Can a poem be powerful yet also, viewed rationally, a bit daft? If so, then I think this one by Rudyard Kipling certainly manages it. It is intimately associated with Kipling’s short story ‘The Wish House’, which it prefixes in his 1926 collection ‘Debits and Credits’, and that story itself is very odd, yet also quite masterful in its way. It concerns a woman Grace Ashcroft, who, after various affairs in which she received affection that she did not return, late in life falls deeply in love with a man called Harry Mockler. He becomes ill and she goes to a ‘wish house’ that is inhabited by a ‘Token’, some kind of wraith or supernatural being who can, or so she believes, grant her the power to take on herself another’s suffering. Which she does, saying ‘Let me take everythin’ bad that’s in store for my man, ’Arry Mockler, for love’s sake’. Subsequently she injures her ankle and then develops an ulcer on her leg that turns cancerous, causing her great pain.
It is a moving tale and the poem is harrowing in its uncompromising evocation of disease and pain, but the problem I have with it is that the world simply does not work like that. Empathy is a fine thing, but it has its practical limits. I knew a little girl who died of childhood leukaemia after a short and suffering life: I am sure that if there had been any way for her loving parents to take pain away from her and into themselves they would have done so. The truth, I fear, lies much more in the direction of Robert Frost’s bleak assessment: ‘The nearest friends can go/With anyone to death, comes so far short/They might as well not try to go at all.’
Nonetheless, the poem and story bear witness to what a strange and powerful writer, quite unlike anyone else, Kipling at his best could be. As for their psychology, given that the story first appeared, in magazine form, in 1924 it is hard not to see in them a wish-fulfilment fantasy on Kipling’s part, a vicarious projection of himself into the narrative. He was racked with guilt over the death of his son John in the Great War, having pulled strings to get him a commission in the army after he had initially been rejected due to poor eyesight. Maybe one can hear in that ‘for love’s sake’ Kipling’s own sublimated version of David’s great cry in the Bible: ‘Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!’
Note: ‘the God’ – I take this to refer to Eros, the god of love, feeling scorned because of Grace Ashcroft’s earlier behaviour in affairs of the heart, and now exacting vengeance. Those averse to divinities, vengeful or otherwise, can simply take it as karma.
‘Late Came The God’ (from ‘The Wish House’)
Late came the God, having sent his forerunners who were not regarded –
Late, but in wrath;
Saying: ‘The wrong shall be paid, the contempt be rewarded
On all that she hath.’
He poisoned the blade and struck home, the full bosom receiving
The wound and the venom in one, past cure or relieving.
He made treaty with Time to stand still that the grief might be fresh –
Daily renewed and nightly pursued through her soul to her flesh –
Mornings of memory, noontides of agony, midnights unslaked for her,
Till the stones of the street of her Hells and her Paradise ached for her.
So she lived while her body corrupted upon her.
And she called on the Night for a sign, and a Sign was allowed,
And she builded an Altar and served by the light of her Vision –
Alone, without hope of regard or reward, but uncowed,
Resolute, selfless, divine.
These things she did in Love’s honour…
What is a God beside Woman? Dust and derision!