Tuesday, February 20, 2024

'One Realises How Absolutely Modern the Best of the Old Things Are'

My late father-in-law left me The Works of Rudyard Kipling in twenty-three volumes, the American edition published by Scribner’s in 1899 when the author was thirty-four years old. As a writer, Kipling was a wonder of nature, as prodigious as Shakespeare and Dickens. To put his career in perspective, his finest work of fiction, the novel Kim, would not appear for another two years, and he would spend the next two and a half decades writing his best stories (see “Mary Postgate”). Kipling was among my earliest forays into “adult” literature, along with Stevenson, Defoe, Swift and Poe. All but Poe remain rereadable favorites.  


In 1912, five years after becoming the first English-language writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, Kipling spoke to a gathering of fifty boys at Wellington College, a boarding school in Crowthorne, Berkshire, attended by his son, John “Jack” Kipling. Three years later, at age eighteen, Jack would be killed in the Battle of Loos.  Kipling drolly titled his talk to the students “The Possible Advantages of Reading.” When he collected it in A Book of Words (1928), he retitled it “The Uses of Reading,” which has been collected in Writings on Writing (eds. Sandra Kemp and Lisa Lewis, 1996). Kipling's gift for fluid, conversational prose carried over into his public speeches. He never patronizes the boys and assumes they will appreciate his wit, unlike every commencement speaker I have ever heard (including Bill Cosby). Kipling implicitly respects the students:

“A certain knowledge of the classics is worth having, because it makes you realise that all the world is not like ourselves in all respects, and yet in matters that really touch the inside life of a man, neither the standards nor the game have changed.”


This is spoken by a man who translated much of Horace. To the boys he quotes and celebrates an Anglo-Saxon poem and Chaucer. There’s a bluffness in Kipling’s manner with the students. He remembers what it is to be a boy:


“[T]here are some things a man can’t discuss with anyone, and it isn’t right that he should. We have times and moods and tenses of black depression and despair and general mental discomfort which, for convenience sake, we call liver or sulks. But so far as my experience goes, that is just the time when a man is peculiarly accessible to the influence of a book, as he is to any other outside influence; and, moreover, that is just the time when he naturally and instinctively does not want anything of a mind-taxing soul-stirring nature. Then is the time to fall back on the books that neither pretend to be nor are accepted as masterpieces, but books whose tone and temper soothe your trouble for the time being. A man who knows you and your life may be able to recommend such books. Ask him.”


No school today would invite Kipling to address the student body. His speech would have to be “lawyered” and trigger warnings posted prominently. Clearly, he’s speaking autobiographically, not from an ivory tower. Kipling refutes our era’s blinkered acceptance of presentism, and he speaks prophetically. His prose, even in what might have been a rote recitation of platitudes, has a refreshingly vivid clarity:


“If we pay no attention to words whatever, we may become like the isolated gentleman who invents a new perpetual-motion machine on old lines in ignorance of all previous plans, and then is surprised that it doesn’t work. If we confine our attention entirely to the slang of the day—that is to say, if we devote ourselves exclusively to modern literature—we get to think the world is progressing when it is only repeating itself. In both cases we are likely to be deceived, and what is more important, to deceive others. Therefore, it is advisable for us in our own interests, quite apart from considerations of personal amusement, to concern ourselves occasionally with a certain amount of our national literature drawn from all ages. I say from all ages, because it is only when one reads what men wrote long ago that one realises how absolutely modern the best of the old things are.”


Richard Zuelch said...

His remarks remind me of C. S. Lewis's famous advice that, for ever new book you read, you should read two old ones before commencing on the next new one.

Also: not all 23 volumes are pictured!

Gary said...

One can believe in progress -- based on the data -- without falling into presentism.

Thomas Parker said...

I came late to Kipling, and when I finally read the Jungle Book, I was stunned. There's not a trace of Disney in it - it's more like Shakespeare.

Finn MacCool said...

I have that same edition of Kipling's works! I must confess to having read only a few of the volumes, including Kim. The Kipling set is part of a library I inherited from an aunt who married into a bookish family in Ionia, Michigan. These books also include a 48-volume set of the Waverley Novels (I am reading my way through these, currently on Vol. 39, Woodstock), Dickens, de Maupassant, Thackeray, Sterne, and many others. I treasure having them.

Don Flanagan