Having the Last Word: Ruminating on the Ephemeral Nature of Our Cultural Memory in the Centennial of the ‘Great War’

Why We Should Favour Kipling’s ‘The Last of the Light Brigade’.

Excepting the ‘Jungle Book’ and ‘Just So Stories’, I have never been much of a reader of the work of Rudyard Kipling. Three things occurred that lead me write a little on one of our most beloved poets, the first two reasons being far more knee jerk in their nature than the third, which has been something of a slow burner during these past few months.

I initially started to read ‘Kim’ in a bid to further stoke my excitement for my own travel plans. Last year as summer transitioned into autumn I walked a pilgrimage of my own through Northern Spain, and Kipling’s prose was an enchanting preparation of sorts.

Prior to reading ‘Kim’, I knew that my grandfather was a great proponent of some of Kipling’s more sillier sounding verse, but since his death I have often found myself regretting the fact that I failed to try and gain a deeper understanding of what drew him to the poet. It took my reading ‘Kim’ to encourage a further exploration of Kipling’s work. I am still exploring the world that he created — his world, but what follows is a judgement levelled upon his character and views. It is a response not to Kipling as such, but to how we have come to remember him and other poets in light of cultural shifts.

This year happens to be the Centenary of the First World War, and as a nation we seem consumed by the need to demonstrate to the world that weremember. It is a queer, fevered and frenzied sort of remembrance. Not overtly ill meaning, but the treatment of such harrowing misery and heinous evil is a tricky affair. Sensibilities are a curious thing — astonishingly frail. That we owe the dead a degree of reverence is beyond doubt, but are we truly duty bound to present history in such a way so as not to offend the observer?

The question of how to commemorate tastefully was no doubt discussed at great lengths before the events were planned, features commissioned and exhibits curated. As with all such things, it is a judgement call, and historically we have erred on the side of focusing upon the glory. This is a trend that seems to be finally reaching its end, but we need to continue to stress the simple suffering, on a personal level, which accompanied many of the acts of gallant, superhuman bravery that spring to mind when we think of WW1.

During the course of his life Kipling produced such a diverse range of poetry that he has been preserved to posterity as not one man, but many: as both jingoistic colonialist and lover of those native to the country of his birth, simultaneously a voice of the down trodden and a hater of the coarse working classes, and either a flag-waver and admirer of the British officer class or as a critic of Empire according to whom you ask. In any given piece his opinion is often difficult to divine, and as such it continues to divide opinion.

We tend to remember him today as a fairly softly spoken man who utilised the form of the fable to inform audiences without alienating them and as a purveyor of simple rhyming verse about simple soldiers but this could scarcely be further from the truth. It is true that his work is rarely without instruction, but the most scathing social commentaries he penned were too close to the bone for his Victorian audiences’ sensibilities. How we remember him as a poet speaks volumes about human nature; that truth, as with medicine, is best served with a spoon full of sugar. The same remains true today. We can shy away from drawing a complete moral conclusion from a man whose imperialistic and racist views underpin some, but not all of his writing.

‘If’ is not without merit although George Orwell famously remarked that it was “a good bad poem”; indeed it is arguably Kipling’s best known verse and has often been chosen as the British public’s favourite in recent years. The stoic values and “stiff upper lip” mentality that the poem espouses have become synonymous with the late Victorian age, or rather with the sententious way in which we have chosen to remember that particular epoch of our history.

As with many such works of celebrated literature there is a tendency to overlook the human element in favour of emphasising the glory. We are aware of the order in which the words are strung together but fail to give due consideration to the plurality of possible interpretations. However there is more criticism infused within the stanzas of ‘If’ than people are wont to give Kipling credit for. It would be more justifiable to have failed to try and understand Kipling’s most famous poems more deeply. To read and fail to consider is one thing, but today we are largely unaware of his more overtly scathing works of social commentary.

A number of his more biting poems have fallen out of favour with the nation over time and hold no real foothold in our cultural memory today. In no instance is this more apparent than in the case of ‘The Last of the Light Brigade’, the fame of which pales in comparison to Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. A rumination on the fate of those few who survived and were made invalids by consequence of a superior’s “blunder”, Kipling gives no quarter in this particular poem. Tennyson has had the last word on the subject however, as our forebears considered his spin on the events more palatable.

