Joseph Rudyard Kipling (December 30, 1865 – January 18, 1936) was a British author and poet, born in India. He is best known for the children’s story The Jungle Book (1894), the Indian spy novel Kim (1901), the poems “Gunga Din” (1892) and “If— ” (1895), and his many short stories. He was also an outspoken defender of Western imperialism, coined the phrase “The White Man’s Burden” and embodied what that implied in the hymnlike strophes of “Recessional: a Victorian Ode” (1897) with its refrain “Lest we forget— lest we forget.”
The height of his popularity was the first decade of the 20th century; in 1907 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and in 1934 he shared the Gothenburg Prize for Poetry with William Butler Yeats. In his own lifetime he was primarily considered a poet, and was even offered a knighthood and the post of British Poet Laureate — though he turned them both down.
Kipling was born in Bombay, India. His father was John Lockwood Kipling, a teacher at the local Jeejeebhoy School of Art, and his mother was Alice Macdonald. They are said to have met at Rudyard Lake in Staffordshire, England, hence Kipling’s name. His mother’s sister was married to the artist Edward Burne-Jones, and young Kipling and his sister spent much time with the Burne-Joneses in England from the ages of six to twelve, while his parents remained in India. Kipling was a cousin of the three-times Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.
After a spell at a boarding school, the United Services College, Kipling returned to India, to Lahore (in modern-day Pakistan) where his parents were then working, in 1881. He began working as a newspaper editor for a local edition and continued tentative steps into the world of poetry; his first professional sales were in 1883.
By the mid-1880s he was travelling around the subcontinent as a correspondent for the Allahabad Pioneer. His fiction sales also began to bloom, and he published six short books of short stories in 1888. One short story dating from this time is “The Man Who Would Be a King”, later made famous as a slightly differently named movie featuring Sean Connery and Michael Caine.
The next year Kipling began a long journey back to England, going through Burma, China, Japan, and California before crossing the United States and th
e Atlantic Ocean and settling in London. From then on his fame grew rapidly, and he positioned himself as the literary voice most closely associated with the imperialist tempo of the time in the United Kingdom (and, indeed, the rest of the Western world and Japan). His first novel, The Light that Failed, was published in 1890. The most famous of his poems of this time is probably “The Ballad of East and West” (which begins “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”).
Career as a writer
In 1892 he married Caroline Balestier; her brother, an American writer, had been Kipling’s friend but had died of typhoid fever the previous year. While on honeymoon Kipling’s bank failed and cashing in their travel tickets only let the couple return as far as Vermont (where most of the Balestier family lived). Rudyard and his new bride lived in the United States for the next four years.
During this time he turned his hand to writing for children, and he published the works for which he is most remembered today — The Jungle Book and its sequel The Second Jungle Book — in 1894 and 1895.
After a quarrel with his in-laws, he and his wife returned to England, and in 1897 he published Captains Courageous. The next year he began travelling to southern Africa for winter vacations almost every year. There he met and befriended Cecil Rhodes, and began collecting material for another of his children’s classics, Just So Stories for Little Children. That work was published in 1902, and another of his enduring works, Kim, first saw the light of day the previous year.
Kipling’s poetry of the time included “Gunga Din” (1892) and “The White Man’s Burden” (1899); in the non-fiction realm he also became involved in the debate over the British response to the rise in German naval power, publishing a series of articles collectively entitled A Fleet in Being.
The first decade of the 20th century saw Kipling at the height of his popularity. In 1907 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature; bookending this achievement was the publication of two connected poetry and story collections, 1906’s Puck of Pook’s Hill and 1910’s Rewards and Fairies. The latter contained the poem “If—”. In a 1995 BBC opinion poll, it was voted Britain’s favourite poem. This exhortation to self-control and stoicism is arguably Kipling’s single most famous poem.
The effects of World War I
Kipling was so closely associated with the expansive, confident attitude of late 19th-century European civilisation that it was inevitable that his reputation would suffer in the years of and after World War I; Kipling also knew personal tragedy at the time as his eldest son, John, died in 1915 at the Battle of Loos, after which he wrote “If any question why we died, Tell them, because our fathers lied”. Partly in response to this tragedy, he joined Sir Fabian Ware’s Imperial War Graves Commission (now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission), the group responsible for the garden-like British war graves that can be found to this day dotted along the former Western Front.
His most significant contribution to the project was his selection of the biblical phrase “Their Name Liveth For Evermore” found on the Stones of Remembrance in larger war graves.
In 1922, Kipling, who had made reference to the work of engineers in some of his poems and writings, was asked by a University of Toronto civil engineering professor for his assistance in developing a dignified obligation and ceremony for graduating engineering students. Kipling was very enthusiastic in his response and shortly produced both an obligation and a ceremony formally entitled “The Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer”. Today, engineering graduates all across Canada, and even some in the United States, are presented with an iron ring at the ceremony as a reminder of their obligation to society.
Death and legacy
Kipling kept writing until the early 1930s, but at a slower pace and with much less success than before. He died of a brain haemorrhage in early 1936.
His work continued to fall into critical eclipse afterwards. Fashions in poetry moved away from his exact metres and rhymes. Also, as the European colonial empires collapsed in the mid-20th century, Kipling’s works fell far out of step with the times. Many who condemn him feel that Kipling’s writing was inseparable from his social and political views, despite Kipling’s considerable artistry.
They point to his portrayals of Indian characters, which generally supported the colonialist view that the Indians and other colonised peoples were incapable of surviving without the help of Europeans, claiming that these portrayals are racist. Examples of this alleged racism are mentioning “lesser breeds without the Law” in “Recessional” and referring to colonised people in general as “half-devil and half-child” in the poem “The White Man’s Burden”. Kipling’s antisemitism is clear in the brief episodes about Punch and The Times in the last chapter of Something of Myself.
Kipling’s defenders point out that much of the most blatant racism in his writing is spoken by fictional characters, not by him, and thus accurately depicts the characters. An example is that the soldier who speaks “Gunga Din” calls the title character “a squidgy-nosed old idol”. They may see irony or alternative meanings in poems in the author’s own voice, including “The White Man’s Burden” and “Recessional”.
Despite changes in racial attitudes and literary standards for poetry, Kipling’s poetry continues to be popular with those who see it as vigorous and adept rather than jingling. Even that very different poet T. S. Eliot edited A Choice of Kipling’s Verse (1943), although in doing so he commented that “he could write poetry on occasions – even if only by accident!”. His stories for adults also remain in print and have garnered high praise from writers as different as Poul Anderson and Jorge Luis Borges.
Nonetheless, Kipling is most highly regarded for his children’s books. His Just-So Stories have been illustrated and made into successful children’s books and his Jungle Books have been made into several movies by the Walt Disney Company.
After the death of Kipling’s wife in 1939, his house, Batemans in Burwash, East Sussex was bequeathed to the National Trust and is now a public museum to the author. There is a thriving Kipling Society in the UK, and a boarding house at Haileybury is named after him.
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