His Boy Jack

The third in my series examining the poems of Rudyard Kipling.  The first  is here and the second is here

For most parents, when asked the question, “What is the worst thing in the world that could happen to you?”, the answer that comes terribly to mind is “The death of one of my kids.”  Kipling faced this horror with the death of his only son, John Kipling.  By all accounts, John Kipling was a bright and friendly young man.  When Great Britain entered World War I, Jack, as he was known, like most young men of his generation, decided it was his patriotic duty to enlist and fight for his country.  He attempted to enlist in the Navy, but was refused due to his bad eyesight.  His father used ever bit of influence that he could muster on behalf of his son, and obtained a commission for his son as a second lieutenant with the Irish Guards.  It should be clearly understood that Kipling did not force his son to go to war, but that rather he helped his son obtain his heart’s desire.

On his 18th birthday Jack landed in France.  Six weeks later he was killed at the battle of Loos on September 27, 1915.  Like so many of the dead during World War I, his body was never recovered.  His parents held out some hope that perhaps he had been taken prisoner, but from the moment he was reported missing they reconciled themselves to the fact that their boy was probably dead.  Their grief they kept private, befitting the dignity that used to be much more common than it is today.  In honor of his son, Kipling wrote a two volume history of the Irish Guards during the Great War.  I am sure Jack would have heartily approved.  His son’s name is only mentioned once in the history, among the dead in an appendix, something I am sure that Jack would also have approved, since he was of a time and place that valued restraint and quiet dignity.

Kipling also wrote two poems in honor of his son.  The first is entitled The Irish Guards:

We’re not so old in the Army list,
But we’re not so young at our trade,
For we had the honour at Fontenoy,
Of meeting the Guards’ Brigade.
‘Twas Lally, Dillon, Buckley, Clare,
And Lee that led us then,
And after a hundred and seventy years,
We’re fighting for France again.
 

Old Days! The wild geese are flighting
Head to the storm as they faced it before!
For where there are Irish there’s bound to be fighting,
And when there’s no fighting, it’s Ireland no more
Ireland no more!
 

The fashion’s all for khaki now,
But once through France we went
Full-dressed in scarlet Army cloth,
The English-left at Ghent.
They’re fighting on our side to-day
But, before they changed their clothes,
The half of Europe knew our fame,
As all of Ireland knows!
 

Old Days! The wild geese are flying
Head to the storm as they faced it before!
For where there are Irish there’s memory undying,
And when we forget, it is Ireland no more
Ireland no more!
 

From Barry Wood to Gouzeaucourt,
From Boyne to Pilkem Ridge,
The ancient days come back no more
Than water under the bridge.
But the bridge it stands and the water runs
As red as yesterday,
And the Irish move to the sound of the guns
Like salmon to the sea.
 

Old Days! The wild geese are ranging,
Head to the storm as they faced it before!
For where there are Irish their hearts are unchanging,
And when they are changed, it is Ireland no more!
Ireland no more!

The Irish Guards had been formed in 1900 as a tribute to the courage of the Irish who fought in Queen Victoria’s wars.  Kipling skillfully ties this in with the Irish regiments who fought for King James II and then for the French in the Seventeenth Century.  These Irish were called the wild geese.

The second poem is the heartbreakingly poignant My Boy Jack which Kipling wrote in 1915:

 

“Have you news of my boy Jack?”
Not this tide.
“When d’you think that he’ll come back?”
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

“Has any one else had word of him?”
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

“Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?”
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind —
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.

Then hold your head up all the more,
This tide,
And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!

When we are burdened with the unbearable grief of the death of a loved one, we Catholics look for our hope beyond the grave in the everlasting life to come.  Whether Kipling had this hope I am uncertain.  However his poem reminds us that even in Earthly terms death can never take away the good of the life that has passed, especially if our loved one met death with courage and grace.  I know that such thoughts of pride comforted me when my mother lost her brave struggle against breast cancer on Easter Sunday 1984.  We are immortals who have to die before we enter everlasting life, but even while we are here on Earth, trapped in mortality, we see that death cannot kill honor, courage and love.

 

Advertisements

2 Responses to His Boy Jack

  1. T. Shaw says:

    Also related to loss: his only son.

    From ‘Epitaphs of the War 1914 – 1918’
    R. Kipling

    A SON

    My son was killed while laughing at some jest. I would I knew
    What it was, and it might serve me in a time when jests are few.

  2. T. Shaw says:

    Moderate this:

    Kipling:

    “A Servant When He Reigneth”

    Three things make earth unquiet
    And four she cannot brook
    The godly Agur counted them
    And put them in a book —
    Those Four Tremendous Curses
    With which mankind is cursed;
    But a Servant when He Reigneth
    Old Agur entered first.

    An Handmaid that is Mistress
    We need not call upon.
    A Fool when he is full of Meat
    Will fall asleep anon.
    An Odious Woman Married
    May bear a babe and mend;
    But a Servant when He Reigneth
    Is Confusion to the end.

    His feet are swift to tumult,
    His hands are slow to toil,
    His ears are deaf to reason,
    His lips are loud in broil.
    He knows no use for power
    Except to show his might.
    He gives no heed to judgment
    Unless it prove him right.

    Because he served a master
    Before his Kingship came,
    And hid in all disaster
    Behind his master’s name,
    So, when his Folly opens
    The unnecessary hells,
    A Servant when He Reigneth
    Throws the blame on some one else.

    His vows are lightly spoken,
    His faith is hard to bind,
    His trust is easy boken,
    He fears his fellow-kind.
    The nearest mob will move him
    To break the pledge he gave —
    Oh, a Servant when he Reigneth
    Is more than ever slave!

%d bloggers like this: