Rudyard Kipling: Poems

Rudyard Kipling: Poems Study Guide

Although Kipling is perhaps most famous for his short stories like "The Jungle Book," he was just as famed for his verse as his prose. His work, which is staggering in number, consists of such major poems as "If", "The White Man's Burden", "The Ballad of East and West", "Gunga Din", "Mandalay", and "Danny Deever". He wrote poetry throughout his life and published in newspapers, magazines, and collections and anthologies.

Kipling's reputation has shifted throughout the years; more contemporary readers and scholars find many of his poems difficult to love or respect due to their embrace and sometimes-promulgation of the imperialist, racist, and misogynistic attitudes that prevailed during the day. However, during his own time he garnered more respect and a great deal of popularity. T.S. Eliot wrote of him: "[He had] an immense gift for using words, an amazing curiosity and power of observation with his mind and with all his senses, the mask of the entertainer, and beyond that a queer gift of second sight, of transmitting messages from elsewhere, a gift so disconcerting when we are made aware of it that thenceforth we are never sure when it is not present: all this makes Kipling a writer impossible wholly to understand and quite impossible to belittle."

One of Britain's most famous writers, E.M. Forster, took up the subject of Kipling's poetry in a very insightful 1909 lecture. He began by expressing the assumption that Kipling was dull and vulgar, and countered that with his own perspective that "putty, brass and paint are there, but with them is fused, at times inextricably, a precious metal." Forster saw Kipling as very much "alive" and lauded him for this. He separated the poems into five general categories: poems in narrative form, poems relating to military matters, poems inspired by his time in India, poems about imperialism, and poems about childhood.

The poems in narrative form include "The Ballad of East and West", "Tomlinson", and "Mary Gloster". They are some of his greatest work and usually stand alone (i.e., they were not included in collections). They are easy to read and comprehend and express large and universal themes. They are also, as Forster writes, "inspired by passion". The military poems, like "Tommy", "Danny Deever", and "Gentlemen-Rankers", are lively, bold, and vulgar. They are mostly contained in Barrack-Room Ballads, and Other Verses. Forster writes that they are "best when they are simplest and are expressing the lively good humour of simple men. How perfectly Kipling knows his business here."

The works about India are less famous and tend to be less successful. They are heavily inspired by Kipling's youth in India. However, in India Kipling felt the greatest stirrings of religion he would experience; "Recessional" can be grouped in this period. The poems of imperialism, like "The White Man's Burden", can be more problematic and have a "hardness of touch". Forster comments "An Empire is a very difficult subject for poetry. Unless the poet possesses quite exquisite taste and deep inspiration, he will fall into Kipling's error, and praise it because it is big and can smash up its enemies." This is precisely why many of Kipling's poems, and in some ways, the poet himself, have been discredited. Finally, the poems about childhood are some of Kipling's most charming and gracious, and in them the poet seems most comfortable.

Kipling's poetry collections include: Schoolboy Lyrics (1881); Echoes (1884); Departmental Ditties (1886), Barrack-Room Ballads (1890); The Seven Seas (1896); An Almanac of Twelve Sports (1898); The Five Nations (1903); Collected Verse (1907); Songs from Books (1912); and The Years Between (1919).