Chesterton on Kipling

My love of Rudyard Kipling is irrational and unreachable. This is because it began in early childhood: and after Pookie books (deeper still), I learned to read on a trajectory that ran from the Just So Stories, through Kim. That I was, for a period, a child in Lahore, came into this: with remnants of the Raj all around me.

Whether my childish mind came hard-wired for Kim (and Pookie); or Kim (and Pookie) wired it, is a question for the philosophers. The connection is at a depth where the separation of self from the external has yet to be completed. One’s “critical faculties” will never penetrate that low. They must be content with pictures from memory, for the thing itself can no longer be touched.

My love for G.K. Chesterton is adult and acquired. I can recall being instructed to read him by good-hearted and good-humored souls, decades before I began to obey them. My first readings involved horror.

This was not Chesterton’s fault, or rather, it was. In the highest sense I recognize, he was a “hack journalist.” Delete the qualifier, then add “just like me.” Everything from his range of interests, to his paradoxical turn of mind, to the fish-and-water proselytizing impulse, was uncannily familiar. That he did everything better than I ever could, was the source of my horror.

A character like that can threaten one’s livelihood. He can undermine one’s self-esteem. Moreover, as an Anglican (then), trying to remain so in the way one tries to hold a family together, he (and a certain Cardinal Newman) needed to be strictly avoided. They knew too much about me, already; but worse than that, about God.

The bumptious quality in Chesterton fortunately repelled me, at the start. That was all his, and I gather it has repelled some other readers. It is easily mistaken for self-satisfaction by those who are smug. The man seems too confident in his judgments. He has an answer to every question, including questions we have not asked. That can be irritating in itself, but how much more when the answers appear to be right.

For all these reasons I am still new to Chesterton, a companion of my last decade, since all was lost and I swam the Tiber. I have now just more than a dozen of his books on my shelves, and have read those and a couple besides, but have yet to peruse Father Brown and much else. Indeed, one of the problems of starting late is that, even though pausing for beer and bacon, Chesterton wrote faster than most people read.

That is how I came, only this week, to discover that Chesterton had (of course) written on Rudyard Kipling. By now I’m not surprised that he nails him. Or that the nails pass also through me: crucified with the thieves.

At the heart of it is a typically Chestertonian reversal of an old saw about Kipling, provided by Kipling himself: “What should they know of England, who only England know?”

         Kiplings, father and son: J. Lockwood and Rudyard

Kipling stands politely convicted of being the opposite of a chauvinist: of being instead a rootless cosmopolitan. For Chesterton asks the more pointed question: “What can they know of England, who only know the world?”

A true man of the world, Kipling visited England often, and yet as Chesterton observes, “He knows England as an intelligent English gentleman knows Venice.”

My loyally rebellious heart intercedes at this point to explain something Chesterton might not have known, from having spent his own childhood elsewhere than in Lahore. Many cultured Indians could join me in suggesting that Kipling was a foreigner in England, because he was native to India. He could be presented plausibly as India’s greatest writer, in English.

But while there is much truth in this, there is still not enough, and such as Rudyard and his father Lockwood Kipling were in, but not of, India. They were rather typical Anglo-Indians: born rootless cosmopolitans. (And the Indians who praise Rudyard were born rootless, too; and they include several of today’s leading novelists in English.)

The essay in question, “On Mr. Rudyard Kipling and Making the World Small,” can be found in Chesterton’s collection, Heretics. Gentle reader is good-naturedly advised to consult it right away (I found it myself on the Internet). And this, whether or not he has the slightest interest in Kipling, for the essay doubles as a formidable commentary on the proverb, “A rolling stone gathers no moss.”

The globetrotter learns a great deal about what makes men in one place different from men in another; but the peasant knows what makes them all the same. “The man in the cabbage field has seen nothing at all; but he is thinking of the things that unite men — hunger and babies, and the beauty of women, and the promise or menace of the sky.”

Now, Chesterton also adores Kipling, and generously grants his area of expertise. For trains and steamboats and travel do make the world smaller, and smallness is the expert’s expertise. Moreover, the passages in Kipling that make Chesterton’s point also supply the defense, for in the same moment Kipling exposes his limitations, he shows some self-awareness of them.

He was never a Prussian-style Imperialist, trying to reduce the world to a machine, but more a Little English one, like a stamp collector, relishing variety. Yet, as Chesterton would insist, this remains a limitation, which reduces what is large to the small: 

The man standing in his own kitchen garden, with fairyland opening at the gate, is the man with large ideas. His mind creates distance; the motorcar stupidly destroys it.

And of course, Kipling was enchanted by trains, steamboats, motorcars – by the rolling stone, or if you will, by dead things not the living moss. He is, in a word, “parochial” for this. Parochial, and small, and modern, like us. For we have been everywhere, and we have seen nothing. 

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: