The news that students at Manchester University have painted over Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem “If” (which, ironically, had been put up in the students’ union to inspire them) and replaced it with Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” does not come as a surprise, following as it does the attempt of Oxford University students to have a statue of Cecil Rhodes removed.
Kipling, like Rhodes, was an imperialist, born at a time when the British Empire stretched around the world, colouring the map a satisfactory pink in the eyes of generations of public schoolboys whose ambition was to take up “the white man’s burden” – as another poem of Kipling so arrestingly put it – and spend their lives working in the then colonial civil service.
But what the Manchester students are unwilling to see is that despite his cultural limitations, entirely understandable in their historical context, Kipling is still a great writer and thus worth reading. One definition of such writers is that they transcend their times and its inherent prejudices and remind us of our deepest and most universal longings and values. “If”, as has been pointed out, is not a racist poem at all. With its rhetorical force, its strong structure and rhythm, its clear syntax and its powerful appeal to the essential virtues of old-fashioned “manliness”, it has long been the country’s favourite poem – at least among the older generation.
Working in the Home Library Service bringing books to housebound people, on occasion I have come across elderly men who had done national service in their youth if they hadn’t fought in the last war, who could quote chunks of If by heart. These were men who had left school early to go to work; they did not have the luxury of student life. Yet they had understood that If is about core virtues and the development of character – self-control, honesty, determination, courage, will-power – and were uplifted by it, as only great poetry can uplift.
It has been noted that Kipling was a phrase-maker of genius. For instance, we sometimes read the words in If: “Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch” harnessed to the obituary of some public figure as a way of showing their essential humility, their lack of pomposity, their refusal to change according to those they mixed with. But the Manchester students are not interested in what Kipling actually wrote. I suspect that behind their criticism that If is “deeply inappropriate” and “upsetting to ethnic minorities” lie other fashionable ideologies: feminism, equality and diversity, a repugnance for seemingly elitist values and the poem’s rejection of any sense of victimhood.
I also suspect Kipling’s worst crime is that he is a dead, white male. Regardless of, for instance, Kim, the Jungle Stories, Rewards and Fairies, Stalky and Co and “My Boy Jack”, his short, lovely lament for his son, John, who was killed in the Great War, he cannot be read today because his writing does not reflect female anger, indignation and protest, as for example, Maya Angelou’s poem Still I Rise so obviously does.
To paraphrase the oft-quoted lines of the wartime German Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemoller, who was criticising his countrymen for their failure to speak out against Nazism, “First they came for Kipling…then they came for Shakespeare.” It could happen.