Rudyard Kipling was the only popular English writer of this century who was not at the same time a thoroughly bad writer. His popularity was, of course, essentially middle-class. In the average middle-class family before the War, especially in Anglo-Indian families, he had a prestige that is not even approached by any writer of to-day. He was a sort of household god with whom one grew up and whom one took for granted whether one liked him or whether one did not. For my own part I worshipped Kipling at thirteen, loathed him at seventeen, enjoyed him at twenty, despised him at twenty-five and now again rather admire him. The one thing that was never possible, if one had read him at all, was to forget him. Certain of his stories, for instance The Strange Ride, Drums of the Fore and Aft and The Mark of the Beast, are about as good as it is possible for that kind of story to be. They are, moreover, exceedingly well told. For the vulgarity of his prose style is only a surface fault; in the less obvious qualities of construction and economy he is supreme. It is, after all (see the “Times Literature Supplement”), much easier to write inoffensive prose than to tell a good story. And his verse, though it is almost a by-word for badness, has the same peculiarly memorable quality.
“I’ve lost Britain, I’ve lost Gaul,
“I’ve lost Rome, and, worst of all,
“I’ve lost Lalage!”
may be only a jingle, and The Road to Mandalay may be something worse than a jingle, but they do ‘stay by one.’ They remind one that it needs a streak of genius even to become a by-word.
What is much more distasteful in Kipling than sentimental plots or vulgar tricks of style, is the imperialism to which he chose to lend his genius. The most one can say is that when he made it the choice was more forgivable than it would be now. The imperialism of the ‘eighties and ‘nineties was sentimental, ignorant and dangerous, but it was not entirely despicable. The picture then called up by the word “empire” was a picture of overworked officials and frontier skirmishes, not of Lord Beaverbrook and Australian butter. It was still possible to be an imperialist and a gentleman, and of Kipling’s personal decency there can be no doubt. It is worth remembering that he was the most widely popular English writer of our time, and yet that no-one, perhaps, so consistently refrained frm making a vulgar show of his personality.
If he had never come under imperialist influences, and if he had developed, as he might well have done, into a writer of music-hall songs, he would have been a better and more lovable writer. In the role he actually chose, one was bound to think of him, after one had grown up, as a kind of enemy, a man of alien and perverted genius. But now that he is dead, I for one cannot help wishing that I could offer some kind of tribute – a salute of guns, if such a thing were available – to the story-teller who was so important to my childhood.
New English Weekly, 23 January 1936