Thursday 28 May 2009
Recessional is a fine poem, a hymn to the noon-day of British Imperialism, but far from being a jingoistic clarion; it shows a deep sense of unease.
A lot of the introspection can be explained by contemporary events. France was, once again, proving troublesome, as the Fashoda Incident was to demonstrate, and Germany and Italy, Europe's adolescent nations, were disturbing the old imperial calm. More than that, the British manufacturing, the very thing upon which the Empire was built, was facing ever fiercer competition from both Germany and the United States. The problem here was that much of the traditional industrial base was increasingly obsolete, with a marked failure to modernise and reinvest. Only 'invisible' exports served to carry the economy into surplus.
Going beyond the area of economics there were any number of challenges to the old order. Trade unions were growing in strength and militancy; women were beginning to question political orthodoxy; and Irish nationalism was a problem that simply refused to go away. Kipling's poem, which was widely popular, might be said to have spoken to all of these anxieties, particularly over the possible decline of British Naval power; that the bonfires of celebration might well be temporary and over-optimistic-On dune and headland sinks the fire. It's as if a Roman poet were writing at the time of Marcus Aurelius, warning what lay just over the horizon;
If, drunk with sight of power,
We loose wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Of lesser breeds without the Law-
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Least we forget-lest we forget!
Kipling's sense of foreboding was also expressed in a letter to his cousin;
Seeing what manner of armed barbarians we are surrounded with, we're about the only power with a glimmer of civilization in us...This is no ideal world but a nest of burglars, alas; and we must protect ourselves against being burgled. All the same, we have no need to shout and yell and ramp about strength because that is a waste of power, and because other nations can do the advertising better than we can. The big smash is coming one of these days, sure enough, but I think we shall pull through, not without credit.
We did pull through, not without credit, as Kipling predicted, but only in such a way that all the pomp of yesterday would indeed be one with Nineveh and Tyre.