By Ray Greenblatt
Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) was an author of many poems and as much prose. He lived many years in India as a journalist , so he knew the inner workings of the country, even speaking Hindi. Receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907, he seemed to evolve into something different and grow to believe in the White Man’s Burden as he aged. However, we are not concerned with politics or economics. Our goal is to illustrate how Kipling blends his poetic skill into his unique early novel Kim (1901).
Let us immediately analyze Kipling’s poetic approach. Afterwards, we shall observe how these poetics bring his characters and India itself to life. He the author sometimes interrupts the omniscient narrative to step forward into the scene. “There was a whirr and the voice stopped—as voices must if you ram a thrice-doubled coat on to the wax cylinder and into the works of an expensive phonograph.” (151)
At times he makes it sound as if a report had actually been written about Kim’s spy work after he graduated from the St Xavier School. “The report in its unmistakable St Xavier’s running script, and the brown, yellow, and lake-daubed map, was on hand a few years ago (a careless clerk filed it with the rough notes of E. 23, second Seistan survey).” (170) As in poetry, inversion is used. ”Followed a sudden natural reaction.” (185)
Kipling finds a series of phrases emphatic. “Bone by bone, muscle by muscle, ligament by ligament, and lastly, nerve by nerve. Kneaded to irresponsible pulp.” (275) Sometimes simple nouns: “Decked, brow, nose, ear, neck, wrist, and ankle with heavy native jewelry. When she turned it was like the clashing of copper pots.” (177) Repetition, even of clauses, plays a role: “Because they knew and loved the Lama, because he was an old man, because he sought the Way, because he was their guest.” (195)
That last paragraph contained a simile using “like.” Another is “gurgling, grunting hookahs, which in full blast sound like bull-frogs.” (71) His metaphors are prevalent too: “With the gait of a bogged cow.” (160) And how Indians speak like the British: “the tinny, saw-cut English of the native-bred.” (84) Often sight images like “watching the throat-muscles quiver and jerk” (180) blend with hearing imagery, “he caught the well-known purr and fizzle of grains of incense.” (179) The onomatopoeia is acutely used.
Kipling’s poetic devices are numerous, so I will close this section with the imaginative use of verbs, such as “the Lama jibbed at the door.” (27) Gerunds: “with strivings and yearnings and retchings and agonies.” (288) Participles: “full-fleshed, heavy-haunched, bull-necked, and deep-voiced.” (225) “Northern folk . . . swearing, shouting, arguing, and chaffering in the packed square.” (17) You can see all of these methods at work throughout the novel.
Kim, a half-English, half-Indian boy, we see grow up from ages 13 to 16 at the height of the Raj. He is bright and loves all aspects of life. He can blend in with a crowd, dressed like them and speaking their language. Kipling describes that phase of life as “years of indiscretion.” (2) If he is offended Kim is apt to tell a person off. “Consider for a while, man with a mud head. Think you we came from the nearest pond like the frog, thy father-in-law.” (60) And yet, Kim has a good heart, calling India “the great good-tempered world” (34) and “this broad, smiling river of life.” (61)
After many adventures the ever-healthy Kim becomes ill. Usually his sleep was deep. Noise “did not even weave a dream through his slumbers.’”(140) But now “his soul was out of gear with its surroundings—a cog-wheel unconnected with any machinery.” (282) As he heals he says, “I remember that the days and nights passed like bars of white and black, opening and shutting.” (276)
However, the wise old Lama inspires him. “The cross-legged figure, outlined jet-black against the lemon-colored drift of light.’” (287) “The Lama was his trove, and he purposed to take possession.” (12) The Lama taught him to think deeply, beyond the common world of men. “Kim watched the stars as they rose one after another in the still, sticky dark.” (193) He practices meditation. “His mind drifted away from those heights with the rush of a wounded bird.” (185) He “threw his soul after his eye across the deep blue gulfs between range and range.” (233) The boy loves the Lama very much perhaps because Kim was an orphan. I see him following in the wise man’s footsteps not as a priest but as a teacher.
The Lama was old: “He turned his head like an old tortoise in the sunlight.” (6) Kipling describes “his thousand-wrinkled face.” (10) He often feels tired: “The Lama dropped wearily to the ground, much as a heavy fruit-eating bat cowers.” (66) “The Lama shrugged and shrunk into himself, a dingy, shapeless mass.” (33) But he has a quest to discover the river Buddha found to cure all ills. He is often unsure: “The boat of my soul rocked upon the waters of illusion.” (260) Yet, the people loved him for his holiness: “The Lama was a great and venerable curiosity.” (38)
With Kim’s constant aid and love, he can energize himself: “It pleased him to curl himself up into the sudden sleep of old age.” (193) Then refreshed his “voice boomed like a Tibetan devil-gong.” (244) We see the Lama “speaking truth to chance-met people.” (16) He is sympathetic to all castes of individuals. “’And they likewise, bound upon the Wheel, go forth from life to life—from despair to despair,’ said the Lama below his breath, ’hot, uneasy, snatching.’” (54)
He has learned to endure: “My spirit sits above my bones, waiting.” (212) The monastery in the mountains of northern India is where he calls home. To reach there and show Kim his country along the way becomes his goal. “With steady, driving strokes from the loins he strode upwards.’”(230) “The first freshness of the day carried the Lama forward with long, easy, camel-like strides.” (51) “He set his ivory-yellow face, serene and untroubled, towards the beckoning Hills; his shadow shouldering far before him in the dust.” (229) The Lama will learn that his magic river is anywhere that he is contented.
