Weekend Poem: Sestina of the Tramp-Royal by Rudyard Kipling

Kipling is one of those Victorian literary luminaries who has fallen in and out of fashion over the past century or so, even during his own lifetime. Yet, many schools still include at least a few Kipling poems in their curricula and, of course, children the world over still enjoy ‘The Jungle Book‘ from 1967 by Disney immensely [Note: That famous work was, in turn, inspired by ancient Indian fables known as ‘The Jataka Tales‘, which also featured talking animals and life lessons].

Born in India, Kipling was, like his father, an apologist for British imperialism, though, for a while, he was also considered, by his detractors, to be an Imperialist for holding certain unpopular and conservative political views. We won’t go into all of that here. Suffice to say that, having been born in India and despite having spent the larger part of his life away from her, he always maintained the kind of regard for her that an unrequited lover might for his first love. India was a lifelong muse too, inspiring many of his works. Like some of his generation and time, he had an unhappy growing-up at his British school and then with his physical and emotional health for the rest of his adult life. He lost both his children to illness and war (there’s a touching poem titled ‘My Boy, Jack‘ and a wrenching movie with David Haig playing a terrific Kipling). All of these experiences, too, informed several well-known works.

A prolific writer, Kipling started early as a journalist in Lahore, Punjab (now in Pakistan), having foregone a university education because his parents could not afford it. His groundbreaking narrative style, with Indian idioms, Cockney speech rhythms and a vivid, cinematic style, brought him widespread success at a young age. He remains the youngest author to win the Nobel Literature Prize in 1907. In that presentation speech, then-secretary of the Swedish Academy said:

He has undoubtedly done more than any other writer of pure literature to draw tighter the bonds of union between England and her colonies.

And this:

How is it, too, that he has been deemed worthy of the Nobel Prize in Literature, for which a writer must especially show an idealism in his conceptions and in his art? The answer follows:

Kipling may not be eminent essentially for the profundity of his thought or for the surpassing wisdom of his meditations. Yet even the most cursory observer sees immediately his absolutely unique power of observation, capable of reproducing with astounding accuracy the minutest detail from real life. However, the gift of observation alone, be it ever so closely true to nature, would not suffice as a qualification in this instance. There is something else by which his poetical gifts are revealed. His marvellous power of imagination enables him to give us not only copies from nature but also visions out of his own inner consciousness. His landscapes appear to the inner vision as sudden apparitions do to the eye. In sketching a personality he makes clear, almost in his first words, the peculiar traits of that person’s character and temper. Creativeness which does not rest content with merely photographing the temporary phases of things but desires to penetrate to their inmost kernel and soul, is the basis of his literary activity, as Kipling himself says: “He draws the thing as he sees it for the God of things as they are.» In these weighty words lies a real appreciation of the poet’s responsibility in the exercise of his calling.”

Mark Twain, who was some-30 years his senior, was famously interviewed by Kipling when the latter was not yet as well-known and had a kind of hero-regard for the older writer. That interview is quite a classic work itself, full of Twain’s typical aphorisms and Kipling’s colorful depictions and, of course, the richly-comedic asides and observations that both authors were renowned for. Years later, Twain recalled their time together with a kind of reciprocated hero-regard for the younger man, saying this of their first encounter:

I believed that he knew more than any person I had met before, and I knew that he knew that I knew less than any person he had met before—though he did not say it, and I was not expecting that he would. . . . He was a stranger to me and to all the world, and remained so for twelve months, then he became suddenly known, and universally known.

And, of Kipling’s writing, he wrote to a friend:

….whereas Kipling’s stories are plenty good enough on a first reading they very greatly improve on a second.

There are more than 500 published Kipling poems and still many that are unpublished. This particular poem first appeared in ‘The Seven Seas‘ in 1896. It was also anthologized in several other collections. Sestinas are a rather difficult poetic form and this is Kipling’s only known and published one. Yet, it can be read with such natural ease that it is truly a testament to his skills that he could take a rather rigid thirteenth-century poetic form, marry it unconventionally with a Cockney speech style and give us both an entertaining and insightful poem that stays with us long after we first read it. Kipling dashed it off in a matter of hours one July afternoon in Vermont, during his last two months of living in the US with his American wife. In his essay titled ‘On Mr Rudyard Kipling and Making the World Small‘, from the collection, ‘Heretics‘, G K Chesterton wrote of this poem:

Mr. Kipling, with all his merits is the globe-trotter; he has not the patience to become part of anything. So great and genuine a man is not to be accused of a merely cynical cosmopolitanism; still, his cosmopolitanism is his weakness. That weakness is splendidly expressed in one of his finest poems “The Sestina of the Tramp-Royal”, in which a man declares that he can endure anything in the way of hunger or horror, but not permanent presence in one place.

With that, let us now turn to the poem. The speaker is, of course, a tramp. But, this is no ordinary tramp, ladies and gentlemen. He is a “tramp-royal”, who, in today’s parlance, might be referred to as a super-tramp. Why so? As we find from reading further, this is a tramp who has, despite his lack of means, achieved a lot in life — at least by his own reckoning. And, in the end, isn’t that what matters more than how others may perceive him?

The first verse is involves the tramp introducing himself to us as a global wanderer who “cannot use one bed too long” and must “go observin’ matters till they die”. A rather upbeat note to begin with and it sets the atmosphere for the poem. Here is a speaker who immediately announces what drives him and what his existence is all about.

Next, we get a more reflective tone in the second verse — though it is still fairly positive. Again, we get a sense of the tramp’s priorities: health, seeing the world, meeting all kinds of men and women from around the world and taking every chance or opportunity that comes by. That last line, “An’ when they ain’t, pretending’ they are good?” is revealing because it tells us that the tramp doesn’t care much to dwell on the difficulties and, even when a chance backfires on him, he’d rather see the good in it. This last sentiment, by the way, also showed up in that other famous poem, ‘If–‘:

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
An’ treat those two imposters just the same;

In the third verse, the tramp is almost directly addressing us, his audience. Money, he says, is not worth the worry. And, unless you prefer a life filled with the same old, same old kind of existence, so that it doesn’t matter how you put food on the table and what you accomplish, you will be restless for travel and trying out new things. Here, we begin to really get a sense of how our tramp is no mere aimless wanderer but one with some personal and noble aspirations.

Verse four takes the latter aspirations a step further as he tells us how he has tried his hand at pretty much everything that has come his way. And, no matter what the situation or, indeed, his own aptitude, he has given it his everything. This is no lazy tramp living off the kindness of strangers. This is a man determined to fill his life with as many different experiences as he can and, of course, to earn his way doing so. For, life is too short for any man to “labour all // ’Is life on one same shift”.

And, verse five reveals even more of his personal value system because he confides in us how, when he decides his time’s up in a place, nothing, not even a good pay-packet can hold him there. And, though he can’t quite understand or explain how or why this urge to move on takes over, he’s soon off for his next adventure with his one true companion: the blowing wind. In other words, he is like that wind too, blowing in and out as the mood takes him; he can no more be pinned down than that invisible current of air.

My favorite verse is the sixth one where this lovable tramp tells us that he thinks of “this blooming’ world” as a book, which you are compelled to keep turning the pages of. That, no matter how good a certain page is, you’re not likely to just linger there because, after all, you must get to the end of the story. So, you must keep reading and turning the pages. And, even when you come upon one that is not as good as you’d like, you read it and move on to the next…. onwards, onwards, so that you might find out how it will all end. “What happens next?” is an infinitely more interesting question we ask ourselves than merely “What happens?”. And, therein lies another one of Kipling’s life lessons through the voice of this tramp. We are, in the end, all of us, searchers looking for certain answers. And, staying still, in one kind of life or world will not bring those answers to us. We must go out and seek them. Yet, of course, the answers, by themselves, are not destinations either because every search and every “page we read” will raise more questions. So, we cannot help but keep pressing forward because “you feel that you will die // Unless you get the page you’re readin’ done // An’ turn another”.

And, those final three lines give us that “take it as it comes” stoicism that we know Kipling himself possessed. The tramp here tells us that he accepts this blessed world, with all its good, bad and indifferent aspects. His one wish? That when he’s dead, people should say of him that he took everything in his stride, gave everything his very best. In short, that “‘E liked it all!”

Yes, an admirable sentiment, indeed. Yet, how many of us can sum up our desired epitaph quite so simply and plainly? How many of us can truly say that our present existence is completely aligned with that desired epitaph like this tramp’s appears to be? How many of us have been able to keep turning those pages of the book of our life instead of settling comfortably into a particular groove? None of these are easy to do, which is why we call them admirable or aspirational sentiments or behaviors. So, go ahead. Pick an area of your life today where you need to turn that page and discover “different ways that different things are done” because, don’t you know, “life’s none too long”.

Sestina of the Tramp-Royal

Speakin’ in general, I ’ave tried ’em all—
The ’appy roads that take you o’er the world.
Speakin’ in general, I ’ave found them good
For such as cannot use one bed too long,
But must get ’ence, the same as I ’ave done,
An’ go observin’ matters till they die.

What do it matter where or ’ow we die,
So long as we’ve our ’ealth to watch it all—
The different ways that different things are done,
An’ men an’ women lovin’ in this world;
Takin’ our chances as they come along,
An’ when they ain’t, pretendin’ they are good?

In cash or credit—no, it aren’t no good;
You ’ave to ’ave the ’abit or you’d die,
Unless you lived your life but one day long,
Nor didn’t prophesy nor fret at all,
But drew your tucker some’ow from the world,
An’ never bothered what you might ha’ done.

But, Gawd, what things are they I ’aven’t done?
I’ve turned my ’and to most, an’ turned it good,
In various situations round the world—
For ’im that doth not work must surely die;
But that’s no reason man should labour all
’Is life on one same shift—life’s none so long.

Therefore, from job to job I’ve moved along.
Pay couldn’t ’old me when my time was done,
For something in my ’ead upset it all,
Till I ’ad dropped whatever ’twas for good,
An’, out at sea, be’eld the dock-lights die,
An’ met my mate—the wind that tramps the world!

It’s like a book, I think, this bloomin’ world,
Which you can read and care for just so long,
But presently you feel that you will die
Unless you get the page you’re readin’ done,
An’ turn another—likely not so good;
But what you’re after is to turn ’em all.

Gawd bless this world! Whatever she ’ath done—
Excep’ when awful long I’ve found it good.
So write, before I die, ‘’E liked it all!’

~ Rudyard Kipling, ‘Complete Verse

Other Links

PoetryFoundation Biography

Wikipedia Biography

Complete Collection of Kipling’s Poems

The Kipling Society

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