Thursday, 3 March 2011

Rudyard Kipling: 'The Changelings'

Rudyard Kipling, let it be said again, is the finest short story writer in English. At least, I haven't read a better. Much as I adore the plotted viciousness of The Jungle Books, my favourite collection is Debits and Credits (1926), which comes late enough in Kipling's career to be classified as---in Edmund Wilson's pointed phrase---'the Kipling that nobody read'. Although the book contains several masterpieces which regularly appear in selections from Kipling's work (most notably, 'The Wish House', 'The Bull that Thought', 'The Eye of Allah'), it has fallen out of print for long periods. The neglect is incomprehensible. Debits and Credits is the work of a Prospero-figure, abjuring his powers at their height, seeking forgiveness for himself and for a ruined world.

To call Debits and Credits a book of short stories is to do it a disservice. The fourteen stories are held together (and kept apart) by poems which commentate obliquely or directly on the themes of the prose. 'Sea Constables', for example, is a merciless tale of maritime revenge against 'Uncle Newt' --- war-profiteering neutrals being more offensive even than an honest enemy --- and it is preceded by Kipling's poem, 'The Changelings'.

The Changelings

Or ever the battered liners sank
   With their passengers to the dark,
I was head of a Walworth Bank,
   And you were a grocer's clerk.

I was a dealer in stocks and shares,
   And you in butters and teas,
And we both abandoned our own affairs
   And took to the dreadful seas.

Wet and worry about our ways---
   Panic, onset, and flight---
Had us in charge for a thousand days
   And a thousand-year-long night.

We saw more than the nights could hide---
   More than the waves could keep---
And---certain faces over the side
   Which do not go from our sleep.

We were more tired than words can tell
   While the pied craft fled by,
And the swinging mounds of the Western swell
   Hoisted us Heavens-high...

Now there is nothing---not even our rank---
   To witness what we have been;
And I am returned to my Walworth bank,
   And you to your margarine!

This is light verse of the darkest kind. Its rhythms are a variation on the ballad stanza --- four beats followed by three --- but their jauntiness disguises intimate dangers. How easy to read that final line as a joking pay-off, as if the speaker were to be believed that the horrors of war can be pushed away and a banal diurnal career resumed. Everything in the poem resists that paraphrasable meaning. Even the final exclamation mark manages to betray anxiety.

During the Boer War, Kipling had written of the difficulties faced by soldiers returning to civilian life. The irregulars come home to a petty, prissy nation, with its ''ouses both sides of the street'. In this context, there can be nothing pettier than a career in 'margarine'. For all that the banker and grocer are traumatised by memory of---a horrible euphemism---'more than the waves could keep', they continue to hanker for 'what they have been'. As the poem title reminds us, they have changed and cannot go back to their previous lives. Could it be that the trauma of naval warfare is outstripped by the greater trauma of trying to resume the trite rigmarole of civilian existence?


  1. I love The Wish House. I don't think there's a better short story outside Chekhov.

    Re this poem, do we assume the syntax of the first verse is indeed based on Henley's

    Or ever the knightly years were gone
    With the old world to the grave,
    I was the King of Babylon
    And you were a Christian Slave.

    I don't know when the Henley was written but they were friends, I think - was it Henley who took off his wooden leg and waved it in the air on hearing "Danny Deever"?

  2. Yes, I think that Henley is there. Sandra Kerr detects an allusion to Psalm 108 in 'Heavens-high', but I'm less sure about that.

    I almost agree about 'The Wish House', which I love, but I would give the accolade to 'The Eye of Allah'. Of course, when we Kiplingites start recommending our favourite stories, we go on long into the night...

  3. "The Changelings" is a splendid ballad, mock or manque, manipulative and magisterial alike: eliding time, presenting portions of images and events, hinting at more than it says--and still asking the hard question: What's worse, to be at war, or to be at peace after having been at war? (And the use of dashes is as eccentric as Emily Dickinson's.)

    But, please, sir, may I ask a different question? Viz: "And how do you like Kipling?" "... Don't know; never kippled." Am I just stubbornly obtuse in thinking your great man the quintessential poet figure for many in the Isles and Uncommonwealth, but only appreciated, and certainly not revered, in other parts--as, say, US?

    William Carlos Williams and maybe even Walt Whitman might be the corresponding American poets--masters of oblique minimalism and barbaric yawp, respectively--who don't "travel" well. Over there, Kipling was both the Empire and the retreat from. Over here, he seemed just jingley and jingoist; and US products of lower education think no more than Jungle Book and "Gunga Din" and something about Mandelay when we hear the man's name.

    So I am still astonished when I encounter something of his as crafty (both senses) as "The Changelings"; controlled dot-dash storytelling, the horrors of war, manifest (Manifest?) psychological pain, and a touch of English music hall humor. And may I mention the perfect title?

  4. You write, 'Could it be that the trauma of naval warfare is outstripped by the greater trauma of trying to resume the trite rigmarole of civilian existence?'
    From watching the battalion return home (now 9 months) I observe that many suffer multiple losses - comrades, the cohesiveness and sense of higher purpose of the unit, the loss of their former selves, the loss of their ideal selves, momentum, focus, drive, and energy, sheer energy. War is exhaustion and yet, at war, one is most keenly alive. More than one infantryman that I know has said to me, "It's not Afghanistan that's killing me, it's being home."

  5. Ed, I think many people have only read the poems. When I say online that I think Kipling the master of the short story (outside Chekhov) people sometimes think he only wrote children's stories. Actually I'd dispute that Just So, the Jungle Books and the two Pucks are purely for children anyhow, but many are not aware of books like Debits £ Credits, The Light that Failed, Plain Tales etc etc
    Tim, my fave used to be "They", which still reduces me to a dishrag, but my daughter convinced me that The Wish House has more craft. I'm also mighty fond of Marklake Witches, surely the best use of an unaware narrator outside Chekhov's monk in "The Night before Easter" - yes, we could go on for ever!

  6. Sheenagh, I agree. 'They' is perfect, and perfectly heartbreaking. There are a dozen Kipling masterpieces for every mood. I love 'Wireless', 'The Phantom Rickshaw', 'Mary Postgate', 'Kaa's Hunting', 'Red Dog', 'The Gardener', 'Dayspring Mishandled'...

    As for Kipling and America, Ed, that's a big topic. His best friend was American, he married an American, he received death threats from an American --- and that was all one family! I'm sorry if his stories aren't read in the States. They're not especially well read over here.

  7. I think it was The Phantom Rickshaw of which he said it was the first story that pleased him, because it was the first where he felt he'd really got inside another man's skin.

  8. I love the line 'We saw more than the nights could hide'.

    Haven't read any Kipling before, but I will certainly have to!

  9. Please read his Afghanistan poems. As true today as when they were written.