Rudyard Kipling, Epitaphs of the War 1914-1918
A DEAD STATESMAN
I could not dig: I dared not rob:
Therefore I lied to please the mob.
Now all my lies are proved untrue
And I must face the men I slew.
What tale shall serve me here among
Mine angry and defrauded young?
This is a companion piece to one posted by my dearest friend, Neo, on his blog today.
Those who foolishly see Kipling as the bard of empire see so little of his purpose. His pithy lines:
If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.
sums up the bitterness felt by so many ordinary people in the aftermath of a war which was supposed to end all wars. He knew well, few better since he lost his only son, Jack, the price men paid for war, and his quiet, understated poem, ‘My boy Jack’ is heart-rending in its simplicity and restraint.
Kipling’s son could have secured an exemption from conscription, but his mother, Carrie, wrote to her own mother:
One mustn’t let one’s friends’ and neighbours’ sons be killed in order to save us and our son. There is no chance John will survive unless he is so maimed or wounded as to be unable to fight. We know it and he does. We all know it but we must give and do what we can and live on the shadow of a hope that our boy will be the one to escape.
There was in this the consciousness that sacrifice was not just something others made for you. Kipling could easily have secured his son’s safety, but he would not do it. So when people read that wonderful poem. If, they need to know if was not just a rhetorical exercise – Kipling was a ‘man’.
It is uncertain whether Kipling was a Christian, he seems to have found it hard to find comfort from any belief system – but he had a clear idea of Original Sin, expressed best in his great poem, The Gods of the Copybook Headings, which I have quoted here before in full, but for this, the final two verses will do service:
As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man —
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began: —
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;
And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!
And, until we learn some humility and wisdom, and until we repent and follow Christ, so it is fated to be.