Category Archives: literature

‘If’- Rudyard Kipling’s Benghazi Moment

Here is the remarkable story behind ‘If’. Original source

Kipling was inspired by a failed British raid against the Boers in 1895

Empire building

… the unlikely truth is that [‘If’ was] composed by the Indian-born Kipling to celebrate the achievements of a man betrayed and imprisoned by the British Government – the Scots-born colonial adventurer Dr Leander Starr Jameson.

Although it may not seem so to the millions who can recite its famous first line (‘If you can keep your head when all about you’), If is also a bitter condemnation of the British Government led by Lord Salisbury, and the duplicity of its Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, for covertly supporting Dr Jameson’s raid against the Boers in South Africa’s Transvaal in 1896, only to condemn him when the raid failed.

Kipling was a friend of Jameson and was introduced to him, so scholars believe, by another colonial friend and adventurer: Cecil Rhodes, the financier and statesman who extracted a vast fortune from Britain’s burgeoning African empire by taking substantial stakes in both diamond and gold mines in southern Africa.

In Kipling’s autobiography, Something Of Myself, published in 1937, the year after his death at the age of 70, he acknowledges the inspiration for If in a single reference: ‘Among the verses in Rewards was one set called If – they were drawn from Jameson’s character, and contained counsels of perfection most easy to give.’

But to explain the nature of Kipling’s admiration for Jameson, we need to return to the veldt of southern Africa in the last years of the 19th century.

What was to become South Africa was divided into two British colonies (the Cape Colony and Natal) and two Boer republics (the Orange Free State and Transvaal). Transvaal contained 30,000 white male voters, of Dutch descent, and 60,000 white male ‘Uitlanders’, primarily British expatriates, whom the Boers had disenfranchised from voting.

Rhodes, then Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, wanted to encourage the disgruntled Uitlanders to rebel against the Transvaal government. He believed that if he sent a force of armed men to overrun Johannesburg, an uprising would follow. By Christmas 1895, the force of 600 armed men was placed under the command of Rhodes’s old friend, Dr Jameson.

Cecil RhodesCecil Rhodes, left, in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1896

Back in Britain, British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, father of future Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, had encouraged Rhodes’s plan.

But when he heard the raid was to be launched, he panicked and changed his mind, remarking: ‘If this succeeds, it will ruin me. I’m going up to London to crush it.’

Chamberlain ordered the Governor General of the Cape Colony to condemn the ‘Jameson Raid’ and Rhodes for planning it. He also instructed every British worker in Transvaal not to support it.

That was behind the scenes. On the Transvaal border, the impetuous Jameson was growing frustrated by the politicking between London and Cape Town, and decided to go ahead regardless.

On December 29, 1895, he led his men across the Transvaal border, planning to race to Johannesburg in three days – but the raid failed, miserably.

The Boer government’s troops tracked Jameson’s force from the moment it crossed the border and attacked it in a series of minor skirmishes that cost the raiders vital supplies, horses and indeed the lives of a handful of men, until on the morning of January 2, Jameson was confronted by a major Boer force.

After seeing the Boers kill 30 of his men, Jameson surrendered, and he and the surviving raiders were taken to jail in Pretoria. The raiders never reached Johannesburg and there was no uprising among the Uitlanders.

The Boer government handed the prisoners, including Jameson, over to the London government for trial. A few days after the raid, the German Kaiser sent a telegram congratulating President Kruger’s Transvaal government on its success in suppressing the uprising.

When this was disclosed in the British Press, a storm of anti-German feeling was stirred and Jameson found himself lionised by London society. Fierce anti-Boer and anti-German feelings were inflamed, which soon became known as ‘jingoism’.

Jameson was sentenced to 15 months for leading the raid, and the Transvaal government was paid almost £1million in compensation by the British South Africa Company. Cecil Rhodes was forced to step down as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony.

Jameson never revealed the extent of the British Government’s support for the raid. This has led a string of Kipling scholars to point out that the poem’s lines ‘If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you’ were designed specifically to pay tribute to the courage and dignity of Jameson’s silence.