It was the fate of many ex-soldiers to eke out a pitiful existence as vagrants in Victorian England, something that we would do well to remember, but makes for despicable reading. In surviving they were robbed of the exulted status of belonging to the rank and file of the glorious dead. Unfortunately the poem is imbued with a prophetic awareness for our tendency to forget all of that which is distasteful, given that the plight of veterans is something that we still try and feign ignorance to today. Sadly it can easily be argued that the lack of artifice in ‘The Last of the Light Brigade’ compared to in ‘If’ is the judgement call that rendered it less valuable as art.

‘The Last of the Light Brigade’ is no perfumed allegory; there is no need to glean the moral of the story because the poets’ intentions are self-edifying, but apparently less captivating for being thus. To what extent it was meant as an overt protest can never be fully deduced, much as we can’t measure to what degree Kipling’s sillier verse was meant to be interpreted as ironical. I feel certain that it was offered as an antidote to the disingenuous pursuit ofthoughtless heroism that we are guilty of sometimes however, and which ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ has come to embody. Mawkish sentimentality has much more currency in a world where we ourselves suffer little and infrequently.

Kipling’s ‘The Last of the Light Brigade’ provided a perspective that needed to be voiced, in such a fashion that no echelon of society could misunderstand its meaning and in that sense it was both timeless and remarkably modern. We are currently in the midst of a self-pronounced era of media realism, whereby we are exposed to violence daily on the news. Our appetite for the depiction of so-called realistic suffering has greatly increased. Perhaps we should dust off ‘The Last of the Light Brigade’, reevaluate it and give it a resurgence.

Realism is something that we have become better equipped to deliver to a mass audience in an age of visual (and special) effects. The spate of recent, so-called ‘gritty’ dramas proposing to show what life was like during the major conflicts of the last century make a welcome change but the balance between aggrandising violence and paying tribute to the suffering of the individuals who took part in said wars is precarious at best, and as such it needs constant readdressing. To this day the way we handle the horrors of war on screen often errs on the side of caution for the sake of good taste,because to show the true nature of the beast would be repugnant to all but the most hardened audience member. There is an unspoken fear that should we tread too far the other way we risk fetishising suffering in order to assuage our sense of guilt and shame. Is it a grey area morally, or is to call it grey merely an excuse?

That isn’t to say that I think characteristics such as heroism or stoicism are in any way negative but we greatly devalue the loss of individual life by celebrating carnage so opaquely, and reduce the agency of a suffering person by championing stoicism in the face of all adversity. To feel that one is being measured and found wanting by contrast to models of stoic behaviour in our cultural heritage can be an effective tool in fortifying every day resolve in times of crisis, but it also has the power to be an incredibly isolating and destructive force.

The fear of inadequacy because one doesn’t measure up, or might not measure up in the grander scheme of human actions can be mitigated by a more human approach that showcases the composite flaws and strengths that are bedrock of human character. There are nuances to life that these approaches (heroism and stoicism) fail to allow for at best, and at worst actively contrive to conceal. However, sometimes seeing and coming to terms with the possibility for abject failure and misery does us the world of good.

‘If’ is a trickier subject by a country mile. Although it tells the reader, “And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise”, there is not quite enough shade for my liking. I find it much more difficult to formulate an opinion of it, least of all articulate it to an audience. My understanding of it is constantly in flux; at times I think it is much more than mere guidance elicited from the experiences of one man and given to his son, but upon my next reading I despair of putting my finger on why it seems so. It is a poem that advocates a balanced approach to life but promises as a reward the one thing that we are all already in possession of: to be a (hu)man.

It speaks of characteristics that we value in men in so much that those who are in possession of such traits tend to enter into the history books. Conversely what we remember of these men is not their humanity but a series of tropes, actions and quotes that can never be all that we understand by what it means to be human. Experience and the fancies of fortune can shape a man’s character but he can only rely on his character in conjunction with his actions to confer him to his fellow men for as long as he lives.

Sometimes he can’t even rely on this much whilst he yet lives because life is a complicated series of actions and counter-actions, interpretations and reactions. We are only agents of our own internal destiny; a good man may achieve many acts, some of which are great and a great many of which may be less so but the tally is weighted unfairly. A man may still be betrayed at the last by some cruel trick of fate. Such is the case with the politician who purportedly inspired Kipling to write this most famous of poems.

Leander Starr Jameson’s was involved in a failed raid during the Boer war, conducted without proper permission and which had a grievous outcome. It evoked tremendous fervour in England and divided public opinion. Lionised by the press at home, Jameson was trialled and imprisoned. Although later exonerated, he met with the criticism levelled at him with fortitude in every recorded instance.

