Friday, September 5, 2014

The Female of the Species

Rudyard Kipling

I have presented the text below, but encourage my reader anyway to look at it on the Kipling Society's website (here), for reasons that should become apparent as soon as you land there: on the page I have given above, not the one with the text of the poem.

If you have just returned from visiting that webpage, there should be an expression of considerable surprise on your face, because this is probably not the Kipling you had anticipated. Alongside Tennyson and Browning, he is perceived to have been not simply the Victorian poet, but the ultimate apologist for everything that may be called Victorian: capitalism, slavery, colonial expansion, steam railways, racism, Prince Albert, boxing, public schools, terraced houses, doylies; and amongst these, the secondary position of women in a society ruled by men. 

Hyperbolise the list far enough and you will have Kipling blamed for Tennyson and Browning, and vice-versa. The vilification turns out to be absurd. We are all the children of our era; we are all restricted by the visible horizons; and those whose intentions are righteous deserve at the very least a fair hearing. Of those who berate Kipling – the symbolic Kipling, not the confused and ambivalent, all-too-human Kipling – how many had actually read before today "The Female of the Species", let alone observed its feminist-supporting, even anti-male satire? Or the undisguisedly vitriolic attack on the class system in "The Widow At Windsor"? Or the personal bitterness at his feeling of being a rejected, even an ostracised outsider to the very pillars of Victoriana whom he is supposed to epitomise, in "In The Neolithic Age"? Look again, ye accusers; there is far more to Kipling than meets the eyediological correctness of your ephemeral and transitory day. I hereby plead for an urgent reappraisal.

Kipling's command of rhythm is equalled only by Robert Service, his imitator, and by Longfellow, his precursor (Betjeman would like to be mentioned, but Betjeman's rhythms are those of a suburban lawn-mower, ploughing up and straight back down the furrows of a Berkshire lawn, trying to make it fit for croquet). The danger implicit in all his verse – verse, not poetry – is that it could easily be mistaken for music hall, or simply lapse into children's doggerel. It is much harder to control this type of scansion, this type of rhyming scheme, even than the sonnet; and this precisely because of that implicit danger. Yet Kipling never falters, and if the driving of this form of rhyme and rhythm suggests something too close to the popular song for the kultur-snobben to accommodate, surely we can also admire a man who contrived to make verse popular without diminishing its aesthetic or intellectual or even spiritual qualities? I plead, I plead, I plead in his defence. 

WHEN the Himalayan peasant meets the he-bear in his pride,
He shouts to scare the monster, who will often turn aside.
But the she-bear thus accosted rends the peasant tooth and nail,

For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.

When Nag the basking cobra hears the careless foot of man,
He will sometimes wriggle sideways and avoid it if he can.
But his mate makes no such motion where she camps beside the trail, 

For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.

When the early Jesuit fathers preached to Hurons and Choctaws,
They prayed to be delivered from the vengeance of the squaws.
’Twas the women, not the warriors, turned those stark enthusiasts pale,

 For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.

Man’s timid heart is bursting with the things he must not say,
For the Woman that God gave him isn’t his to give away;
But when hunter meets with husband, each confirms the other’s tale—
The female of the species is more deadly than the male.

Man, a bear in most relations—worm and savage otherwise,—
Man propounds negotiations, Man accepts the compromise.
Very rarely will he squarely push the logic of a fact
To its ultimate conclusion in unmitigated act.

Fear, or foolishness, impels him, ere he lay the wicked low,
To concede some form of trial even to his fiercest foe.
Mirth obscene diverts his anger—Doubt and Pity oft perplex
Him in dealing with an issue—to the scandal of The Sex!

But the Woman that God gave him, every fibre of her frame
Proves her launched for one sole issue, armed and engined for the same;
And to serve that single issue, lest the generations fail,
The female of the species must be deadlier than the male.

She who faces Death by torture for each life beneath her breast
May not deal in doubt or pity—must not swerve for fact or jest.
These be purely male diversions—not in these her honour dwells.
She the Other Law we live by, is that Law and nothing else.

She can bring no more to living than the powers that make her great
As the Mother of the Infant and the Mistress of the Mate.
And when Babe and Man are lacking and she strides unclaimed to claim
Her right as femme (and baron), her equipment is the same.

She is wedded to convictions—in default of grosser ties;
Her contentions are her children, Heaven help him who denies!—
He will meet no suave discussion, but the instant, white-hot, wild,
Wakened female of the species warring as for spouse and child.

Unprovoked and awful charges—even so the she-bear fights,
Speech that drips, corrodes, and poisons—even so the cobra bites,
Scientific vivisection of one nerve till it is raw
And the victim writhes in anguish—like the Jesuit with the squaw!

So it comes that Man, the coward, when he gathers to confer
With his fellow-braves in council, dare not leave a place for her
Where, at war with Life and Conscience, he uplifts his erring hands
To some God of Abstract justice—which no woman understands.

And Man knows it! Knows, moreover, that the Woman that God gave him
Must command but may not govern—shall enthral but not enslave him.
And She knows, because She warns him, and Her instincts never fail,
That the Female of Her Species is more deadly than the Male.

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