Burns And Kipling

It has occurred to me on a number of occasions that Robert Burns and Rudyard Kipling share a good deal in common although one is seen as the essence of Scottish-ness and the other of British-ness (almost defined as English-ness). I suspect there is a thesis or dissertation in this for some poor lost soul in graduate school looking around desperately for something to write about to complete their requirements for a degree. If this appeals to you as a topic, feel free to go off and examine the works involved.

Robert Burns (25 January 1759 – 21 July 1796) is widely consider to be Scotland’s national poet, and with good reason. The sheer quantity of his work is impressive even if the quality were weak, which it certainly isn’t. If you have any doubts about his work or the impact he has had on Scots at home and abroad, one need only visit the official web site for the Bard of Ayrshire. Here you will find almost everything you need to know about the man and his writings from the works themselves through the information you need to have to host a proper Burns night.

Burns’ works include poems, songs and short stories. He is probably best remembered by the world for Auld Lang Syne, but his enormous body of work includes many famous pieces and oft quoted lines.

Rudyard Kipling (30 Dec. 1865 – 18 January 1936) - whose birth and death dates are on either side of our January issue - on the other hand is often seen as being almost as English as Burns is Scottish. Like Burns he too produced a variety of types of writing – poems novels and so on. Like Burns his works are famous world wide. Kipling was regarded as “The People’s Laureate”.

Kipling’s works include such famous stories as Kim, The Jungle Books, and perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Captains Courageous – set in Gloucester Massachusetts (Kipling lived in Brattleboro, Vermont in the 1890’s) – The Man Who Would be King along with the well-known poem “If”. There is much information on Kipling to be found at the web site called The Kipling File.

One thing which links these two rather different poets together who lived about a century apart is their use of dialect and their focus on things which are about common people and topics not often the focus of poetic thought. Burns’ poems often deal with the lives of everyday people impacted by rather mundane things in which Burns sees much more. “To a Louse” with its famous line

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!

His critical insight about the world in general by looking at something quite insignificant in effect and raising it to a poetic level

Kipling also often focused on the lives of soldiers and other people of the “lower” classes and raised what might be seen as raw emotions into the realm of poetry. Here is a quote from “Mandalay”

'Er petticoat was yaller an' 'er little cap was green,
An' 'er name was Supi-yaw-lat - jes' the same as Theebaw's Queen,
An' I seed her first a-smokin' of a whackin' white cheroot,
An' a-wastin' Christian kisses on an 'eathen idol's foot:
Bloomin' idol made o' mud
Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd
Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed 'er where she stud!
On the road to Mandalay...

While there is little doubt which author wrote the paragraph, there is something about the use of dialect and the force of the emotion of a kind of “unsophisticated” person that implies an understanding of “the common folk” whether they be Scottish farmers or British soldiers that these to see as something to be made into poetry.

While Kipling’s reputation has changed over the years and he has been called The “Prophet of British Imperialism” (by George Orwell) and the most complete man of genius (as distinct from fine intelligence) that I have ever known (Henry James)

Burns has been regarded as more innovative and is seen even as one of the founders of the Romantic Movement. But with all that, he is still much a poet of the people in general. Love affairs and love poems are common in Burns’ works (as, Lord knows, they were in his own life). But the focus is not on kings and queens, but the average person.

Burn’s “Scots, Wha Hae” has been regarded by many as the unofficial national anthem of Scotland and its force of focusing on the common soldier and willingness of the common person to endure horrors for freedom is clear
Scots, wha hae wi' Wallace bled,
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led;
Welcome to your gory bed,
         Or to victory!

This is not Shakespeare’s King Macbeth saying
“I am in blood
Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er.”

Both writers, Burns and Kipling come from different eras, different backgrounds, different ages and yet both seem to be similar in a number of ways as if both had seen something about the nature of the world as it impacts the common person and how that person can be (and perhaps should be) described and discussed in poetry – a form often seen as apart from that class. This seems not to be the “glorification of the common man” but rather the humanization and aestheticization (if there is such a word) of those people which seems to link the two remarkably different writers together.