Kipling’s precious gift to humanity

By R.S. Karunaratne | Published: 12:10 AM Jun 11 2021

By R.S. Karunaratne

Rudyard Kipling, the celebrated British author and Nobel Prize winner for Literature, one day received a brown-paper package simply addressed to him as “Monsieur Kipling.” He was very anxious to know what it contained. When he opened it carefully, he found a red box containing a copy of the French translation of his novel “Kim.” He was excited to read the French translation. However, when he opened the book he found a bullet hole that stopped at the last 20 pages. The sender of the package had tied the book by putting a string through the hole. Kipling also found the Maltese cross of the Croix de Guerre, France’s medal for bravery in war.

The red box and the medal for bravery puzzled him. When he found a scribbled note stuck in the package everything became crystal clear. The package had been sent to him by a young French soldier, Maurice Hamonneau. The note said his life had been saved from a fatal bullet as he carried the book in his pocket when he went into battle. He had sent the book as a token of gratitude. Kipling thought that it was the highest honour he had ever received.

Kipling was married to Carrie, an American woman. They had two daughters – Josephine and Elsie. When Carrie gave birth to a boy weighing four kilograms Kipling was overjoyed. The young bundle of joy was named “John.” Even as a child John never complained of anything. Sometimes extreme happiness is followed by extreme sadness. On a trip to the United States, Rudyard and his six-year-old daughter Josephine became ill with pneumonia. Although there were no antibiotics at the time, Kipling managed to save his life. However, his daughter Josephine died giving much pain to him. He did not want even to look at her photographs or hear her name. He made up his mind to look after his three-year-old Elsie and 19-month-old John.

Holiday in Cape Town 

Kipling loved them so much that he took them on picnics and played with them whenever possible. The whole family spent a holiday in Cape Town, South Africa. He became very close to his children and even narrated stories and answered their questions most willingly.

As a child, Kipling himself underwent severe suffering. Although he was born in India in 1865, he and his younger sister were sent to England to attend school. The boarding mistress ill-treated Kipling and sometimes locked him up in a cold, damp cellar. Despite such harsh treatment, Kipling remained calm and cheerful. Later he wrote, “The experience drained me of any capacity for real, personal hate for the rest of my days.”

After returning to India, Kipling became a newspaper reporter and wrote fiction in his spare time. His stories highlighted human courage, sacrifice and discipline. However, editors did not treat him kindly. They said he would die before the age of 30! Kipling ignored such harsh criticism and wrote regularly. When his books and stories became popular, even editors realized that Kipling was a potential writer.

Code of conduct 

Kipling was happy to see his son growing tall and happy. He loved to see him as a rugby player. Although he was not a great athlete, John accepted responsibility for his actions. Kipling wanted to encourage him to stick to his conduct. Then he wrote the famous poem “If” and published it along with some children’s stories. Although the poem did not receive rave reviews from literary critics, it soon became a classic in English literature. Up to now the poem has been translated into 27 languages. In our school we had to memorize the poem. Its inspirational code of conduct has appealed to millions of people.

When the war broke out in Europe, John wanted to join the army. However, his application was rejected because of his poor eyesight. Thereafter Kipling managed to get him commissioned as a second lieutenant with the Irish Guards. As he was only 17, Kipling gave his consent for him to go to the front. Six weeks later, a messenger arrived at the Kipling estate carrying a telegram from the War Office. It said John was missing in action.

Kipling was overwhelmed by a feeling of hopelessness for he had sacrificed his greatest gift. On a journey to France, Kipling visited the French soldier who had sent him a strange gift. The soldier invited Kipling to be his son’s godfather. He readily accepted the invitation. “My son’s name was John. So yours must be Jean,” Kipling said. Kipling’s godson bore the French version of his own son’s name. He felt a sense of delight.

Centre Court Wimbledon 

Kipling is remembered today because of his poem “If.” Many literary critics consider it as one of the most inspirational poems ever written. Several lines of the poem are hanging in the player’s entrance at the Centre Court Wimbledon in England. The lines that are displayed read, “If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same.” The poem written in 1895 was first published in “Rewards and Fairies” in 1910. It was a tribute to Leander Starr Jameson. The poem was written in the form of paternal advice to his son John. It basically tells us the conditions that we should meet to succeed in life. The whole poem was written in a single complex sentence. Subordinate clauses begin with “if” and the main clause concludes the entire theme. After discussing all the requirements to reach your goal, the poet speaks of the achievement at the end. The poem emphasizes on the preconditions to get the rewards. For instance, we should have the faith in overselves even when others doubt us.

According to literary critics, stoicism looms large in Kipling’s poem. While you cannot always prevent bad things from happening to you, you can deal with them in a good way. In other words, be magnanimous in victory and success and be dignified and noble in defeat or in times of trouble.

The iconic poem is expressed plainly enough so that an analysis may not be necessary. As a result, the poem has appealed even to those not in the business of literary criticism or analysis. It is almost a code to live by. A leading British poet has said that “If” is a distillation of “Bhagavad Gita” into English.

The first stanza of the poem teaches us the value of self-control. It tells us to keep calm when everyone has lost control. Even when someone criticizes you, do not get upset. The second stanza tells us not to run away from the truth if it does not please your sense. The third stanza talks about perseverance. Be prepared to do something again without a murmur. In short, the whole poem is a moral guide. In the end, Kipling addresses the reader as “My son.” He may be specifically referring to his own son John or the general reader. This is one of the best poems that should be framed and hung on the wall so that you will always be guided by its life lessons.

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By R.S. Karunaratne | Published: 12:10 AM Jun 11 2021

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