Editor’s note: Madeleine Kearns writes a weekly column noting peculiar aspects of cultural, artistic, and natural marvels.
The sole force under God’s good Providence that can meet this turn of our fate, is not temperament, not opportunism, nor any effort to do better than good, but character and again character — such mere in-grained, common-sense, hand-hammered, loyal strength of character as one humbly dares to hope that fifteen hundred years of equality of experience has given us.
— Rudyard Kipling
NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE W hile addressing the Royal Society of St. George in 1935, the English journalist, poet, novelist, and author Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936) mourned the loss of a generation as a result of the First World War — especially, as he saw it, the loss of virtue begun in boyhood and carried into manhood. He hoped that “looking back through the luminous years to where we here stumble and falter,” future generations would appreciate the “height of strength, wisdom, and enduring honour [that] had lifted their land.”
But oh, how we disappoint the dead. Two years ago, students at the University of Manchester in England declared Kipling to be “racist,” defacing a mural of “If,” his most famous poem on the subject of moral character (an irony the vandals are unlikely to appreciate). Had the students bothered to read Kipling, they might have discovered, as T. S. Eliot did, that his contribution to the English canon was one of “unfading genius.”
Born in India and schooled in England, Kipling spent two years of his life in America. His perspective on the British Empire, of which he was a citizen, was sweeping and flawed, but also romantic and kaleidoscopic. According to Eliot, Kipling “was not a philosopher, and his political philosophy is all in his firm and simple code of behavior.” His Jungle Books and Just So Stories were inspired by the wild animals and landscapes of the East. His Captains Courageous (set in America) and Puck of Pook’s Hill (set in Britain) evidence his love and reverence for the West.
The first story in Puck of Pook’s Hill is “Weland’s Sword,” which introduces the character of Puck from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The fairy appears to a group of children playing in rural England on midsummer’s eve. He then informs them about the rich history of the land, magically transporting them to different moments of British history, from Roman occupation — “A Centurion of the Thirtieth, On the Great Wall” — right through to the signing of Magna Carta.
Kipling’s method is one of thought snapshots — precise and unforgettable images — in which landscapes, history, and grand narrative are intertwined through verse. “See you the ferny-ride that steals / Into the oak-woods far,” begins the first poem in the collection, “Puck’s Song,” before alluding to Admiral Lord Nelson’s naval victory at Trafalgar in 1805. “And mark you where the ivy clings / To Bayham’s mouldering walls,” he continues, taking us in two short verses from the dissolution of Bayham Abbey by Henry VIII to the rebuilding of St. Paul’s Cathedral after the fire of London. In a change of pace and temperature, the fairy skips into the “Weald,” the 40 miles of ancient forest tract in southeastern England that comprises a horseshoe-shaped rim between London and the English Channel coast:
Out of the Weald, the secret Weald,
Men sent in ancient years
The horse-shoes red at Flodden Field,
The arrows at Poitiers.
Throughout British history, the Weald has been home to wild animals and bandits; a place of sanctuary and a strategic hiding spot during historic battles. At the battle of Flodden in 1513, the English were victorious over the Scots, killing King James IV and demolishing the highly prized Scottish cavalry. At Poitiers in 1356, during the Hundred Years War, the English defeated the French, chiefly by use of covert archers. The capricious elf, Puck, then reminds us of the “stilly woods of oak” and the “dread ditch beside,” where, of course, “the Saxons broke / on the day that Harold died,” referring to the defeat of King Harold of Wessex on October 14, 1066, at the hands of William the Conqueror, who was subsequently crowned king of England, implemented a national survey (Domesday Book), and built lots of lovely castles. Going back in time further still, Puck recalls:
And see you, after rain, the trace
Of mound and ditch and wall?
O that was a Legion’s camping-place,
When Caesar sailed from Gaul!
Here, he follows the footsteps of Julius Caesar, who invaded Britain in 55 b.c., back when the Celts lived scattered among the hilltops, perhaps a little grateful for Roman protection from the savage Scots and Picts lurking north of Hadrian’s wall. The Romans, indeed, were comparatively tolerant. Elsewhere, Kipling liked to tell the legendary story about how the Romans would allow their subjects one day a year when they could assemble and criticize their government. England is “not any common Earth,” Puck concludes, infusing history with the medieval legend of King Arthur’s wizard, and inviting us to partake in the tradition, “but Merlin’s Isle of Gramarye / Where you and I will fare.”