- Kipling as Browning: From Parody to Translation
Thou wouldst be king? Still fix thine eyes on mine!Paracelsus II.343
Rudyard Kipling met Robert Browning, his elder by over fifty years, twice in his early life. The first encounter took place in the early 1870s at the Grange, the villa of Kipling’s aunt and uncle, Georgina and Edward Burne-Jones. The meeting was hardly memorable, since the small boy who held on to the bilingual voices of his lost Indian childhood had only begun to read. Kipling therefore highlighted the Grange’s sensory stimuli when, in his 1937 memoir, he recalled his four Decembers there. More precious even was the attention he received from a “society” that included his cousins as well as a host of playful adults: “There was an incessant come and go of young people and grown-ups all willing to play with us—except an elderly person called ‘Browning’ who took no proper interest in the skirmishes which happened to be raging on his entry.”1
Kipling’s second encounter, however, was more dramatic and far more productive. The memoir and Stalky & Co, his 1899 collection of semi-autobiographical school-boy stories, describe how he re-encountered Browning at the United Service College at Westward Ho when his irascible English and Classics master, William Carr Crofts, hurled a volume of Men and Women at the adolescent who had tried to impress classmates and teachers with his literary skills. Instantly besotted with Browning, the boy read, re-read, and memorized the poems of the man who had dodged the role of a playful “Deputy Uncle.” Kipling would, thereafter, recur to those poems again and again in his fifty-year career. From his early verses in the 1881 Schoolboy Lyrics to his last published short story, he would persistently invoke, imitate, refine, and redefine Browning’s ventriloquist art.
When, in an 1897 essay on “The Poet’s Function as Interpreter,” J. St. Loe Strachey proclaimed that the “power of interpretation” shown in Kipling’s “sea-poems” entitled their author to become the Empire’s next laureate, Kipling emphatically rejected his coronation. Remembering Browning’s repudiation of poet-kings in the 1876 “At the Mermaid,” Kipling insists [End Page 605] that he is not the interpreter Strachey makes him out to be. Far from being a jingoistic “rhymester,” he is a “story-teller” whose verses and prose, he notes, became less popular as soon as “people found out that I put two meanings into my work.” As a poet, Kipling adds, “I am only getting things ready for the real poet who will appear about the first quarter of the next century. He will appropriate everything he wants—perhaps six lines and half an idea—out of all that I and scores of others have done: he will add his own powers to it and then we shall have Browning’s successor – not Browning but another.”2
As I hope to show, Kipling’s adolescent immersion into Men and Women helped him acquire a distinct poetic and fictional authority. Browning’s assumption of multiple voices soon became a model for his own “othering” art of indirection, displacement, and self-concealment. Verbally difficult, erudite, allusive, and elusive, Browning’s adult constructs initially met the creative needs of a schoolboy-poet eager to shed his immaturity. But this model just as handily served the ambitious young journalist who adopted the authoritative voice of the colonizer in addressing the Anglo-Indian readers of his verses and prose and yet subversively introduced the counter-voices of the colonized and the dispossessed, the misunderstood native and the victimized child. Even after Kipling left India and journalism to capture wider audiences, the writer who had learned to juggle, juxtapose, and splice together multiple signifiers and voices in narratives of increasing complexity could not let Browning go. For, by adopting Browning-like powers, Kipling had embraced a model from which he also needed to deviate in order to assert the ideological and aesthetic differences that separated him from his predecessor.
The sections that follow place Kipling’s appropriations of Browning into three consecutive phases. The first considers the biographical connections that...