"Conventionality"

1881

(notes by Jan Montefiore
and John Radcliffe)


the poem


[May 10th 2017]

Publication

The first publication of this poem was in Schoolboy Lyrics in Lahore in 1881, in an edition of around fifty arranged by his mother. This was a year before Rudyard's arrival in the city at the age of sixteen, to work as a journalist. It is listed in ORG as No 15.

Collected in:
  • The Outward Bound Edition vol xvii (1900)
  • Edition de Luxe vol xviii (1900)
  • The Sussex Edition vol xxxv (1939)
  • The Burwash Edition vol xxviii (1941)
  • Early Verse by Rudyard Kipling (1986) Ed. Rutherford, p. 54
  • Cambridge Edition (2013 Ed. Pinney) p. 1172.
The poem

An inscrutable little fragment, reflecting ironically on the vagaries of human behaviour, in the manner of Robert Browning.

Jan Montefiore writes:
I take the poem to be musing on the way that an unattractive or boring-looking appearance can belie extraordinary feelings and actions – as with this couple who don't look like much, yet seem to have committed some kind of a crime passionel . That discrepancy between banal exterior and passionate inner life is a theme which the mature Kipling would dramatize brilliantly in his short stories – think of "The Dog Hervey"; the passion between the gawky plain ‘witch' Moira Sichliffe and the drunkard Shend, both of them middle-aged. Or "Mary Postgate", the spinster who looks like a camel, manifesting her terrifying depths of hatred and passion. Or "The Craftsman" about Shakespeare getting the inspiration for Lady Macbeth in the sight of a girl drowning kittens, ‘sombrely scornful’ of the brother who shrank from it.

Kipling doesn’t of course do it anything like so well in this early poem. It’s full - too full - of Browning influence - in the interjection ‘’bah ! Are they ever linked with beauty?" - and "God knows how it happened !" - plus the style of allusion, which is partly what makes it so obscure. Also Browningesque is the fairly direct description of a woman’s physical appearance , though he makes her ‘weak-mouthed and chalky’ rather than sexy as Browning mostly did in lines like ’that female with the smallish breasts’. I think he’s being consciously world–weary here , in a very teenagerish way. An early instance of the ‘knowing’ Kipling.

That said, I am completely foxed by the last line – ‘we cut them’ ought to mean, we ignored them – but if the couple were convicted criminals they’d be beyond the pale anyway. Unless he means that even when we saw how we’d underestimated them, that despite their mean appearance they were actually tragic figures, we still dismissed them ? ‘We’ being Ordinary Folk Like You And Me - In other words, Conventional.

I do like "the white-mouse eye can sparkle as well as the eagle’s with rage". (Was he thinking of Browning;s ‘Lost Mistress’ - "For each glance of the eye so bright and black/ Though I keep with heart’s endeavour’?") The eagle is a touch corny, but the white-mouse eye is great.

The poem leaves so much out (another technique which Kipling would perfect later)—we don’t have a clue what it was the couple did that got them put on trial. However, there was the crime of criminal contempt in those days, for breaching a court's ruling ? If they are an adulterous couple in a divorce case, the poem makes more sense. So does the obscurity—that would be a very risqué subject in late Victorian poetry. [J.M.]
Background

After his unhappy years with a self-righteous and unsympathetic foster-mother at Southsea, Kipling was sent to United Services College at Westward Ho! in Devon at the age of twelve, in 1878. Because of his poor eyesight he was no good at rugby or cricket. The Head, Cormell Price, who was a friend of his father, gave him the run of his library, where he read voraciously, including a great deal of poetry (see Something of Myself p. 33. He goes on to describe his violent introduction to Robert Browning:
Tennyson and Aurora Leigh came in the way of nature to me in the holidays, and C—— in form once literally threw Men and Women at my head. Here I found ‘The Bishop orders his Tomb,’ ‘Love among the Ruins’ and ‘Fra Lippo Lippi,’ a not too remote—I dare to think—ancestor of mine.



©Jan Montefiore and John Radcliffe 2017 All rights reserved