The Long Recessional
David Gilmour
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Buy *The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling* online

The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling
David Gilmour
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
368 pages
May 2003
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Rudyard Kipling grew up in the British Empire with a meteoric rise to domination in his field of play, an enjoyment of fame and comforts, and a slow demise -- a "long recessional" in which loss was inevitable but unacceptable.

Kipling was born in the warmth of India and became a baby maharaja, tended by servants whose only task was to lovingly grant him his every wish. Then, like most children of empire, he was sent back to cold gray England for schooling, all hope of a warm family life subsumed under the necessity of becoming a good Briton, a leader of men, hardworking and dedicated to the principles of conquest. It was deemed "inexpedient" to allow children to become attached to the lazy climes of the conquered, so Kipling was exiled at age five to a place he called "The House of Desolation" where he was beaten and harassed by the host family. He was not to see his mother for five years, nor his father for seven. The Long Recessional is peppered with phrases that recall this early betrayal: "Kipling remained angry," "he invited trouble," and "none of this mellowed Kipling."

It makes some sense that Kipling was happiest, as an author, in the realm of childhood. His fictional children - Mowgli, Kim - are as Anglo-Indian as can be, half-naked little savages but imbued with a wisdom and syntax purely English.

His biographer David Gilmour makes it clear that much of Kipling's poetry was mere verse, and much of his writing was wasted in bitter satire aimed at the Raj and its many sins. The system succeeded in making of Kipling an anglophile but never converted him to indiophobe. He admired the Muslim mind and organizational bent. His sentiment for the country and its people shines through all he said and wrote, harking back to a brighter time in his own life and the heyday of the Raj: "He loved the intercommunal brotherhood of his Masonic Lodge in Lahore where 'there ain't such things as infidels' among the 'heathen black and brown.'" Yet he cranked out the infamous "White Man's Burden" with its unforgettable "When your goal is nearest, the end by others sought, watch heathen Sloth and Folly, bring all your hopes to naught."

Gilmour does not excuse his subject, but he goes as far as possible to explain, without recourse to fantasy, the man Kipling was -- sometimes admirable, often repugnant. It could be said that Kipling was a multi-paged book and one must always read further to get the full work set in mind. He did indeed despise the hypocrites and bounders whom he observed among the conquering class, and admired the grit of the Indians he'd loved and stood beside since toddlerhood. Perhaps this dichotomy is best expressed in the lines, "East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet....But there is neither east nor west, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, when two strong men stand face to face, tho' they come from the ends of the earth."

He began his adult working life as a newspaper reporter and never had any other calling than putting pen to paper. Throughout his sojourns -- in South Africa, America, and of course England -- he wrote and wrote, every happening large and small occasioning some characteristic tightly rhymed commentary.

Though he may have disliked women on a deep personal level (and rumors of his homosexuality, unproven, abound) he championed their cause as he observed their oppression in the Hindu hierarchy. Yet he later became a cheerful anti-suffragist, Tory to the bone and to the point of paranoia. He embraced "germanophobia" and fear of the loss of empire by infusion of the Boer mentality into European political thought: "Before the end of the Great War Kipling had developed the theory that every race betrays its essential characteristics in its folktales. For the rest of his life he argued publicly that Germany's wickedness was illustrated by the legend of the werewolf." As he expressed it in one rather dreadful piece of verse, "The Hun is at the gate!"

"If" is still one of the best known poems in the English (if not American) language and to the British heart, of whatever political stripe, the hymn magnificent, "Recessional", rings down the years:

"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!"
With the ultimate defeat of the empire and all it stood for on the near horizon, Kipling's later life deteriorated, as often is the case when fame comes early and the bloom is preserved past its prime. He wrote mainly doggerel predictably urging the British to be British.

He died of complications of surgery on the day of his 44th wedding anniversary, after having recently told friends that he had "no fear of dying...he knew that God (who had played a minor and intermittent role in his life) did not abandon his people at the end of their days."

© 2003 by Barbara Bamberger Scott for Curled Up With a Good Book

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