Friday, 16 July 2010

Rudyard Kipling: 'A Death-Bed'

When I blogged about Swinburne's Boer War poem, 'Transvaal', I noted that it broke down into incoherence, as if unable to formalise into art its visceral hatred. The record seems to show that it is harder to write an effective poem of hatred than of love. War poetry may have more reason to express hatred than other kinds of verse, but even here, an example such as Swinburne's stands out as (at best) eccentric and at worst morally repugnant.

Daniel Karlin has made a strong case for Robert Browning as a 'good hater', but after Shakespeare the most brilliant explorer of hatred in all its depths and shades must be Rudyard Kipling. Stories like 'Letting in the Jungle', 'Red Dog' and 'Mary Postgate' are terrifying in the pure intensity of their emotion. Kipling provides no refuge for the sentimental reader.

Hatred is often a possibility in Kipling's verse, but is less frequently realised except when he is thinking about the Hun (a term which he himself popularised). He stated in 1915 that the world was divided into 'human beings and Germans'. His poem 'Justice' from 1918 comes very close to describing the German nation as 'Evil Incarnate', and calls for a 'reckoning' whereby, 'till the end of time, / Their remnant shall recall / Their fathers' old, confederate crime / Availed them not at all.' Even so, this seems mild compared with 'A Death-Bed', written that same year in response to rumours that the Kaiser was suffering from throat cancer. The detail with which Kipling describes the final stages of the disease, and juxtaposes the Kaiser's death with the deaths for which Kipling held him personally responsible, is done with such authorial relish that I can think of no more vicious poem. Swinburne's hatred seemed ridiculous and self-defeating; Kipling's has an irresistible power.

A Death-Bed

'This is the State above the Law.
   The State exists for the State alone.'
[This is a gland at the back of the jaw,
   And an answering lump by the collarbone.]

Some die shouting in gas or fire;
   Some die silent, by shell and shot.
Some die desperate, caught on the wire;
   Some die suddenly. This will not.

'Regis suprema voluntas lex'
   [It will follow the regular course of --- throats.]
Some die pinned by the broken decks,
   Some die sobbing between the boats.

Some die eloquent, pressed to death
   By the sliding trench as their friends can hear.
Some die wholly in half a breath,
   Some --- give trouble for half a year.

'There is neither Evil nor Good in life
   Except as the needs of the State ordain.'
[Since it is rather too late for the knife,
   All we can do is mask the pain.]

Some die saintly in faith and hope ---
   One died thus in a prison-yard ---
Some die broken by rape or the rope;
   Some die easily. This dies hard.

'I will dash to pieces who bar my way.
   Woe to the traitor! Woe to the weak!'
[Let him write what he wishes to say.
   It tires him out if he tries to speak.]

Some die quietly. Some abound
   In loud self-pity. Others spread
Bad morale through the cots around...
   This is a type that is better dead.

'The war was forced on me by my foes.
   All that I sought was the right to live.'
[Don't be afraid of a triple dose;
   The pain will neutralize half we give.

Here are the needles. See that he dies
   While the effects of the drug endure...
What is the question he asks with his eyes? ---
   Yes, All-Highest, to God, be sure.]

['Regis suprema voluntas lex' --- the King's will is the supreme law. ]


  1. Rather than exhibiting incoherence, this one is almost too coherent, with three different "voices" overlapping one another: the author (let's call him) commenting in rather sing-songy mode, the dying Kaiser pontificating and making State excuses, and the italicized doctor or medical person calmly assessing the man's failing condition. I find it all rather abhorrent and sad. Yes, RK was a master hater; there is a world of hatred in his referring to the patient as "this."

  2. ' there is a world of hatred in his referring to the patient as "this."'
    ...except that the first words are 'This is the State above the Law." If it wasn't a direct quote fromthe Kaiser the first two lines do refer to some preWWI political philosphers who took exactly that view. All the later uses of "this" surely refer back to that first "this" and the Kaiser's identification of himself with the German state. One topic of the poem is the assumption that it is only in the pain of cancer that he can return toi being a human.

  3. If "this" is not a sneer, then why not argue that line three's indicator is the operational appearance of the word, and the narrator's repeat usages thereafter actually show a smidgin of sympathy for the cancerous Kaiser rather than dismissing him so coldly? (No doubt RK really intended none or all of these presumptive interpretations. That's the "fun" of literary criticism, right? Everyone's allowed to get it arguably, or even demonstrably, "wrong" in the hallowed mutual pursuit of getting it right--unlocking all the doors and letting the light in.)