Maybe one more day of incomprehension, to finish off the week. A different kind of bafflement, though. I completed, in the page-turning sense, the Verses: Definitive Edition (1940) of Rudyard Kipling, the books that was until very recently served as the 800 page collected poems of Kipling. It is a strange book, and I am not sure how to use it, other than read it.
The only Table of Contents is alphabetical by title. The poems themselves are organized, I believe by Kipling, in an order that must have meant something to him but confused me. Departmental Ditties (1885) starts things off, good, first book, lead spot, but the next book, Barrack-Room Ballads (1892) does not appear for over 300 pages. In between are chronologically wide-ranging selections with some thematic organization – lots of poems about ships, lots of poems about the Boer War. But not all of them in one place. New subjects appear, then it is back to South Africa. I cannot believe how many poems Kipling wrote about the Boer War.
Kipling was among the world’s best-loved poets. Did his best readers find this organization useful? They knew the titles, the subjects – they knew where to look for a poem?
I cannot believe, still, the thirty-page chunk titled The Muse among the Motors, a series of poetic parodies in which the poems, in the style of Horace, Chaucer, etc. are all about automobiles and driving. Wordsworth:
The Idiot Boy
He wandered down the mountain grade
Beyond the speed assigned –
A youth whom Justice often stayed
And generally fined.
He went alone, that none might know
If he could drive or steer.
Now he is in the ditch, and Oh!
The differential gear!
I picked one of the more thumping ones, just to make things obvious, but some of them, like the Stevenson / Child’s Garden parody, are sad and lovely, they are all ingenious, and some are perhaps funny, including the fifteen-page Shakespeare parody, “The Marrèd Drives of Windsor” (sample stage direction: Enter FALSTAFF, habited as a motorist).
What amazed me the most, I guess, is that Kipling had time for all of this throwaway verse amidst a production of prose fiction and non-fiction that is itself so vast I do not grasp it. His sheer facility with verse must have been as great as anyone alive at the time. And this is what he did with it! Motoring parodies.
No, he did everything with it. His short stories are invariably accompanied by poems, often only cryptically related to the story, because the composition of verse was part of how he thought.
I thought the best group of poems were the Barrack-Room Ballads, in which Kipling blends the voices of ordinary servicemen in India with music-hall verse. They were an unusual invention:
I’ve a head like a concertina, I’ve a tongue like a buttonstick,
I’ve a mouth like an old potato, and I’m more than a little sick,
But I’ve had my fun o’ the Corp’ral’s Guard; I’ve made the cinder’s fly,
And I’m here in the Clink for a thundering drink and blacking the Corporal’s eye. (from “Cells”)
Kipling’s politics, consistent over his life, are always firmly on the side of the soldier, sailor, and engineer, whatever they might be doing, and deeply skeptical of any decisions made much higher up the chain. The value he puts on the lives of soldiers – and not just British soldiers – is humane and often moving, although politically a source of its own problems. Kipling does not look like much of an imperialist to me at this point. But he always supports the troops.
Not that several hundred pages of ironic, obscure poems are that much help with this question. Some help.