Friday, 21 January 2011

How far is St. Helena ..

Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936).

- English poet, short-story writer, novelist and British imperialist,

- he was born in Bombay, and was brought to England at the age of 5.

- named after Rudyard Lake in Staffordshire, a popular holiday location in Victorian times, which Kipling's parents visited in 1863.

- awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1909, turned down a Knighthood, but accepted an Honorary Doctor of Letters from the Sorbonne.

- married Carrie Balestier, an American of French Huguenot descent.

The Kiplings experienced much personal sadness, losing their eldest daughter in 1899, and their only son who was killed in France in 1915.

They never really stopped mourning their lost children, a situation which their only surviving child, Elsie Kipling Bambidge (1896-1976), found very difficult.

Like his near contemporary and fellow imperialist, Winston Churchill, Kipling was a life long francophile. He visited France many times, and was well known and respected there. In 1905 following the entente cordiale he gave his thoughts to M. Huet on relations between the two nations.
our two nations have had so much friction all these centuries that their angles have been rounded off. The two countries have grown side by side like two trees. Their mutual inclination is towards the light, and what gives me faith in the efficacy of the entente is that it in no way depends upon Governments. It has sprung among the people themselves. At least that is how it is in England. (1)

St Helena Lullaby

In 1910 Kipling published his poem about Napoleon and St Helena: St. Helena Lullaby. I have reproduced a number of rather poor poems about the island in the course of writing this blog. This poem is of a rather higher standard!
'How far is St. Helena from a little child at play?'

What makes you want to wander there with all the world between?

Oh, Mother, call your son again or else he'll run away.

(_No one thinks of winter when the grass is green!_)

'How far is St. Helena from a fight in Paris street?
I haven't time to answer now--the men are falling fast.

The guns begin to thunder, and the drums begin to beat.

(_If you take the first step you will take the last!_)

'How far is St. Helena from the field of Austerlitz?
You couldn't hear me if I told--so loud the cannons roar.

But not so far for people who are living by their wits.

(_'Gay go up' means 'Gay go down' the wide world o'er!_)

'How far is St. Helena from an Emperor of France?
I cannot see--I cannot tell--the crowns they dazzle so.

The Kings sit down to dinner, and the Queens stand up to dance.

(_After open weather you may look for snow!_)

'How far is St. Helena from the Capes of Trafalgar?
A longish way--a longish way--with ten year more to run.

It's South across the water underneath a setting star.

(_What you cannot finish you must leave undone!_)

'How far is St. Helena from the Beresina ice?
An ill way--a chill way--the ice begins to crack.

But not so far for gentlemen who never took advice.

(_When you can't go forward you must e'en come back!_)

'How far is St. Helena from the field of Waterloo?
A near way--a clear way--the ship will take you soon.

A pleasant place for gentlemen with little left to do,

(_Morning never tries you till the afternoon!_)

'How far from St. Helena to the Gate of Heaven's Grace?
That no one knows--that no one knows--and no one ever will.

But fold your hands across your heart and cover up your face,

And after all your trapesings, child, lie still!



In 1910, 1911 and 1914 Kipling stayed in Vernet les Bains, and in 1913 wrote a poem "France" as a public celebration of the French President's visit to London.
Broke to every known mischance, lifted over all
By the light sane joy of life, the buckler of the Gaul,
Furious in luxury, merciless in toil,
Terrible with strength that draws from her tireless soil;
Strictest judge of her own worth, gentlest of man's mind,
First to follow Truth and last to leave old Truths behind-
France beloved of every soul that loves its fellow-kind!

These lines may be heard in the only existing recording made by Kipling himself.

For a time Kipling went out of vogue. Now the balance seems to be swinging back, and people seem better able to appreciate the complex talent that was partially obscured by his too public association with imperialism.
1. Interview with M Huret, quoted in New York Times, Sept 29th 1905
2. Like Churchill, Kipling never visited St. Helena. His first trip from India was after the opening of the Suez Canal, otherwise he almost certainly would have stopped there.

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