There’s a Kipling poem titled A Death-Bed I read many years ago and passed over because I didn’t understand it. It’s rather a gruesome thing, but also disjointed and hard to follow. Since then, of course, this Internet thing came along and explanations became easier to find.
It seems that like a lot of other Englishmen, by 1918 Rudyard Kipling really really hated Kaiser Wilhelm. And since there was no other way to do it, Kipling killed him with throat cancer in a poem.
“This is the State above the Law.
The State exists for the State alone.”
[This is a gland at the back of the jaw,
And an answering lump by the collar-bone.],
Some die shouting in gas or fire;
Some die silent, by shell and shot.
Some die desperate, caught on the wire;
Some die suddenly. This will not.
“Regis suprema voluntas Lex”
[It will follow the regular course of- throats.]
Some die pinned by the broken decks,
Some die sobbing between the boats.
Some die eloquent, pressed to death
By the sliding trench, as their friends can hear.
Some die wholly in half a breath.
Some- give trouble for half a year.
“There is neither Evil nor Good in life
Except as the needs of the State ordain.”
[Since it is rather too late for the knife,
All we can do is to mask the pain.]
Some die saintly in faith and hope-
One died thus in a prison-yard-
Some die broken by rape or the rope;
Some die easily. This dies hard.
“I will dash to pieces who bar my way.
Woe to the traitor! Woe to the weak!”
[Let him write what he wishes to say.
It tires him out if he tries to speak.]
Some die quietly. Some abound
In loud self-pity. Others spread
Bad morale through the cots around…
This is a type that is better dead.
“The war was forced on me by my foes.
All that I sought was the right to live.”
[Don’t be afraid of a triple dose;
The pain will neutralize all we give.
Here are the needles. See that he dies
While the effects of the drug endure-
What is the question he asks with his eyes?-
Yes, All-Highest, to God, be sure.]
The writer at the Kipling Society page says the disjointed nature of the poem comes from it being written in three voices: Wilhelm, a doctor, and a commentator whom I’d guess is Kipling himself. (“Some die shouting in gas or fire; Some die silent, by shell and shot. Some die desperate, caught on the wire; Some die suddenly. This will not.”)
My own knowledge of the war doesn’t go any deeper than Tuchman so I’m no expert but I’ve often thought the people who fantasize about going back in time and assassinating Hitler aren’t going far enough back in time, and are targeting the wrong despot.
This poem didn’t go over very well, I gather, being “the most savage poem Kipling every wrote.” But Kipling’s own son died in one of those horrible battles, so I guess he was entitled to an opinion.