At many moments in the novel crowds dominate the scene. “A solid line of blue, rising and falling like the back of a caterpillar in haste, would swing up through the quivering dust and trot past to a chorus of quick cackling.” (62) “The crowd drew a long, quavering breath.” (48) “A wall of uncertain darkness speckled with little flames and alive with half-caught forms and faces and shadows.” (71) “They scattered like frost on south eaves of a morning.” (259)
Different characters occur then disappear. “A wild-eyed, wild-haired Sikh devotee in the blue-checked clothes of his faith, with polished-steel quoits glistening on the cone of his tall blue turban, stalked past.” (61) An evil holy man looks at the Lama: “The priest looked at him sideways, something bitterly—a dry and blighting smile.” (49)
Kim meets a spy disguised: “Ash-smeared, ochre-barred, dusty-haired Saddhu . . . luminous with insolence and bestial lust.” (204) On another occasion the same spy is disguised so that two Russian agents refer to him as “the nightmare of a Viennese courier.” (239) His real intelligence is shown when he says: “To discuss medicine before the ignorant is of one piece with teaching the peacock to sing.” (218)
The Lama becomes fast friends with an old soldier– the man, not his former profession. The soldier thinks of his long life: “It is to me as a river from which I am withdrawn like a log after a flood.” (57) But with the Lama’s ministrations he begins to recall: “”Last night broke up the fountains of remembrance in my so-dried heart.” (51) The two old men form a diptych as they nap: “The old officer’s strong-cut head pillowed on his arm, the Lama’s thrown back against the tree bole.” (55)
A rich old woman who nurses both Kim and the Lama back to health springs vividly to life in the novel. She is a talker: “They could hear the old lady’s tongue clack as steadily as a rice-husker.”(75) She even screams: “She trotted forth to raise a typhoon off the cook –house.” (278) Yet she can be happy: “She chuckled like a contented parrot above the sugar lump.” (214) Although her language can be rough: “She paid Kim compliments that would have flung European audiences into unclean dismay.” (214) But her nursing shows her skills: “Have I shifted thee and lifted thee and slapped and twisted thy ten toes.” (277) Kim kiddingly admires her old face: “a Moon of Paradise, a Disturber of Integrity.” (75)
Kipling can describe cities, like Lucknow. “She is the center of all idleness, intrigue, and luxury.” (120) “The house-lights scattered on every level, made, as it were, a double firmament.” (148) Some stores were weird like a tobacco shop: “Those who know it call it The Bird-cage—it is so full of whisperings and whistlings and chirpings.” (177) Kipling can depict a simple decoration: “The patterns on the gold-worked curtains ran up and down, melting and reforming as the folds shook and quivered to the night wind.” (71)
Yet some buildings can be sinister as Kim encounters sounds and smells: “ The room was full of things that smelt like all the temples of all the East. A whiff of musk, a puff of sandalwood, and a breath of sickly jessamine-oil caught his opened nostrils.” (149) This description even approaches horror: “There leaped out from the walls a collection of Tibetan devil-dance masks, hanging above the fiend-embroidered draperies of those ghastly functions—horned masks, scowling masks, and masks of idiotic terror.” (149)
Kim and the Lama traveled into the country. ”Mid-days in the dun-gloom of kindly oak-forests.” (269) “The smoke-scented evening, copper-dun and turquoise across the fields.” (214) “The frogs were busy in the ditches, and the moon slid to her setting.” (220) “The solemn deodars, climbing one after another with down-drooped branches.” (146) “They walk farther north: “Golden, rose, saffron, and pink, the morning mists smoked away across the flat green levels. All the rich Punjab lay out in the splendor of the keen sun.” (31)
They longed for the silence and restorative air of the mountains. “The long, peaceful line of the Himalayas flushed in morning-gold.” (225) “A thousand feet below lay a long, lazy, round-shoulder bank of mist, as yet untouched by the morning sun.” (254) “It was like sitting in a swallow’s nest under the eaves of the roof of the world.” (258) Those stupendous heights, “all day long they lay like molten silver under the sun, and at evening put on their jewels again.” (231)
For the Lama his religion was an integral part of the landscape and its people. “Buddhism, overlaid with a nature-worship fantastic as their own landscapes, elaborate as the terracing of their tiny fields.” (232) “The easy, uncounted Eastern minutes slid by.” (188) “The soft, smoky silence of evening in India wrapped them close.” (287) Kim and his Lama had found fulfillment.
By today’s standards Rudyard Kipling’s poetry is old-fashioned. However, some of his fiction remains powerful; from the short stories The Phantom Rickshaw and The Man Who Would Be King to the novels The Light That Failed and Captains Courageous. But for me Kim, employing diverse poetic effects, is the pinnacle of his success.
You can find the book here: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/93144/kim-by-rudyard-kipling/
Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018. Ray Greenblatt has two books out for 2020: UNTIL THE FIRST LIGHT (Parnilis Media) and MAN IN A CROW SUIT (BookArts Press).