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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Number 23: Rudyard Kipling "When Earth's Last Picture is Painted."

When Earth's Last Picture Is Painted

When Earth's last picture is painted and the tubes are twisted and dried,
When the oldest colours have faded, and the youngest critic has died,
We shall rest, and, faith, we shall need it -- lie down for an aeon or two,
Till the Master of All Good Workmen shall put us to work anew.
And those that were good shall be happy; they shall sit in a golden chair;
They shall splash at a ten-league canvas with brushes of comets' hair.
They shall find real saints to draw from -- Magdalene, Peter, and Paul;
They shall work for an age at a sitting and never be tired at all!

And only The Master shall praise us, and only The Master shall blame;
Andd no one shall work for money, and no one shall work for fame,
But each for the joy of the working, and each, in his separate star,
Shall draw the thing as he sees it for the God of Things as They are!

--Rudyard Kipling

Hap Notes: Okay, before I begin to talk about Kipling (1865-1936) you may want to wash off a bit of the schmaltz and the treacle residue from the poem. I know you think I've gone off the bend on this one. But it has not been posted exclusively for you but in honor of Mrs. Virginia Edwards, my high school English Literature teacher who adored the poem and because it was a pivotal point in my relationship to her and classic poetry. (AND P.S. Kipling was the first English speaking writer to get the Nobel Prize and still remains its youngest recipient. He was 42).

We moved the summer before my senior year in high school and I was torn from all the friends with which I had gone to grade school and junior high and most of high school and was deposited in a new school where I knew no one. The only bright spot in the whole thing was the new school was very modern (at the time) and allowed you to take courses, much like college, that you could choose yourself. I loaded my schedule with literature classes and Latin (they had Latin!)

When I mentioned to someone that I was going to take English literature with Virginia Edwards, my new classmates filled me in on her. They called her "the Virgin Queen" (although she was married and had grown children) and said she was a "musty powderpuff" of a long bygone era. She always wore a clutch of fake violets at her throat or a large brooch. She was, they told me, ancient (she may have been in her late 60s) and had a humped back. She said "pleezhure" for the word pleasure and "Lehzhure" for the word leisure. She was a gorgon. I, of course, was not repulsed by their friendly warnings but intrigued. I generally like gorgons.

The gorgon turned out to be a diminutive woman with carefully coifed hair and a strong but gentle voice. She wafted lavender and lemon. The first day of class she read this poem aloud. I, being the ginormous goose of literature that I was (am) had it committed to memory and I silently mouthed the words as she spoke. I didn't think she'd notice this, since I was sitting in the back of the room as was my wont (where you can read other things and draw pictures with impunity.) The next thing I knew she had asked me to stand up. "Do you know this poem?" she asked sternly. I said that I did. She said, "Then, recite it." Which I did. She brushed away a tear (!) and said "Thank-you. Thank you, very much. That was lovely." and went on with the class.

After the class she asked me how I knew the poem and I showed her my beat up copy of Palgrave's Golden Treasury. She nodded. That was it. The next day she read Robert Burn's poem "John Anderson My Jo, John" and I wept a little. She deposited a box of kleenex on my desk and said, "I believe we are going to need these this year." We were never fast friends, we were compatriots in the forces of literature. She treated me as a lieutenant to her General. She was never gooey with sentiment- she let the poetry and the literature do what it would. She did give me a new copy of Palgrave's when I graduated. The inscription said, "You need this, I think. Thank you for a most satisfying and enjoyable year."

Now, how did my peers react to this geekiness in me? I couldn't tell you. Being the ginormous goose that I was (am) I didn't notice and didn't give a damn anyway. Just didn't think about it. And I was never teacher's pet. She never asked me to distribute tests or do anything out of the ordinary, She did not let me slide because I knew things. In fact, I think she was a bit repulsed by my wild curly hair and ratty black turtleneck and blunt speaking. She treated me like she was teaching a strange new creature who could possibly bite (a gorgon, maybe?) I told her she should reconsider e.e. cumings. She told me I shouldn't be so disrespectful of Matthew Arnold. I loved her very much. I'm quite sure she's dead, now. But not to me. Hence the Kipling (which, by the by, has some merit, I think, in spite of it's saccharine.)

Kipling, of course, everybody knows whether they think they do or not. He wrote The Jungle Book which has been made into both Disney animated movies and real-life movies. He wrote Captains Courageous, which many people know from the Spencer Tracy film. He wrote Gunga Din which was made into a movie with Cary Grant (and is an okay poem- come on!) and Kim. He wrote that "IF" poem that people send each other at graduations.

Kipling was born in Bombay (now called Mumbai) and didn't go to school in England until he was 5 or 6. He stayed with people who took care of British children whose families lived in India so they could get an English education. He was most grievously abused by them and hated his life there. Kipling always considered himself more Indian than Brit- even though there's always the whiff of British Imperialism about much of his work. It's more than a tad distasteful. I always think of him as a cross between Teddy Roosevelt (adventurous and imperious) and William Wordsworth (romantic)- there's a strange mix, indeed.

And even though much of his work may seem a bit sugary, there's merit in much of it and he is well-loved by lots of people who normally do not read poetry so there you have it. This particular poem was written as a l'envoi to his book The Seven Seas. ( a l'envoi is verse that sort of bless or depict the moral or "christen" if you will, a book.)

Kipling is highly quotable. You know -- "a woman is only a woman but a good cigar is a smoke" and "God could not be everywhere and therefore he created mothers" and just oodles more. Here are a couple of good ones:

"If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten."

and "Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind."

Oh, and here's one very telling about his "foster parents": "Children tell little more than animals, for what comes to them they accept as eternally established. Also, badly-treated children have a clear notion of what they are likely to get if they betray the secrets of a prison-house before they are clear of it".

You can find more Kipling here:

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