If you did not know all about the sago-dealers and the fish and the wet bamboo, Mr. Kipling had a way of making you feel unpardonably ignorant; and the moral of your ignorance always was that you must “go—go—go away from here.” Hence an immense increase in the number of passages booked to the colonies. Mr. Kipling, in his verse, simply acted as a gorgeous poster-artist of Empire. And even those who resisted his call to adventure were hypnotized by his easy and lavish manner of talking “shop.” He could talk the “shop” of the army, the sea, the engine-room, the art-school, the charwoman; he was a perfect young Bacon of omniscience. How we thrilled at the unintelligible jingle of the Anchor Song, with its cunning blend of “shop” and adventure:—
Heh! Tally on. Aft
and walk away with her!
Handsome to the cathead, now! O tally on the fall!
Stop, seize, and fish, and easy on the davit-guy.
Up, well up, the fluke of her, and inboard haul!
Well, ah, fare you well for the
Channel wind’s took hold of us,
Choking down our voices as we snatch the gaskets free,
And its blowing up for night.
And she’s dropping light on light,
And she’s snorting and she’s snatching for a breath of open sea.
The worst of Mr. Kipling is that, in verse like this, he is not only omniscient; he is knowing. He mistakes knowingness for knowledge. He even mistakes it for wisdom at times, as when he writes, not of ships, but of women. His knowing attitude to women makes some of his verse—not very much, to be quite fair—absolutely detestable. The Ladies seems to me the vulgarest poem written by a man of genius in our time. As one reads it, one feels how right Oscar Wilde was when he said that Mr. Kipling had seen many strange things through keyholes. Mr. Kipling’s defenders may reply that, in poems like this, he is merely dramatizing the point of view of the barrack-room. But it is unfair to saddle the barrack-room with responsibility for the view of women which appears here and elsewhere in the author’s verse. One is conscious of a kind of malign cynicism in Mr. Kipling’s own attitude, as one reads The Young British Soldier, with a verse like—
If your wife should go wrong
with a comrade, be loth
To shoot when you catch ’em—you’ll swing, on my oath!—
Make ’im take ’er and keep ’er; that’s hell for them both,
And you’re shut o’ the curse of a soldier.
That seems to me fairly to represent the level of Mr. Kipling’s poetic wisdom in regard to the relations between the sexes. It is the logical result of the keyhole view of life. And, similarly, his Imperialism is a mean and miserable thing because it is the result of a keyhole view of humanity. Spiritually, Mr. Kipling may be said to have seen thousands of miles and thousands of places through keyholes. In him, wide wanderings have produced the narrow mind, and an Empire has become as petty a thing as the hoard in a miser’s garret. Many of his poems are simply miser’s shrieks when the hoard seems to be threatened. He cannot even praise the flag of his country without a shrill note of malice:—