Sunday, August 18, 2013

`What You're After Is to Turn 'em All'

An idle ramble, an at-home adventure, little more. Kipling writes in “Sestina of the Tramp-Royal”: “It's like a book, I think, this bloomin’, world.” Book-as-world or book-as-life is an old trope among Jews and Christians. Did it exist before Gutenberg? For inveterate readers, it seems like a hard-wired metaphor. Will it fade away as books and literacy fade? The speaker in Kipling’s letter-perfect sestina fancies himself a happy (or “’appy”) wanderer, one of those who “go observin’ matters till they die.” Not a wastrel or bum, but more an itinerant philosopher, an attentive nomad, and a neat rebuttal to the caricature of Kipling as jack-booted imperialist. His vision here is tolerant, forgiving and multicultural in the best sense: “The different ways that different things are done.” Kipling and his speaker admire competence, industriousness and valor. The speaker recalls a bohemian, Penelope-less Odysseus, another wanderer, one whose Ithaka is everywhere. Kipling wrote the poem in 1896, shortly before he left Vermont and returned to England. Here’s the entire next-to-last stanza:vin’ matters till they die.

“It's like a book, I think, this bloomin' world,
Which you can read and care for just so long,
But presently you feel that you will die
Unless you get the page you're readin' done,
An' turn another -- likely not so good;
But what you're after is to turn 'em all.”

The final two lines sound the poem’s darkest note. Even a determined reader, told that the remainder of the book in his hands is “likely not so good,” is tempted to chuck it. When young, I plowed through, never permitting myself the moral laxity of being defeated by a bad book. Today, I sometimes choose not to “turn ’em all.”

No comments: