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literature

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Kipling, Rudyard (1865-1936)  
 
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Kipling's last years were difficult. The loss of their only son in World War I devastated both parents. Caroline's nervous depressions, coupled with Kipling's own painful stomach difficulties and his disgust with post-war social values, caused them to withdraw further into the isolation of their country estate, Batemans. Kipling died on January 18, 1936 of a duodenal ulcer diagnosed too late for effective treatment. Following cremation, his remains were interred in the Poet's Corner of London's Westminster Abbey, between the tombs of Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy.

Character and Thought

Kipling's imagination was a complex and deeply conflicted one. From all evidence, Kipling was a generous yet extremely difficult person. Not surprisingly, his life was riddled with contradictions.

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Although Kipling sustained a cult-like veneration for the man of action, his weak eyesight and small physique excluded him from playing games in school and from serving in the military. He was left with a lifelong admiration for common soldiers and sailors, and a disdain for pacifists. Famous in his lifetime for his descriptions of both jungle life and the daily realities of the common soldier, he was forced to rely entirely upon others for his information.

In his writing Kipling presented a vision of a classless society in which everyone did his or her best to serve the needs of the Empire. Likewise, Kipling valued Freemasonry for its ecumenical nature, and he chose to join lodges with a multi-racial membership. Yet one of the most striking qualities of his work is what Angus Wilson calls "indulged hatred." Kipling used his writing to nurse resentments and settle scores with a ferocity that borders on the pathological.

Such writing seems to have been a necessary act of exorcism for him, the periodic expulsion of venom allowing him to lead the life of quiet retreat at Batemans that he valued. But even his friends could be shocked by the vicious hatred that he promulgated towards Germany, Jews, pacifists, members of the Liberal Party, academics, members of the literary world, suffragettes, and--following World War I--Roman Catholicism and the papacy.

As generous as Kipling could be towards those whom he respected (he was a great admirer of Islam because of the high level of civilization that he associated with a Muslim presence), he was enraged by anyone who threatened his sense of an ordered, disciplined existence. For example, he dismissed Albert Einstein as "certainly a Hebrew" and the scientist's breakthrough description of space as being "warped" as "only another little contribution to assisting the world towards flux and disintegration."

The resolution of any conflict, Kipling concluded fairly early in life, lies in obedience to Law, which he posited as the only thing standing between humankind and anarchy. In the most famous of his poems--"If," "Recessional," "The White Man's Burden"--Kipling articulates a doctrine of discipline and self-sacrifice in which the individual forsakes his own desire for the good of the Commonwealth. For Kipling, the individual is most himself when he does his duty, which includes recognizing the superior person or cause to whom he most owes allegiance.

Such a stance proved responsible for the most glaring contradiction in Kipling's character. As Angus Wilson points out, Kipling possessed a deep sympathy for native Indian culture, particularly Indian religion. And in works like "The Ballad of East and West," he asserted that friendship and action are superior to race and social convention. Unlike many of his fellow colonials, Kipling satirized the social pretensions of the British in India, and frankly acknowledged the inadequacies of British rule. "England," he complained in a letter to Cecil Rhodes, "is a stuffy little place, mentally, morally and physically," whereas India was expansive and generous.

Yet Kipling never questioned the social distinctions made in the colonial order between Anglo-Europeans and native Indians, and was outraged by the liberal clamor for Indian self-rule. However superior he found India to be to Britain in some ways, that country remained in his mind the home of "the happy Asiatic disorder" that required the superior British organization of law and order if it were not to devolve into complete chaos.

And it is as a temptation to disorder that Kipling, although himself deeply oriented, viewed and feared homosexual passion.

Colonialism and Homosexuality

Kipling respected marriage as the custom or tradition that prevented society from slipping into sexual anarchy. Yet, as an early biographer, the third earl of Birkenhead, tactfully observed, "Among the emotions that were to agitate him so fiercely a capacity for the passionate love of woman never seems to have found a place." In his imperialist view, women are finally a distraction from duty, and the distrust or fear of women is expressed repeatedly in his writing. (The story "Love-O'-Women," whose title echoes biblical David's lament for his beloved Jonathan in 2 Samuel 1: 26, concerns heterosexually-transmitted syphilis.)

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