in Mumbai: plans to turn it into a museum have been dropped and it will instead become a gallery for the work of local artists.

The piece, the transcript of a broadcast on BBC's Today show, contains this among other things:

"Some of Kipling's work, including lines like 'And a woman is only a woman; but a good cigar is a Smoke', jar with critics today [what a surprise--LFC]. But the debate surrounding their actual meaning remains active and vigorous.

For instance, one of his most famous poems, which begins: 'Take up the White Man's Burden/ Send forth the best ye breed' does not refer to British Imperialism at all but celebrates the US occupation of Cuba and the Philippines after the 1898 Spanish-American War."

It's true that the poem "The White Man's Burden" was addressed to Americans in the wake of the Spanish-American War. It may also be true that there is "active and vigorous" debate about its meaning, although I would tend to doubt that it's all that active. It is, after all, hard to read a poem describing the colonized as "Your new-caught sullen peoples,/Half-devil and half-child," as an ode to universal equality.

An old textbook but still a good one, James Joll's Europe Since 1870 (1973), quotes the first stanza of the poem in a footnote (p.102) and adds: "It is worth noting that the general tone of the poem is pessimistic: the colonial administrator is there 'to seek another's profit and work's another gain,' and his reward is 'the blame of those ye better, the hate of those ye guard.'" Pessimistic or not, the poem's central message embodies, as Joll observes, the basic imperialist assumption that "advanced" peoples had a duty to "bring civilization and good administration to the backward ones...."


hank_F_M said...


Taks for the reference.

The Bethothed does have several lines that jar modern sensibilities, but it is a hilarious look (satire) of tobacco addiction, which could be a politically correct today, The line is from the subject of the satire.

People who study Indian literature at universities whether in India or abroad are very political," he added. "But the people who actually buy books and read them in India don't really care.

Kipling has survived nearly a hundred years or so of being ignored by English Departments. How many authors from that period would go out of print if they were not on the English Department’s cannon?

LFC said...

I knew this post would draw a comment from you. :)