Typical of his spirit, Jameson was not broken by his imprisonment. He decided to return to South Africa after his release and rose to become Prime Minister of the Cape Colony in 1904, leaving office before the creation of the Union of South Africa in 1910.

His stoicism in the face of adversity and his determination not to be deterred from his task are reflected in the lines: ‘If you can make a heap of all your winnings / And risk it at one turn of pitch and toss / And lose, and start again from your beginnings / And never breathe a word about your loss . . .’

As Kipling’s biographer, Andrew Lycett, puts it: ‘In a sense, the poem is a valedictory to Jameson, the politician.’

All in all, an impressive hero for Kipling’s son, John. ‘If you can fill the unforgiving minute/ With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run/ Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it/ And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son!’

But Kipling’s anger at Jameson’s treatment by the British establishment never abated.

Even though the poet had become the first English-speaking recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907, he refused a knighthood and the Order of Merit from the British Government and the King, just as he refused the posts of Poet Laureate and Companion of Honour.

The tragedy was that Kipling’s only son, Lieutenant John Kipling, was to die in World War I at the Battle of Loos in 1915, only a handful of years after his father’s most famous poem first appeared. His body was never found.

It was a shock from which Kipling never fully recovered. But his son’s spirit, as well as that of Leander Starr Jameson, lives on in the lines of the poem that continues to inspire millions.

As Andrew Lycett told the Daily Mail: ‘In these straitened times, the old-fashioned virtues of fortitude, responsibilities and resolution, as articulated in If, become ever more important.’

Long may they remain so.

Leave a comment

Filed under 19th Century, article link, Great Britain, literature, propaganda, war

Shakespeare’s telling penmanship

“What we’ve got here isn’t bad writing, but bad handwriting,”

read more here

Leave a comment

Filed under article link, classical conversations, literature

Anton Chekhov Writes to His Brother

Every hour is precious

 
 

In March of 1886, at the age of 26, acclaimed Russian author and physician Anton Chekhov wrote this fascinating and honest letter of advice to his troubled older brother, Nikolai, a talented painter and writer who, despite being just 28 himself, had for many years been plagued by alcoholism to the point where he often slept on the streets, his days a blur; his notable skills as an artist largely untapped. This letter and the list it contained—eight qualities exhibited by “civilized” people—were essentially Anton’s attempt at knocking some sense into the brother he was slowly losing.

Sadly, his efforts were ultimately futile. Nikolai passed away three years later.

(Source: James Vane; Translation by Michael Henry Heim; Image: Anton Chekhov, via.)

Moscow, March, 1886

My little Zabelin,

I’ve been told that you have taken offense at gibes Schechtel and I have been making. The faculty of taking offense is the property of noble souls alone, but even so, if it is all right to laugh at Ivanenko, me, Mishka and Nelly, then why is it wrong to laugh at you? It’s unfair. However, if you’re not joking and really do feel you’ve been offended, I hasten to apologize. 

People only laugh at what’s funny or what they don’t understand. Take your choice. 

The latter of course is more flattering, but—alas!—to me, for one, you’re no riddle. It’s not hard to understand someone with whom you’ve shared the delights of Tatar caps, Voutsina, Latin and, finally, life in Moscow. And besides, your life is psychologically so uncomplicated that even a nonseminarian could understand it. Out of respect for you let me be frank. You’re angry, offended…but it’s not because of my gibes or of that good-natured chatterbox Dolgov. The fact of the matter is that you’re a decent person and you realize that you’re living a lie. And, whenever a person feels guilty, he always looks outside himself for vindication: the drunk blames his troubles, Putyata blames the censors, the man who bolts from Yakimanka Street with lecherous intent blames the cold in the living room or gibes, and so on. If I were to abandon the family to the whims of fate, I would try to find myself an excuse in Mother’s character or my blood spitting or the like. It’s only natural and pardonable. It’s human nature, after all. And you’re quite right to feel you’re living a lie. If you didn’t feel that way, I wouldn’t have called you a decent person. When decency goes, well, that’s another story. You become reconciled to the lie and stop feeling it. 

