June 5, 1920. One day, when I did not know Kipling's name, I found in a cabin of a ship from Rangoon two paper-covered books, with a Calcutta imprint, smelling of something, whatever it was, that did not exist in England. The books were Plain Tales from the Hills and Soldiers Three. It was high summer, and in that cabin of a ship in the Albert Dock, with its mixed odour of tea, teak, and cheroots, I read through all. The force in those stories went nearer to capturing me completely than anything I have read since. I can believe now that I just escaped taking a path which would have given me a world totally different from the one I know, and the narrowness of the escape makes me feel tolerant towards the young people who give up typewriting and book-keeping, and go out into an unfriendly world determined to be Mary Pickfords and Charlie Chaplins. A boy boards a ship merely to get a parrot, and his friend, who brought it from Burma, has gone to Leadenhall Street; there is a long interval, with those books lying in a bunk. Such a trivial incident--something like it happening every week to everybody--and to-day that boy, but for the grace of God, might be reading the leaders of the Morning Post as the sole relief to a congested mind, going every week to the cartoon of Punch as to barley water for chronic prickly heat, and talking of dealing with the heterodox as the Holy Office used to deal with unbaptized Indian babies for the good of their little souls.
I have recovered from those astonishing adventures with Kipling. I may read him to-day with enjoyment, but safe from excitation. This is due, perhaps, to a stringy constitution, subject to bilious doubts, which loves to see lusty Youth cock its hat when most nervous, swagger with merry insolence to hide the uncertainty which comes of self-conscious inexperience, assume a cynical shrewdness to protect its credulity, and imitate the abandon of the hard fellow who has been to Hong Kong, Tal Tal, and Delagoa Bay. We enjoy seeing Youth act thus; but one learns in time that a visit to Rhodesia, worse luck, makes one no more intelligent than a week-end at Brighton. Well, it doesn't matter. What ingrates we should be now to turn on Kipling because we disagree with the politics he prefers, those loud opinions of his which, when we get too much of them, remain in the ears for a while like the echoes of a brass tray which a hearty child banged for a drum. Though we hold the British Constitution as sacred as the family vault we do not think the less of Dickens because the awful spectacle of our assembled legislators made him laugh, nor do we leave the room when Beethoven is played because his careless regard for a monarch's divine right is painful to us. If Kipling had not given us My Sunday at Home and the Incarnation of Krishna Mulvaney, how should we have got them?
I have just read Kipling's book, Letters of Travel. Its attractive title drew me to it, and is to blame. Kipling has an uncanny gift of sight. It prompts no divination in him, but its curiosity misses nothing that is superficial. If he had watched the Crucifixion, and had been its sole recorder, we should have had a perfect representation of the soldiers, the crowds, the weather, the smells, the colours, and the three uplifted figures; so lively a record that it would be immortal for the fidelity and commonness of its physical experience. But we should never have known more about the central figure than that He was a cool and courageous rebel. Kipling can make a picture of an indifferent huddle of fishing boats in a stagnant harbour which is more enjoyable than being there. Letters from such a traveller would attract one directly across the bookshop. But these letters of his were addressed to his friends the Imperialists before the War, and one may guess the rest. Such an exposure moves one to sorrow over a writer whose omniscience used to make the timorous believe that arrogance, if lively enough, had some advantage over reason.
Yet there is in a few of the letters enough to show what we missed because they were not addressed to himself, or to anybody but a Composite Portrait of The Breed. There are passages in the chapter called "Half a Dozen Pictures" which clear all irritation from the mind (for many of the author's insults are studied and gratuitous) and leave nothing but respect for the artist. These come when the artist sees only a riot of Oriental deck passengers, bears, and macaws, in the tropics; or a steamer coming round, exposed by a clarity like crystal in the trough of immense seas somewhere in the neighbourhood of the Auckland Islands at dayf all. We get such impressions when Kipling has, for the moment, forgotten the need to make a genuflection towards the Absolute and Everlasting Chutney, and is a man and brother delighting in his craft.
The rest of the book has, one must admit, a value, but it is an undesigned value; indeed, its value is that it was designed to prove, at the time it was written, something quite different. From this book, with its recurring contempt for England, you may see what value we need have attached to much that the assured and the violent ever had to tell us about our Empire. If this publication is, indeed, an act of contrition for words unwisely written, then it should be read as a warning by all who write. Materialists naturally attach to transient circumstances a value which the less patriotic of us might think not really material. "We discussed, first of all, under the lee of a wet deck-house in mid-Atlantic man after man cutting in and out of the talk as he sucked at his damp tobacco." There is no doubt Kipling supposes that the wet deck-house adds a value to the words spoken under its leeside. Yet the words he reports are what one may hear, with grief, any day in any tavern in the hurry and excitement of ten minutes before closing time. But Kipling always thought an opinion gained in value if expressed elsewhere than in England. His ideal government would be a polo-player from Simla leading the crew of the Bolivar.
Every horror in the world, the author of these letters tells us, has its fitting ritual. How easily, too, one realizes it, when feeling again the fanatic heat and force of this maker of old magic with the tom-tom; the vicious mockery, certain of popular applause, of ideas that are not marketable; the abrupt rancour whenever the common folk must be mentioned; the spite felt for England--"in England . . . you see where the rot starts"; the sly suspicion of other countries, and the consequent jealousy and fear; here it all is, convulsive, uncertain, inflammable. The prophet of Empire! But the prophecy was wrong. England, "where the rot starts," bore most of the heat and burden of the day, and saved the Empire for the money-mongers. And what of the British youngsters who did that, who were not materialists in the least, but many of them the idealists for whom no abuse once could be too vicious? The corruption of the Somme! That faceless and nameless horror was the apotheosis of the Imperialist.