History, Literature, Poetry, Truth, Writing

My Boy Jack: In Memoriam, John Kipling. And Worlds That Are Gone.

undefinedThere are differing opinions in the academic world when it comes to one of Rudyard Kipling’s best known poems, My Boy Jack, written in 1916.  Here’s the text:

“Have you news of my boy Jack?”
Not this tide.
“When d’you think that he’ll come back?”
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

“Has any one else had word of him?”
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

“Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?”
None this tide, nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind—
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.

Then hold your head up all the more,
This tide,
And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!

Some believe that Kipling was explicitly writing about his son, World War I soldier Second Lieutenant John Kipling of the Irish Guards, who was killed 108 years ago today at the age of 18, on September 27 1915, during the Battle of Loos.  Others think it’s a paean for Seaman First Class Jack Cornwell who died in June 1916 and was–at the age of just sixteen, and for the gallantry he displayed at the Battle of Jutland–the youngest ever recipient of the Victoria Cross.  And then there are those who believe it’s simply a generalized lament expressing the desperation and terror of parents who’ve lost their children in war and are doing everything they can to gather news of their whereabouts or–saddest of all–simply hoping to find, and bring home, their bodies. (In an interesting footnote, following John’s death, Kipling joined the Imperial War Graves Commission, a group dedicated to beautifying the graveyards of the WWI fallen, and about which he is perhaps best known for contributing the phrase “known unto God” for the markers of the remains of the unidentified.)

John Kipling was the second of Rudyard and Caroline’s three children to die, following his older sister Josephine, who’d succumbed to pneumonia in 1899 when she was seven years old.  Shortly  after she was born, The Jungle Book was published, and Kipling inscribed the first edition “This book belongs to Josephine Kipling, for whom it was written by her father, May 1894.”  The future seemed bright, set, and limitless at the time.

Rudyard Kipling’s only surviving child, Elsie, died in 1976.  She and her husband had no children.

Following John’s death in 1916, his father wrote a poem titled Epitaphs of the War, containing the lines:

If any question why we died
Tell them, because our fathers lied.

The entire thing is hard reading.  And it’s also hard to emerge at the end with the twenty-first century’s favored opinion about this very misunderstood man.

After my own father (who didn’t make a habit of lying) died, I found myself going through some of his things, and I discovered a few large index cards (remember them?) on which he’d typed out his favorite poems.  It must have been an challenge for him, facing off against a simple electric typewriter, and one which came with all the blots, and white-outs and corrections one might expect from an elderly man who was engaged in recording that which he loved for posterity.

Unsurprisingly, Kipling featured prominently in those records.

One of the poems I discovered he’d typed out was Great-Heart, Kipling’s eulogy to Theodore Roosevelt (with prefatory reference to Paul Bunyan’s seventeenth-century Pilgrim’s Progress) and–also unsurprisingly–opening with the words Dad employed as the title of his first book.

Another of his favorites must have been Kipling’s Recessional, worth quoting in full:

God of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far-flung battle-line,
Beneath whose awful Hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies;
The Captains and the Kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word—
Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!

The poem was written in 1897 for one of Queen Victoria’s jubilees.  I forget which one.  She didn’t have as many as QEII, so it doesn’t much matter.  What matters is the humanity of the poem which was–quite frankly–iconoclastic for the time in its assertion that the British Empire was vulnerable and time-limited, and in its call that even the elites should show some humility and might need some mercy.

That’s how Rudyard Kipling–a man who’d survived a horrific childhood to make something of himself, started out.  I can only believe, as life continued to deal him one enormous and tragic blow after another, that he found himself more reflective, and more humble as time went on.  That’s generally how it goes.

Or so I have found.

PS: Some years ago, I had occasion to fly to the Far East. I actually saw–at about 35,000 feet–“the dawn com[ing] up like thunder outer China ‘crost the bay!” Regardless, or irregardess as the case may be, of the other shitty fallout from that trip, I would not have missed that moment, or that realization–which came from Dad’s favorite poet–for the world.


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