Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment seat;
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.
–The Ballad of East and West, 1889
Why do we remember Kipling? He spent his early childhood and youth in what was then British Imperial India and his fame as what one biographer, David Gilmour, calls the “chroniqueur of Anglo-India” preceded still greater fame as the ‘voice’ of British empire. He believed wholeheartedly in the defense of that empire and he successfully and bitterly predicted its decline. Apart from a few still widely known poems, such as If, his legacy too has faded some. He was a man ahead of his time but not of ours.
At the same time, it has never been easier to read Kipling, thanks to numerous digital collections of his stories and poems, and to appreciate him as a gifted scribe, his writing, though fraying a bit at the edges, still muscular and sensitive. It is also worth remembering the firm impression he made in the minds of powerful contemporaries, not to mention the 1907 Nobel literature committee – he remains today the youngest winner of literature prize.
In his biography of Kipling, The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling, Gilmour records that American president Woodrow Wilson “treasured” a newspaper clipping of If and Prime Minister Winston Churchill liked to read Kipling’s poems aloud while in the bath. What’s more:
The Spanish fascist leader, José Antonio Primo de Revera, hung a copy [of ‘If’] on the wall of his office, while the Duke of Alba kept one in a gold frame by his bedside in Madrid. The King of Siam, ‘a very great admirer’, told Somerset Maugham he had been moved to translate it into Thai, and a ‘devil of a job he found it…to get the rhythm and metre to his satisfaction’. Mr. T. A. Brocklebank put a tiny copy of the poem into his watch while attempting to climb Mount Everest, but unfortunately in a high wind ‘the watch sprang open and the ms flew away’.
Painting by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, Kipling’s uncle by marriage