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This article is taken from PN Review 142, Volume 28 Number 2, November - December 2001.

Shelf Lives: 16: Rudyard Kipling Peter Scupham

Take of English earth as much
    As either hand may rightly clutch.
In the taking of it breathe
Prayer for all who lie beneath.
Not the great nor well-bespoke,
But the mere uncounted folk
Of whose life and death is none
Report or lamentation.
    Lay that earth upon thy heart,
    And thy sickness shall depart.

                                                  (Opening stanza of 'A Charm')

'We know that he is not dull, because we have all, at one time or another, been thrilled; we know that he is not ephemeral, because we remember so much of what we have read'. So Eliot, in the essay on Kipling which prefaces his A Choice of Kipling's Verse (Faber, 1941). Far too big for a shelf-life, of course, but because Kipling's imaginative life, in verse and prose, has been deeply intertwined with my own for so long, I feel he will have to stretch himself briefly on my bed of Procrustes. For me the thrill Eliot speaks of started when I was, perhaps, six or seven years old and the time was 1940. My grandparents' gaslit, creaking Victorian house in Lincolnshire was not bookish: a set of Dickens bound in unfragrant red rexine, King Cotton, Freckles, some Hugh Walpole, Hammond Innes, Warwick Deeping... but by some lucky accident, the shelf in my bedroom held The Day's Work, Kipling's 1898 collection of short stories, and a back-broken Barrack Room Ballads, whose scarifying and unforgettable ...


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