BOOK REVIEW: ‘A Soldier’s Kipling: Poetry and the Profession of Arms’

86. a soldier's kipling

BOOK REVIEW

Reviewer: Michael Keith

Title:  A Soldier’s Kipling: Poetry and the Profession of Arms

Author: Edward J. Erickson

Total Number of Pages: 204

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent):

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When writing in this volume’s Preface, the author notes that the book ‘…Explores a selection of Rudyard Kipling’ military poetry relating to how the British Army waged its campaigns during what are called ‘Queen Victoria’s Little Wars’. He also notes that  ‘Kipling’s military poetry offers insights into the profession of arms’  and that his ‘…Intent for the reader is…to generate an appreciation for Rudyard Kipling’s military poetry and for the timeless themes about the nature of soldiering and the profession of arms contained in these verses’. In all these endeavours, the author has been successful.

As would be expected, the volume opens with a Contents section. This is three pages in length and within in it each poem is listed under the relevant Chapter. This provides a quick reference for a specific work and obviates the need to search the Index for a specific title. In a reversal of usual practice, a Dedication is placed immediately after the Contents section, and is itself followed by an Acknowledgements section. Within this, thanks are tendered for the organisations and individuals who contributed to the volume, and the reader is introduced to Kipling’s poetry through ‘When ‘Omer smote ‘is bloomin’ lyre…’ a selection appropriate for the location. A List of Maps follows, the title being self-explanatory, and this is, in turn followed by a List of Plates. This summarises the captions found under the 20 colour images appearing within a designated section at the centre of the volume. The existence of that section is not however mentioned on the Contents page. A Foreword appears next and is in turn followed by the previously-mentioned Preface. This summarises what is to follow, and, through the use of subsections, presents the author’s viewpoint concerning his subject and outlines the volume’s themes. It also offers the author’s thoughts as to how it should be read.  The Preface is followed by the eleven Chapters which comprise the main part of the volume. As previously noted, the volume follows a specific theme; summarised as the development of a soldier from a raw, untrained recruit (Chapter 1 Becoming Tommy Atkins – Learning to Soldier), to being a professional in his field. This is not however merely a recital of military service, and there is much, much more, all examined through the lens of Kipling’s poetry. The experiences of returning veterans are investigated, as is patriotism (both real and imagined) and, in Chapter 11 a non-military section titled Kipling for Fun. The title is self-explanatory and includes many of Kipling’s well-known, non-military verses. Within each Chapter, a designated Introduction sets the scene for what is to follow. Several poems relevant to the Chapter then appear. These are presented as subsections within the Chapter and are accompanied by relevant explanatory notes and interpretation of the verses from a military perspective. Where applicable, page-specific Footnotes are provided to clarify terminology or expand / interpret words appearing within a specific poem. Two Appendices follow Chapter 11. The titles (Britain’s Wars, Campaigns and Expeditions (and covering the period 1701-1939) and Brief Biography of Rudyard Kipling) are self-explanatory. A section titled Further Reading follows Appendix 2. This is bibliographical in nature and function and is in turn followed by the volume’s Index; its final section. The volume contains 10 Maps, and, as already noted, a 20-image colour section. Although well and informatively captioned, the images in the latter section are unsourced, and not referred-to within the Index.

When reviewing this volume, this reviewer found the Index problematical. While undertaking a random search in the course of his review, he found numerous examples where events he considered worthy of inclusion within the narrative were not to be found within the Index. To take page 79 as an example; references to The Jacobite Rebellion, Williamites and the Treaty of Limerick on that page do not appear within the Index. Equally, the Index-entry to the Charge of the Light Brigade contains no reference to the evocative image that is listed as Plate 3. It would also be reasonable for the Index to record the names of the various publications in which the poems first appeared (the English Illustrated Magazine on page 101 being but one example), or even the names of collections (The Seven Seas on the same page), yet these are also missing. Such absences serve to reduce the authority and reliability of the Index, and inevitably raise questions concerning what else may be missing. There is no way to know.

The matters referred-to above notwithstanding, this reviewer found this volume a delightful, well written, informative and (above all), memorable, volume, to the extent that it bids fair to become a Standard Reference Work on its subject. Such is the universality and appeal of Kipling’s work, this volume is likely to have a wide range of readers; from literary and military scholars and students, to members of the armed forces, to both military, political and ‘generalist’ historians and those interested in ‘Queen Victoria’s Little Wars’. Military modellers may also find the colour plates useful as research tools, while readers seeking merely to be entertained on a wet Sunday afternoon could do well to peruse its content, if only to laugh at the accents and marvel at the genius of the poetry and the way things were when ‘Britannia ruled the World’.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I have given this volume an 8¾.

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘A Soldier’s Kipling: Poetry and the Profession of Arms’

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