Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Kipling's Remonstrance: 'An Imperial Rescript'

Rudyard Kipling's verse is little known today. The wisdom one can find in it would not fit into the modern pedagogical philosophy of unreason, political correctness, and conformity. After all, he was an unapologetic champion of the West, of the second British Empire, in particular, an unabashed but not uncritical "cultural imperialist." Most students -- indeed, most writers and thinkers today -- are ignorant of Kipling, if not hostile to him. He died in January, 1936, when the world he had known had changed for the worse, and was marching toward war and collectivism and horrors unimaginable to him in the 19th century.

But, as early as 1890, at the age of 25, in "An Imperial Rescript," he took a marvelously adept poetic swipe at consensual collectivism, which, before he could imagine it ever happening in his lifetime, would impoverish his own country and many more nations in the next century. The opus begins:

Now this is the tale of the Council the German Kaiser decreed,
To ease the strong of their burden, to help the weak in their need.
He sent word to the peoples, who struggle, and pant, and sweat,
That the straw might be counted fairly and the tally of bricks be set.
In short, representatives of all the productive men from around the globe -- the "Lords of Their Hands" -- were summoned to wait upon the Kaiser's Council and hear a master plan for eliminating exploitation, injustice, unregulated commerce and labor, and other alleged social ills throughout the world. It is implied in the second stanza that men were crying out against those ills, and that the Kaiser heard their complaints.

The third stanza goes:

And the young King said -- "I have found it, the road to the rest ye seek:
"The strong shall wait for the weary, the hale shall halt for the weak:
"With the even tramp of an army where no man breaks from the line,
"Ye shall march to peace and plenty in the bond of brotherhood -- sign!"
But, the productive men pause before they sign the document that would fetter each man to the next. Just as they are about to indenture themselves to mutual servitude, someone laughs. Not Howard Roark. Not John Galt. In 1890, it was too early for that particular literary "No!" to be flung out at the world.

A hand was stretched to the goose-quill, a fist was cramped to scrawl,
When -- the laugh of a blue-eyed maiden ran clear through the Council-hall.
What did this maiden represent? Was she laughing at the foolishness of what the men were submitting to? Why did the productive men pause?

And the Spirit of Man that is in Him to the light of the vision woke;
And the men drew back from the paper, as the Yankee delegate spoke: --
Each man has second thoughts about what he is about to agree to. Kipling allows an American the first objection:

"There's a girl in Jersey City who works on the telephone;
"We're going to hitch our horses and dig for a house of our own,
"With gas and water connections, and steam heat through to the top;
"And. W. Hohenzollern, I guess I shall work till I drop."
Then a Briton proudly reiterates the ownership of one's life and purpose:

And an English delegate thundered: -- "The weak an' the lame be blowed!
"I've a berth in the Sou'-West workshops, a home in the Wandsworth Road;
"And till the 'sociation has footed my buryin' bill,
"I work for the kids an' the missus. Pull up! I'll be damned if I will!"
By the ninth stanza, the Kaiser's Council goes into consultation about what to do about this revolt of the men they only want to help by relieving them of the "burden" of freedom. Here Kipling permits himself a kind of humor possible only to a man who takes ideas seriously. The Council passes a resolution:

"But till we are built like angels -- with hammer and chisel and pen,
"We will work for ourselves and a woman, for ever and ever, amen."
Modern "free verse" is replete with random concretes connected to no abstractions, not even esthetic ones. Kipling's poem here contains many concretes that express a pair of metaphysical and political abstractions: individualism and collectivism.

Kipling was on to something: A glimmer of mutual slavery, of true democracy, of chain gangs, and unions -- of the nature and consequences of collectivism. And he offered an antidote to it: a reminder to men of the purpose of life. The laughing maiden represents, as far as one can tell, the joy of life. The benevolent rays of the early sunset of reason in his time permitted him to champion independence and individualism. His productive men remember why they work and live, and refuse to become slaves or to enslave each other.

What an overture! What wisdom! And what a literary ancestor of Ayn Rand was Rudyard Kipling! She was our own laughing maiden, who reminded us all!

Notes:

  1. Rescript -- a sovereign's or government edict or announcement.
  2. Hohenzollern -- a German dynasty that ruled from 1192 to 1918.
  3. 'sociation -- An association, or voluntary, private mutual aid or welfare organization, to which workers paid a small subscription, and which acted much like an insurance company.

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