His acknowledgement that he blundered provides us with a stark contrast to the fact that no identifiable man is held accountable within Tennyson’s familiar ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, and makes him easy to forgive by the standards of a modern audience. However this admission should not detract from the fact that he acted with an impetuousness that lead to loss of life. We must ask ourselves whether retrospective repentance should affect how we perceive the original action; it is the mark of a better man who can admit his mistakes rather than try to conceal them, but the wrongdoing does not become any less wrong for admitting it.

That we can forgive him posthumously is no great salve for the real life suffering that Jameson must have faced however. We would do well to keep in mind when reading ‘If’ that Jameson’s resolve was probably of little comfort to him at the time but that he still found the courage to weather the storm. Promise of glory might have been enough to persuade soldiers to fight initially — a jolly good goad — but I can’t imagine that all those who fought and died in the conflicts of the last century felt that glory was recompense enough at the last. In a still darker turn, Kipling’s own son was to die in the First World War, the site of his grave remaining in question until this month. Neither Jameson nor Kipling’s son have really made it into the consciousness of the general public today, and although we remember Kipling’s poetry, is it fair to say we forget to ask ourselves strenuously what he meant by it?

We remember the effects of the blunder of a man who never admitted his error but forget the erring, human figure who Kipling cited as the inspiration for ‘If’. I can only conclude that we must do more to ruminate on the importance of coming to terms with yourself as a fallible man, as opposed to trying to become a glorious memory. I think we are all a little too motivated by how others will perceive our actions in the far off future, almost as though whether people will look kindly on our characters when we are no longer here is going to be of some consequence or comfort to us. Sadly it is a gamble to think so, and the annals of history are fickle.

We remember too well the charge, idolise the stalwart resolve too readily, but conversely we are too quick to forget that suffering often transcends the present tense, if indeed we remember that it is felt at all.

There were thirty million English who talked of England’s might, 
There were twenty broken troopers who lacked a bed for the night. 
They had neither food nor money, they had neither service nor trade; 
They were only shiftless soldiers, the last of the Light Brigade.
They felt that life was fleeting; they knew not that art was long, 
That though they were dying of famine, they lived in deathless song. 
They asked for a little money to keep the wolf from the door; 
And the thirty million English sent twenty pounds and four !
They laid their heads together that were scarred and lined and grey; 
Keen were the Russian sabres, but want was keener than they; 
And an old Troop-Sergeant muttered, “Let us go to the man who writes 
The things on Balaclava the kiddies at school recites.”
They went without bands or colours, a regiment ten-file strong, 
To look for the Master-singer who had crowned them all in his song; 
And, waiting his servant’s order, by the garden gate they stayed, 
A desolate little cluster, the last of the Light Brigade.
They strove to stand to attention, to straighen the toil-bowed back; 
They drilled on an empty stomach, the loose-knit files fell slack; 
With stooping of weary shoulders, in garments tattered and frayed, 
They shambled into his presence, the last of the Light Brigade.
The old Troop-Sergeant was spokesman, and “Beggin’ your pardon,” he said, 
“You wrote o’ the Light Brigade, sir. Here’s all that isn’t dead. 
An’ it’s all come true what you wrote, sir, regardin’ the mouth of hell; 
For we’re all of us nigh to the workhouse, an’ we thought we’d call an’ tell.
“No, thank you, we don’t want food, sir; but couldn’t you take an’ write 
A sort of ‘to be continued’ and ‘see next page’ o’ the fight? 
We think that someone has blundered, an’ couldn’t you tell ’em how? 
You wrote we were heroes once, sir. Please, write we are starving now.”
The poor little army departed, limping and lean and forlorn. 
And the heart of the Master-singer grew hot with “the scorn of scorn.” 
And he wrote for them wonderful verses that swept the land like flame, 
Till the fatted souls of the English were scourged with the thing called Shame.
They sent a cheque to the felon that sprang from an Irish bog;
They healed the spavined cab-horse; they housed the homeless dog;
And they sent (you may call me a liar), when felon and beast were paid,
A cheque, for enough to live on, to the last of the Light Brigade.
O thirty million English that babble of England’s might, 
Behold there are twenty heroes who lack their food to-night; 
Our children’s children are lisping to “honour the charge they made — “ 
And we leave to the streets and the workhouse the charge of the Light Brigade!
The Last of the Light Brigade, Rudyard Kipling
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