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“How is this matter for mirth?”: Kipling’s Open Question

March 4, 2014

Rudyard Kipling first collected “Epitaphs of the War” in his 1919 volume The Years Between. Thirty-one in number, the epitaphs range as widely as “epitaphs” can, in theme, in manner, in tone, and in form. Kipling’s models, as a number of scholars have pointed out, were the epitaphs and epigrams in The Greek Anthology, which Kipling knew in translation (several translations would have been available to him), but perhaps also perused a bit in Greek, using a translation as an aide.

Following is the fifteenth of Kipling’s epitaphs, coming right midway through them:

“The Refined Man”

I was of delicate mind. I stepped aside for my needs,
Disdaining the common office. I was seen from afar and killed. . .
How is this matter for mirth? Let each man be judged by his deeds.
I have paid my price to live with myself on the terms that I willed.

Rudyard Kipling, circa 1915

Rudyard Kipling, circa 1915

Yes, that’s right. Our refined man couldn’t bear to relieve himself in the latrine, alongside other soldiers and in the general stench, and got shot while taking a dump off to the side somewhere. Here is an English Tommy of a kind not typical (though not entirely without precedent) in Kipling’s poetry. And what a foul exposure he suffers. We may assume that it is, in fact, an  infantryman with whom we here meet (as he met his end). Officers had ways of sparing themselves the worst indignities of the latrine (or the “common office,” a “refined” euphemism for an unrefined site and act). I would note also that our infantryman comes before us in his capacity as a “man,” not as a soldier, one purpose of military training, and one effect of combat, being to reduce the complexities of identity—man, son, father, Northumbrian, Londoner, husband, lover, brother, scholar, tanner, mason, farmer, whatever the case—to something single and indistinct. Here, a soldier simply chooses, again, to distinguish himself (as “refined”) and suffers the consequence. And is immortalized for it in an epitaph unlike any ever written.

But to our refined man’s question: How is this matter for mirth? I consider the question genuine, open, and as asked as much by Kipling as by his refined man (again, he’s not brought before us in his capacity as soldier). Maybe it’s matter for mirth, maybe not. If a man’s willing to hold to his delicacies in the trenches and out of them, though it cost him his life—well, I say fine, good for him. Admirable, even. The trenches were an obscenity anyway; so was the war—an every-hour affront to the privacies of every private in every privy. Violate with unwarranted mirth some other man’s peculiar dignity; ridicule his way of carrying himself, of taking himself, on the only terms he can in that appalling war; make sport, indeed, of his way of bearing our common animal burden (bodies that we are):—bad form; in fact, unrefined. On the other hand, a certain kind of snobbery meets its end. “Disdain” the common office in battle and punishment is usually swift. The platoon that shits together stays together—until it doesn’t. Anyway, camaraderie surely has other bases than such necessities as these. This epitaph is here to suggest as much: Precisely how is this matter for mirth?—because mirth can either make or break camaraderie.

But that rhyme! “Needs”/”deeds”—the need being to take the dump in private that was (in one sense) the deed. Kipling is one of the great rhymers—maybe our greatest. The wit of the rhyme is thematic, as good rhymes often are: here, surely, is matter for mirth—this rhyme. But take the bait—I think the poem quite likely baits us—and you may well find your laughter undermined, confounded, embarrassed; and that by precisely the thing that gave rise to it: this quatrain, this rhyme.

Which is to say, your mirth may draw out of you, quite before you realize it, something unseemly. The poem is at once about an occasion for mirth and also a thing that may or may not occasion mirth. It’s a kind of test, a touchstone: the nature of the amusement a reader derives from it characterizes him (whether in arraignment or commendation). Here, if ever there was one, we have a quatrain fit for consideration in light of “reader-response” theory; one might call it (and all Kipling’s epitaphs) a contribution to reader-response theory. Mind how people speak of these poems, and you’ll learn much. This quatrain is toilet humour of a very high order, such that it attains, I’d suggest, to real pathos (rising up well out of bathos).

To put it all another way, Kipling sets up an occasion for mirth and also forestalls it, giving us (and himself) pause. Reader, are you laughing? Look to your mirth. We are in a graveyard; this is an epitaph. And not just any graveyard: one for residence in which you must have worn the uniform and taken a bullet. Kipling never laughed at his English Tommy, nor at dead soldiers generally. Think through the matter well, before concluding that Kipling mocks this man and his refinement, though the man’s fellow soldiers may have, and though the (presumably) German soldier who shot him almost surely did (though, for all that, the indignities of the common office know no nationality).

However that may be, matter for bleakest mirth is the thing we mustn’t, again, forget: we are reading an epitaph, an unsweet remembrancer, about a deed we must all daily do and not be killed while at it.

Imagine reading this epitaph not in a book (where it exists) but at, say, Arlington National Cemetery, or some other such place where epitaphs of the kind Kipling left us don’t exist, the point being, there, properly to lodge soldiers in their common office for common homage; but where, if epitaphs were written with sardonic esprit de corps, they would surely be marked by the genius of the soldiers who’ve given America (and England) such a rich and bitter store of idiom and joke (one of the great records of which is Kipling’s own poetry, from Barrack Room Ballads  and Departmental Ditties on through the “epitaphs” under discussion here).

And finally, how many wars have shown the governments that wage them for what they are—a bathroom stall? Let Rudyard Kipling (or the soldiers logged in Generation Kill) say. Donald Rumsfeld never will.

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For more on Kipling’s “Epitaphs,” see this page, maintained by the Kipling Society. Note also that Kipling played a signal role in the early history of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (instituted by royal charter in 1917 as the Imperial War Graves Commission).

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