Friday, July 25, 2014

The Living Dead

Honouring our poetic ancestors

The Looking Glass
By Rudyard Kipling 1865-1936

The Queen was in her chamber, and she was middling old,
Her petticoat was satin and her stomacher was gold.
Backwards and forwards and sideways did she pass,
Making up her mind to face the cruel looking-glass.
The cruel looking-glass that will never show a lass
As comely or as kindly or as young as once she was!

The Queen was in her chamber, a-combing of her hair,
There came Queen Mary's spirit and it stood behind her chair,
Singing, “Backwards and forwards and sideways may you pass,
But I will stand behind you till you face the looking-glass.
The cruel looking-glass that will never show a lass
As lovely or unlucky or as lonely as I was!”

The Queen was in her chamber, a-weeping very sore,
There came Lord Leicester's spirit and it scratched upon the door,
Singing, “Backwards and forwards and sideways may you pass,
But I will walk beside you till you face the looking-glass.
The cruel looking-glass that will never show a lass
As hard and unforgiving or as wicked as you was!”

The Queen was in her chamber; her sins were on her head;
She looked the spirits up and down and statelily she said:
“Backwards and forwards and sideways though I've been,
Yet I am Harry's daughter and I am England's Queen!”
And she faced the looking-glass (and whatever else there was),
And she saw her day was over and she saw her beauty pass
In the cruel looking-glass that can always hurt a lass
More hard than any ghost there is or any man there was!


Yes, well, I guess you have to know your English history, which I suppose not everyone in this international audience will. But maybe the palpable emotion of it carries you past the need for factual detail. I hope so! It's one of my favourite things, largely for that emotion ... but enhanced, I confess, by having been brought up on romanticised stories of English kings and queens. Back then, when I was growing up, Australians called England "the mother country" — and to this day Elizabeth II is Queen of Australia as well as Britain.

The poem is about Queen Elizabeth I, whom I've admired since my childhood. But although she was a great leader of her country, she was not perfect, and they were difficult times. She imprisoned and eventually executed her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots who sought refuge in England. She allowed Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester to believe for many years that she might marry him one day, and was very jealous and possessive towards him, yet ultimately decided to remain single. Both these decisions could be seen as matters of political expediency — and/or they could be viewed as being in the best interests of the kingdom. In any case both Mary and Leicester had cause to reproach her, and the memory of what transpired might well have played on the mind of the Queen as she aged. 

That's by way of background. Poetically I find it quite moving, and at the end very stirring —thrilling in its defiance. I want to cheer her on! And then the poem falls away on a melancholy, yet philosophical note. We get old, our day passes. There's an inevitability about it when all's said and done.

Kipling's one of my favourite writers, for his fiction as well as his poems. In this poem his use of rhyme, metre and other devices is masterly in creating the moods and effects he wants. (It comes from Rewards and Fairies, stories for children.) 

He was a prolific writer for adults and children, in various genres, and was much admired by the likes of Henry James and T. S. Eliot, who nowadays I think are considered greater writers than Kipling. There was no-one quite like him, and among other things I think he was a great entertainer. Read all about his many writings and his interesting life at the Wikipedia link on his name, above. And here is a site where you can read many of his works online. One that is not there, his novel Kim, is available here as a free ebook. (Hang on a minute while I grab my copy. Oh, how I loved that book in my youth.) He also has a number of pages on Amazon.

There's so much to say about Kipling, it's hard to stop. But above all, I hope you enjoy the poem.

P.S. And then there's a little more to say — in Susan's and my comments below.

17 comments:

  1. I always enjoy Kipling's craft. And I truly enjoyed this until the final couplet. There I feel that everything she achieved is shown to submit to vanity. I think he was aiming to use the mirror as a symbol of time passing, that she traveled a natural course until aged. But it sounds like "Until she realized she's a woman."

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    1. Good point! Kipling was a product of his era, and his writings have often seemed controversial to later generations for that reason - in many ways. He seems to be implying here that all women share that vanity. Indeed, in pre-feminist times, it was a huge requirement that women be beautiful in the eyes of men. And still, today, I think it's a hard one to break free of. Elizabeth was attractive as a young woman, apparently — and as Queen, she set the standard of beauty, and was lavishly complimented by her courtiers. She resorted to heavy make-up, wigs and elaborate jewels as she aged, not only in vanity but to preserve a mystique which was crucial to the stability of her reign. I think the mirror, in each verse, is about facing the truth. What she is confronting at the end is not only the loss of her youth and beauty, but also the loss of her power. Her popularity, too, was waning towards the end of her life. And again, in bygone eras, in many so-called civilised societies, old women were disregarded. Tribal societies, I think, were the ones who revered their increasing wisdom. Feminism has helped set in motion a change in that respect too, though there is still a way to go.

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    2. Great stuff, girls. Loved it.

      Her Power Dressing was wonderful, and purely a political gesture, as you say. Our powers-that-be aren't all that different these days and we accept it.
      Long live the Elizabeths, in our minds at least, both I and II. I for one am pleased they were both blessed with physical beauty, and intellect and charm in I and charm and grace in II.
      The country was fortunate under both reigns to have them there in longevity.
      What do we have to look forward to?
      Hmm, I wonder.

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  2. Thank you, Rosemary for another interesting post, now - about R.Kipling. I familiar mostly with the translation of his children book and poems. Here the link to read the poems in the different languages: http://4umi.com/kipling/if/ru Think, it's time to read this wonderful writer in his original language. Thanks for the links and info, Rosemary.

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    1. Yes, he writes very well in English! (*Grin*) Thanks for the link; I became happily distracted by all the parodies of "If".

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  3. I did enjoy the poem and am so glad I stopped by today. Thank you so much for the historical background. I read Susan's comment and she has a point.

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    1. Yes, she does. See my reply to her, above.

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  4. Great selection, and I am also fascinated with royalty and all the old stories of beheadings and such. Elizabeth is Queen in Canada too, so I got right into the spirit of the poem. There is a rather wicked humor in it, and I enjoyed it muchly. Thanks, Rosemary.

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    1. Yes, it does have that wicked humour too. