Tuesday, 23 June 2009

On Kipling, 1

First, Kipling is exactly 100 years less (exactly) sixth months my senior. I'm surprised how much I like that fact.

Secondly he wrote 'The Harp Song of the Dane Women' (it appeared in Puck of Pook's Hill, 1906), which is an extraordinarily good poem: better than anything Hardy wrote, I think; as good as the best of Yeats.
What is a woman that you forsake her,
And the hearth-fire and the home-acre,
To go with the old grey Widow-maker?

She has no house to lay a guest in
But one chill bed for all to rest in,
That the pale suns and the stray bergs nest in.

She has no strong white arms to fold you,
But the ten-times-fingering weed to hold you
Out on the rocks where the tide has rolled you.

Yet, when the signs of summer thicken,
And the ice breaks, and the birch-buds quicken,
Yearly you turn from our side, and sicken- -

Sicken again for the shouts and the slaughters.
You steal away to the lapping waters,
And look at your ship in her winter-quarters.

You forget our mirth, and talk at the tables,
The kine in the shed and the horse in the stables
To pitch her sides and go over her cables.

Then you drive out where the storm-clouds swallow,
And the sound of your oar-blades, falling hollow,
Is all we have left through the months to follow.

Ah, what is Woman that you forsake her,
And the hearth-fire and the home-acre,
To go with the old grey Widow-maker?
The shift from 'what is a woman' to 'ah, what is woman' between the first and last stanzas is a superbly judged piece of sonic shuffling. The triple-rhyme is so effortlessly handled, the deliberate salt-waste monotony of the whole so flawlessly evoked, the sentiment so deftly switched about from the male adventuring Viking perspective to the female sedentary one (deftly because although the poem is piercingly eloquent about the emotional state of being abandoned, it also manages to contain a sense of precisely the glamour that draws the men away). Best of all, I think, is the associative logic that leads, like a sort of conceptual rhyming, from stanza to stanza. In st.1, 'woman' is linked to home and heat; in st.2 this is inverted into chill houselessness (those 'nesting' icebergs). But then K. really picks up imagistic momentum: st.2's whiteness of the icerbergs, and paleness of the polar sun sets (meta-terza-rima like) the tone for the image at the start of st.3: 'the strong white arms'. And so on through: st. 3 hideous, tangling green weed becomes st.4's green 'signs of summer'; the breaking of the ice frees not only the land (sr 4) but the sea (st 5) with its lapping waters; and the hint of tongue in this last image leads (st 6) to the 'talk at tables; 6's fullness of house and stable (kine in the shed, horse in the stable) sets up 7's hollow (swallowing) clouds and oarblades splash; and in the final touch, the sound of oars in the water (7) recalls the sound of the woman in song (8). In each case a principle of contrasting as-it-were rhyming propels the poem.

Life: death. The puzzlement of women at men's constancy in choosing the latter.

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