by Julian Moore
the men who edged their agonies and chid them in their painand:
the idle-minded overlings who quibbled while they died.He also voices the concerns of the general public who resented the fact that those responsible for so much death were officially absolved from guilt, and even encouraged to further their military and political careers. Kipling debates the pragmatic morality of official nepotism:
Shall they thrust for high employment as of old?and notes:
How softly but how swiftly they have sidled back to powerand asks:
By the favour and contrivance of their kind
Do they call upon their debtors, and take counsel with their friends,He ends by abjuring 'The shame that they have laid upon our race' in a critical fury that is reminiscent of the hate embodied in, for instance, "Gehazi" and "The Death Bed".
To confirm and re-establish each career?
'in the hunt for legitimate victims the Press has in many cases been hurried into illegitimate extremes. The demand for punishment has almost degenerated into the witch hunting of barbaric times. The British public is, as a rule, anxious to be fair, but I sometimes think that the fury with which the the British public condemns is equalled only by the rapidity with which it forgets.'Kipling agreed, asking: Shall we only threaten and be angry for an hour? Kipling was continuing his tradition of publishing his political rhetoric in verse to stir his readers to action, a practice that Eliot later noted: 'For Kipling the poem is something that is intended to act'. [T.S.Eliot, 'Introduction' in A Choice of Kipling's Verse, Faber, London, 1941, p. 18.] Eliot makes much of the 'active intention' of Kipling's verse, without commenting on the actions that the verse may have been intended to elicit.
[Viscount Haldane, House of Lords debate, 13.1.17]
'little desire to help and some desire actually to obstruct the energetic prosecution of the war.' [RMCE, op. cit., p 123]The obstructions were to be found in the dual system of running a war jointly from London and Simla, a system that the commission found to be hopelessly inadequate, especially where the question of supplies was concerned. A telegram from the Indian to the British Government sums up the situation:
'do you intend that we should manage this expedition or do you mean to run it direct from the India Office?'The fact that there was never a clear answer given to this question was, as Keogh points out, 'clear evidence of bureaucracy gone mad' [E.G.Keogh, op. cit., p. 133]
[Telegram from Govt of India to the British Government, cited in F.J.Moberley, The Campaign in Mesopotamia, London, HMSO, 1923, p. 92]
They shall not return to us, the strong men coldly slainIt was Hardinge and Duff who were the 'idle-minded overlings who quibbled while they died' and it was Hardinge who had, in the opinion of the Morning Post, 'failed not merely as a viceroy but as a man' [Morning Post, 11.7.17] Ironically, Hardinge had been made Permanent Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs when he finished his term as Viceroy in 1916. As a result of the findings of the Commission, he offered to resign three times but his resignations were refused because he was deemed too valuable as an experienced diplomat. Hardinge, whose defence of his actions was seen by the conservative press as being, 'half a whine and half an attempt to shift the blame' had just been made a Knight of the Garter in spite of the gathering protest about his competence.
In sight of help denied from day to day:
But the men who edged their agonies and chid them in their pain,
Are they too strong and wise to put away?
How softly but how swiftly they have sidled back to powerAlthough thundering that 'the politicians should not escape' but inferring from the Commission's terms of reference that 'the intention is...to sacrifice the soldier and shield the politician', the Morning Post [13.7.17] was quick to pour scorn on the Coalition government's motives. One of its more influential readers wrote to the editor about the enquiry:
By the favour and contrivance of their kind?
'...it exhibits the most degrading of spectacles - an official bureaucracy, whether aristocratic or democratic, acting as a kind of Trade Union in its worst aspect to defeat the ends of justice and the responsibility of public servants to the public'Most of the press agreed, and Kipling was savage in his indictment of those involved and the government that was allowing them to get away with their crimes:
[Lord Portsmouth, correspondence to the Morning Post, 12.7.17]
Even while they soothe us, while they promise large amends,The answer to Kipling's rhetorical question was predictable. Nixon had been exonerated, Hardinge had been promoted, Secretary of State for India. Chamberlain resigned but was back in power within six months, Duff had been allowed to vanish into the impenetrable fens of the Civil Service, and the whitewash that so appalled Kipling was complete.
Even while they make a show of fear,
Do they call upon their debtors, and take counsel with their friends,
To confirm and re-establish each career?
'although it is powerful public rhetoric, throughout it can only repeat the same circle of negative emotions and, in the end, it becomes the victim of its own corrosive bitterness and frustration' [A.Parry, op. cit., p.131] and while its negativity is hard to deny, it is difficult to see how any text can be affected by its own content in the way that Parry suggests. Political criticism of the kind that Kipling indulged in is usually intended as a spur for action, whether the action be public involvement or political response.
With "Mesopotamia", Kipling is voicing open public protest, and voicing it in the loudest and most powerful way that he can. Hungiville does not agree, commenting that: "Mesopotamia" transcends protest and becomes almost a pacifist poem' . [M. Hungiville, 'Epithets and epitaphs: RK's reputation as a poet' in R.Green (ed) Critical essays on Rudyard Kipling, London, Routledge and Paul, 1971, p. 70] This is a challenging position to take on a text that openly attacks the administration of an event, personally vilifies those responsible for it, and is vehemently dismissive of the system that engendered it.
It is likely that Kipling himself would have regarded Hungiville's opinion as an accusation of treason. Pacificism is not writ large in the Kipling canon.
For the modern reader, the verses have a power that transcends their specific political origin. They embody all the frustrated outbursts of a civilian public watching a generation of soldiers die at the behest of incompetent generals, and at the insidious command of self-interested politicians. This is Kipling at his most stentorian. The imperial trumpeter had become the public herald.
ŠJulian Moore 2006 All rights reserved