You’re no riddle to me, and it is also true that you can be wildly ridiculous. You’re nothing but an ordinary mortal, and we mortals are enigmatic only when we’re stupid, and we’re ridiculous forty-eight weeks of the year. Isn’t that so?

You often complain to me that people “don’t understand” you. But even Goethe and Newton made no such complaints. Christ did, true, but he was talking about his doctrine, not his ego. People understand you all too well. If you don’t understand yourself, then it’s nobody else’s fault. 

As your brother and intimate, I assure you that I understand you and sympathize with you from the bottom of my heart. I know all your good qualities like the back of my hand. I value them highly and have only the greatest respect for them. If you like, I can even prove how I understand you by enumerating them. In my opinion you are kind to the point of fault, magnanimous, unselfish, you’d share your last penny, and you’re sincere. Hate and envy are foreign to you, you are open-hearted, you are compassionate with man and beast, you are not greedy, you do not bear grudges, and you are trusting. You are gifted from above with something others lack: you have talent. This talent places you above millions of people, for there is only one artist for every two million people on earth. It places you in a very special position: you could be a toad or a tarantula and you would still be respected, because talent is its own excuse. 

You have only one failing, the cause of the lie you’ve been living, your troubles, and your intestinal catarrh. It’s your extreme lack of culture. Please forgive me, but veritas magis amicitiae. The thing is, life lays down certain conditions. If you want to feel at home among intellectuals, to fit in and not find their presence burdensome, you have to have a certain amount of breeding. Your talent has brought you into their midst. You belong there, but…you seem to yearn escape and feel compelled to waver between the cultured set and your next-door neighbors. It’s the bourgeois side of you coming out, the side raised on birch thrashings beside the wine cellar and handouts, and it’s hard to overcome, terribly hard. 

To my mind, civilized people ought to satisfy the following conditions:

1. They respect the individual and are therefore always indulgent, gentle, polite and compliant. They do not throw a tantrum over a hammer or a lost eraser. When they move in with somebody, they do not act as if they were doing him a favor, and when they move out, they do not say, “How can anyone live with you!” They excuse noise and cold and overdone meat and witticisms and the presence of others in their homes. 

2. Their compassion extends beyond beggars and cats. They are hurt even by things the naked eye can’t see. If for instance, Pyotr knows that his father and mother are turning gray and losing sleep over seeing their Pyotr so rarely (and seeing him drunk when he does turn up), then he rushes home to them and sends his vodka to the devil. They do not sleep nights the better to help the Polevayevs, help pay their brothers’ tuition, and keep their mother decently dressed. 

3. They respect the property of others and therefore pay their debts. 

4. They are candid and fear lies like the plague. They do not lie even about the most trivial matters. A lie insults the listener and debases him in the liar’s eyes. They don’t put on airs, they behave in the street as they do at home, and they do not try to dazzle their inferiors. They know how to keep their mouths shut and they do not force uninvited confidences on people. Out of respect for the ears of others they are more often silent than not. 

5. They do not belittle themselves merely to arouse sympathy. They do not play on people’s heartstrings to get them to sigh and fuss over them. They do not say, “No one understands me!” or “I’ve squandered my talent on trifles!” because this smacks of a cheap effect and is vulgar, false and out-of-date. 

6. They are not preoccupied with vain things. They are not taken in by such false jewels as friendships with celebrities, handshakes with drunken Plevako, ecstasy over the first person they happen to meet at the Salon de Varietes, popularity among the tavern crowd. They laugh when they hear, “I represent the press,” a phrase befitting only Rodzeviches and Levenbergs. When they have done a penny’s worth of work, they don’t try to make a hundred rubles out of it, and they don’t boast over being admitted to places closed to others. True talents always seek obscurity. They try to merge with the crowd and shun all ostentation. Krylov himself said that an empty barrel has more chance of being heard than a full one. 

7. If they have talent, they respect it. They sacrifice comfort, women, wine and vanity to it. They are proud of their talent, and so they do not go out carousing with trade-school employees or Skvortsov’s guests, realizing that their calling lies in exerting an uplifting influence on them, not in living with them. What is more, they are fastidious. 

