What Kipling heard
Rudyard Kipling had an ear for sounds — both natural and human-made — that would pass almost unnoticed by the ears of most people. This quality is often forgotten today in the face of Kipling’s better-known penchant for strident nationalism and what today would be considered racism.
The ability to pay attention to natural sounds appears in a chapter not well known these days, called “Their Lawful Occasions.” It was written in the decade before World War I, and the narrator is on a torpedo boat belonging to the British Navy, taking part in maneuvers of the channel fleet.
The torpedo boat is called 267. The narrator describes the sound of the sea against the side of the boat as he settles down to sleep:
“I coiled down on an iron-hard horsehair pillow next to the quivering steel wall. The sea, sliding over 267’s skin, worried me with importunate, half-caught confidences. It drummed tackily to gather my attention, coughed, spat, cleared its throat, and on the eve of that portentous communication, retired upstage as a multitude whispering.
“Anon, I caught the tramp of armies afoot, the hum of crowded cities awaiting the event, the single sob of a woman, and dry roaring of wild beasts. Our sucking uplift across the crest of some little swell was nothing less than the haling forth of new worlds; our half-turning descent into the hollow of its mate, the abysmal plunge of God-forgotten planets. Through all these phenomena and more ... my body strove to accommodate itself to the infernal vibration of the machine.”
Later in the article he described what the sea looked like in the ship’s passage down the channel:
“The ribbed and pitted coal dust on our decks, all iridescent under the sun; the first filmy haze that paled the shadows of our funnels about lunch time; the gradual die-down and dulling over the short, cheery seas; the sea that changed to a swell; the swell the crumbled up and ran all whither oilily; the triumphant, almost audible roll inward of wandering fog walls that had been stalking us for two hours and — welt upon welt — chill as the grave, the drive of the interminable main fog of the Atlantic.”
Then there is a railroad scene in the novel “Captains Courageous.” A multimillionaire’s private car is being expedited across the continent:
“Now they heard the swish of a water tank, and the gutteral voice of a Chinaman, the clink-clink of hammers that tested the Krupp steel wheels, and the oath of a tramp chased off the rear platform; now the solid crash of coal shot into the tender; and now a beating back of noises as they flew past a waiting train. Now they looked out into great abysses, a trestle purring beneath their tread, or up to rocks that barred out half the stars. Now scaur and ravine changed and rolled back to jagged mountains on the horizon’s edge, and now broke into hills lower and lower, till at last came the true plains.”
All these scenes that have been described are something that any person would have seen or listened to, but Kipling’s talent was in putting them into words.
Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Rutland Herald.