Rudyard Kipling and the Norman Conquest
By Deanne Williams
Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Vol.39, No. 3 (2008)
Introduction: In his introduction to A Choice of Kipling’s Verse, T. S. Eliot describes Rudyard Kipling’s positive attitude towards British imperialism:
He believed the British Empire to be a good thing […] he wished to set before his readers an idea of what it should be […] He believed that the British have a greater aptitude for ruling than other people, and that they include a greater number of kindly, incorruptible and un-self-seeking men capable of administration.
In his day, Kipling’s work won the Nobel Prize and earned him a place in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. Yet his support for imperialism makes him unpopular with readers today. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, for example, decries his regard for “the conquest of India […] as a historically appropriate event”. Kipling, however, was neither blind nor insensitive to the horrors of the British presence in India. George Orwell, who calls him a “jingo-imperialist”, and describes his work as “morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting,” nevertheless concedes “few people who have criticized England from the inside have said bitterer things about her than this gutter patriot”. For example, Kipling’s famous poem, “The White Man’s Burden”, coins the phrase that to this day codifies a colonial mentality. At the same time, however, his famous lines, “the blame of those ye better,/ the hate of those ye guard”, can be taken as an implicit critique of colonialism, as the poem articulates a cankered, cranky perspective on the now-proverbial “silent, sullen” natives, “halfdevil and half-child.” Representing the view of someone who would consider insurgency a form of ingratitude, and revealing this view unvarnished, in the manner of Robert Browning, Kipling leaves the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.
Kipling’s treatment of the Norman Conquest, a subject to which he returns throughout his career, reveals the hidden depths of anxiety and irony in his attitude to empire. The Norman Conquest provided England with a model of cultural imperialism.
Top Image: Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) – photo via Wikimedia Commons