8. They cultivate their aesthetic sensibilities. They cannot stand to fall asleep fully dressed, see a slit in the wall teeming with bedbugs, breathe rotten air, walk on a spittle-laden floor or eat off a kerosene stove. They try their best to tame and ennoble their sexual instinct… What they look for in a woman is not a bed partner or horse sweat, […] not the kind of intelligence that expresses itself in the ability to stage a fake pregnancy and tirelessly reel off lies. They—and especially the artists among them—require spontaneity, elegance, compassion, a woman who will be a mother… They don’t guzzle vodka on any old occasion, nor do they go around sniffing cupboards, for they know they are not swine. They drink only when they are free, if the opportunity happens to present itself. For they require a mens sana in corpore sano

And so on. That’s how civilized people act. If you want to be civilized and not fall below the level of the milieu you belong to, it is not enough to read The Pickwick Papers and memorize a soliloquy from Faust. It is not enough to hail a cab and drive off to Yakimanka Street if all you’re going to do is bolt out again a week later. 

You must work at it constantly, day and night. You must never stop reading, studying in depth, exercising your will. Every hour is precious. 

Trips back and forth to Yakimanka Street won’t help. You’ve got to drop your old way of life and make a clean break. Come home. Smash your vodka bottle, lie down on the couch and pick up a book. You might even give Turgenev a try. You’ve never read him. 

You must swallow your pride. You’re no longer a child. You’ll be thirty soon. It’s high time!

I’m waiting…We’re all waiting…

Yours,
A. Chekhov

Leave a comment

Filed under 19th Century, art, article link, classical conversations, literature, morals, Russia

Shakespeare’s Globe theatre burns down

Read the brief facts of the burning of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, and the sassy poems which followed.

20130701-083305.jpg

 

“All This Is True…”

 

On this day in 1613 fire destroyed the Globe playhouse, where Shakespeare was both playwright and part owner. The fire started during a performance of his Henry the Eighth: sparks from a cannon set off to announce the King’s Act I entrance ignited the thatched roof, destroying the building in an hour. There are a number of contemporary descriptions of the event, two of them in poems licensed at the Stationers’ Register the very next day. Both of the poems are of uncertain authorship; they may have been written by playhouse-hating Puritans, but as competition for the entertainment shilling was fierce in Elizabethan England, the cheeky “Sonnett upon the pittiful burneinge of the Globe playhowse in London” may have been the jest of an owner of one of the rival open-air theaters. Part of the joke in the poem is based on the refrain “all this is true,” which is an alternative title for Shakespeare’s play:

…No shower his raine did there downe force

In all that Sunn-shine weather,

To save that great renowned howse;

Nor thou, O ale-howse, neither.

Had itt begunne belowe, sans doubte,

Their wives [i.e. of the owners] for feare had pissed itt out.

Oh sorrow, pittifull sorrow, and yett all this is true.

 

Bee warned, yow stage strutters all,

Least yow againe be catched,

And such a burneing doe befall,

As to them whose howse was thatched;

Forbeare your whoreing, breeding biles,

And laye up that expence for tiles.

Oh sorrow, pittifull sorrow, and yett all this is true….

London’s current, open-air Globe playhouse was constructed 200 yards from the 1613 Globe, and is as close in design and materials as scholars and building codes could manage: the thatch is of Norfolk reed, the beams are of green oak, and the plaster is of the Elizabethan sand-lime-hair recipe (though goat hair is now used, the hair of the modern British cow having been jidged too short).

Leave a comment

Filed under article link, classical conversations, literature

5 Minutes in the Middle Ages

Enjoy Anthony Esolen’s sketch of the Middle Ages.

Leave a comment

Filed under classical conversations, Europe, literature, Medieval, philosophy, religion

Kagan’s farewell speech

Donald Kagan defines and dismisses the state of education in the liberal arts.

Leave a comment

Filed under article link, literature, morals, philosophy, virtue

Buckley on Speed Writing

This is not an argument against deliberation, merely against the suggestion that to think longer (endlessly?) about a subject is necessarily to probe it more fruitfully.
– William F. Buckley

Leave a comment

Filed under article link, journalism, literature