Thursday 26 December 2019

Kipling at Christmas

Among my Christmas gifts was a British Library anthology, A Literary Christmas (no editor credited), a nice package of verse and prose, some of it familiar, some quite new to me. In the latter category, I discovered an early work (1886) by Rudyard Kipling which is surely one of the bitterest, most sardonic Christmas poems ever written –

Christmas in India

Dim dawn behind the tamarisks -- the sky is saffron-yellow --
  As the women in the village grind the corn,
And the parrots seek the riverside, each calling to his fellow
  That the Day, the staring Eastern Day, is born.
    O the white dust on the highway! O the stenches in the byway!
      O the clammy fog that hovers over earth!
    And at Home they're making merry 'neath the white and scarlet berry --
      What part have India's exiles in their mirth?

Full day behind the tamarisks -- the sky is blue and staring --
  As the cattle crawl afield beneath the yoke,
And they bear One o'er the field-path, who is past all hope or caring,
  To the ghat below the curling wreaths of smoke.
    Call on Rama, going slowly, as ye bear a brother lowly --
      Call on Rama -- he may hear, perhaps, your voice!
    With our hymn-books and our psalters we appeal to other altars,
      And to-day we bid "good Christian men rejoice!"

High noon behind the tamarisks -- the sun is hot above us --
  As at Home the Christmas Day is breaking wan.
They will drink our healths at dinner -- those who tell us how they love us,
  And forget us till another year be gone!
    Oh the toil that knows no breaking! Oh the Heimweh, ceaseless, aching!
      Oh the black dividing Sea and alien Plain!
    Youth was cheap -- wherefore we sold it.
      Gold was good -- we hoped to hold it,
    And to-day we know the fulness of our gain!

Grey dusk behind the tamarisks -- the parrots fly together --
  As the sun is sinking slowly over Home;
And his last ray seems to mock us shackled in a lifelong tether.
  That drags us back howe'er so far we roam.
    Hard her service, poor her payment -- she in ancient, tattered raiment --
      India, she the grim Stepmother of our kind.
    If a year of life be lent her, if her temple's shrine we enter,
      The door is shut -- we may not look behind.

Black night behind the tamarisks -- the owls begin their chorus --
  As the conches from the temple scream and bray.
With the fruitless years behind us and the hopeless years before us,
  Let us honour, O my brother, Christmas Day!
    Call a truce, then, to our labours -- let us feast with friends and neighbours,
      And be merry as the custom of our caste;
    For, if "faint and forced the laughter," and if sadness follow after,
      We are richer by one mocking Christmas past.

How on earth did Kipling ever gain his reputation as a gung-ho, jingoistic, unquestioning apologist for Empire? It is clear even in a work as early as this that his view of Empire was essentially tragic. For a fuller expression of it, see, for example, his later, more famous (and much better) poem, Recessional...

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!

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