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FOR ARMISTICE DAY in 1923, Kipling wrote a poem called `London Stone'.
When you come to London Town, (Grieving -- grieving!) Bring your flowers and lay them down At the place of grieving. When you come to London Town, (Grieving -- grieving!) Bow your head and mourn your own, With the others grieving. For those minutes, let it wake (Grieving -- grieving!) All the empty-heart and ache That is not cured by grieving. For those minutes, tell no lie: (Grieving -- grieving!) `Grave, this is thy victory, And the sting of death is grieving.' Where's our help, from Earth or Heaven, (Grieving -- grieving!) To comfort us for what we've given, And only gained the grieving? Heaven's too far and Earth too near, (Grieving -- grieving!) But our neighbour's standing here, Grieving as we're grieving. What's his burden every day? (Grieving -- grieving!) Nothing man can count or weigh, But loss and love's own grieving. What is the tie betwixt us two (Grieving -- grieving!) That must last our whole lives through? `As I suffer, so do you.' That may ease the grieving.(1)
The poem is dominated by a word which refuses to rhyme with any other word but itself. Nothing answers to grieving -- not man believing in God receiving, or tears relieving the bosom heaving -- nothing except grieving, which alone bears the burden both literally and in the literary sense of being the poem's refrain. Yet grieving alone is shared, becomes the medium of a paradoxical fellowship. `Bow your head and mourn your own / With the others'. Your neighbour's grief is unspeakable, or can only be expressed as a negative quantity: that which cannot be counted or weighed; all that can be said of it is that it is equivalent to yours. A fellowship of mourning may -- the conditional is a last constraint -- `may ease the grieving'.(2)
`London Stone' stands as an emblem of Kipling' s effort -- the most concentrated, passionate, and sustained of any of his contemporaries -- to dwell, as an artist, in the aftermath of the Great War. It was a time of great and increasing bitterness for him, and the traces of it show in his work and in his private and public life. In 1915 his only son had died in Flanders, and soon after -- not by coincidence, it has been many times said -- he began to suffer from terrible stomach pains, the result of duodenal ulcers which were misdiagnosed until it was too late for effective treatment. He was to die in 1936 of a perforated ulcer, and the work of his last twenty years constitutes, among other things, one of the most powerful and inward explorations of sickness in our literature. At the same time, Kipling, who had always been interested in people's behaviour under extremes of stress, found rich material in the multiple forms of neurosis and mental breakdown suffered by ex-servicemen. The element of revulsion against life, of dark melancholy and depression, is constant in him from the beginning -- James Thomson's Victorian epic of despair, The City of Dreadful Night, was one of his literary talismans -- and he responded with acute sympathy to what we nowadays call `post-traumatic stress syndrome'. This suffering and tender-hearted Kipling, however, also had the ideological temperament of a wounded water-buffalo, and the post-War years show him wallowing in the thickest and nastiest prejudices and charging with stupid and indiscriminate ferocity at his real or imagined tormentors. His antisemitism is virulent and persistent, nastily snide in his fiction, brutally overt in his letters and in the record of his private conversations. His attitude to state education, to take just one sample of his political and social opinions, was that it was a Trades Union of frustrated spinsters, dedicated to producing a nation of emasculated wimps. Kipling's achievement in the post-War years is determined as much by the noxious elements of his outlook as by those which command our admiration and affection. Like that other magnificent, tormented, intolerant and intolerable spirit, Carlyle, he has gifts to make you weep and shudder. And he comes from the War to tell his tale like Hamlet's ghost from the fires of purgatory, unshriven and unforgiving, with greater wrongs and with less excuse.
But the tale itself is complex, diverse, and divided. Kipling did not think of the War as one thing, or respond to it with one voice. Of his thirty-five Epitaphs of the War, no two are alike: they record, and do justice to, not simply different experiences but different ways of seeing.(3) The man who explored the darkest recesses of hatred in `Mary Postgate' also wrote `The Gardener'; the laughter which brings salvation in `The Miracle of Saint Jubanus' is countered by the laughter which is deployed like poison-gas, in `Beauty-Spots', to destroy a hated enemy. In many stories the War takes centre-stage, in others (such as `The Bull that Thought') it is only indirectly or glancingly evoked, though still with signifying power. If there is one binding impulse -- intellectual, emotional, and artistic -- which can be discerned in these diverse forms, it is that of honesty, an unflinching and unsparing recognition that things are as they are, and not otherwise -- not as they might have been, not as we wish them, above all not as we pretend they are. Even this does not hold sway in every story, as witness the strained, desperate fantasy about the afterlife, `Uncovenanted Mercies', which concludes his last volume of stories, Limits and Renewals. Yet the impulse to honesty is strong enough to be called a dominant note. In `London Stone' it urges the mourners to tell no lie, not to let conventional sentiment and gesture obscure their recognition of what it means to grieve. The mourners may bring flowers and bow their heads, but during the Two Minutes' Silence they must be open to the truth:
For those minutes, tell no lie: (Grieving -- grieving!) `Grave, this is thy victory, And the sting of death is grieving.'
St Paul's rhetorical question (in 1 Corinthians 15: 55) `O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?' imagines a rapture of the future and, as the preceding verse makes clear, is governed by a grammar of wish fulfilment: `So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory' (verse 54, my italics). Kipling's quotation brings the grammar back to the here and now: `Grave, this is thy victory, / And the pain of death is grieving'.
The poem does not refuse all consolation, since a way of easing the pain of grieving is, however tentatively, suggested at the end, but that way can only begin from the acknowledgment that there is an `ache / That is not cured by grieving'. The setting of the poem on Armistice Day declares the emptiness and inconsequence of public rituals and forms of words all the more poignantly because Kipling himself was so active in devising such rituals in the post-War years. He was a prime mover in the Imperial, later the Commonwealth, War Graves Commission, visiting many of the cemeteries while they were under construction, and suggesting the standard inscription, `Their name liveth for evermore', which is engraved on the Stone of Sacrifice in each cemetery. He wrote the speech which King George V delivered on his `pilgrimage' to the war graves in 1922. He devised the ceremony of sounding the Last Post at the Menin Gate in Ypres, the monument so hated by Siegfried Sassoon; he was involved from the first in planning and advocating the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, arguably the single most resonant and enduring act of commemoration to emerge from this `people's war' -- more so even than the contested ritual of Armistice Day. But `London Stone' is imbued with a different spirit, the spirit of the bitterest of the Epitaphs of the War, the one …