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■\ 114 SILENCE AND SURVIVAL IN RUDYARD KIPLING'S ART AND LIFE By Elliot L. Gilbert (University of California, Davis) "I have noticed in my long life that those who eternally break in on Those Above with complaints and reports and bellowings and weepings are presently sent for in haste, as our colonel used to send for slack-jawed, down-country men who talked too much." -Kim, Chapter IJJ I In the fall of 1915, just six weeks after his eighteenth birthday, Rudyard and Caroline Kipling's only son John was reported missing in action in the Battle of Loos. The young man seems to have been killed almost instantly, but his parents had to endure two years of official silence about his fate before they could definitively establish that John was dead. And it was not until six years later still that the father was able to bring himself to break his own silence about the event and allude directly and publicly to the loss of his son. That allusion appears in his two-volume history, The Irish Guards in the Great War, the dutiful record he compiled of the military unit with which John had fought and died. At that, the reference is extraordinarily reticent. Indeed, the single mention of John in the book surely constitutes one of the strangest memorials ever composed by a father for a beloved child. "Of the officers," Kipling reports the casualties at Loos, the Guard's first experience under fire, 2nd Lieutenant Pakenham-Law had died of wounds; 2nd Lieutenants Clifford and Kipling were missing, Captain and Adjutant the Hon. T. E. Vesey, Captain Wynter, Lieutenant Stevens, and 2nd Lieutenants Sassoon and Grayson were wounded, the last being blown up by a shell. It was a fair average for the day of a debut, and taught them somewhat for their future guidance. Elsie, the Kipling's only surviving child, was troubled by such reticence, by her parents's~and particularly her father's—tendency to leave strong feelings unexpressed. "The two great sorrows of their lives,' she writes in her memoir, referring to the deaths of her sister Josephine and her brother John, "my parents bore bravely and silently, perhaps too silently for their own good' (Carrington, p. 595). And Kipling, like Carlyle, another advocate of silence, appears to have paid the price for his extraordinary suppression of feeling with the gastro-intestinal disorders that tormented him during the last two decades of his life. It is possible, of course, to dismiss Kipling's silence about his deepest paternal feelings as just one more example of proverbial English taciturnity and self-control. (Kipling himself makes the pathos of such self-control115 specifically, of a mother's denial of her son—the theme of his W.W. I story, "The Gardener"). But the British had long had alternate models of emotional— and, in particular, parental—behavior available to them. In no less popular a work than A Christmas Carol, for example, Dickens, writing about Tiny Tim's death, approvingly describes Bob Cratchit's strong emotional response. "He broke down all at once," Dickens says of Bob's grieving for his son, "he couldn't help it. If he could have helped it, he and his child would have been farther apart perhaps than they were." One might argue that the very appearance of this scene in the story shows that Dickens felt it to be needed as a corrective to congenital English reticence, and that the passage thus confirms the existence of that reticence as a national characteristic. But even granting the fact of such a characteristic, Kipling's suppression of parental feeling, both in the passage from The Irish Guards ana in private life, continues to strike us as excessive, a curiously exaggerated—not to say pathological—emotional anesthesia in which unhealthy silence substitutes for a therapeutic expression of grief. What makes this silence so notable is, of course, the fact that Kipling was a writer, a man who believed that words are—as he put it himself—"afive and walk up and down." Indeed, as David Stewart has persuasively argued, Kipling was, both in his life and in his work, unusually attentive...


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pp. 115-126
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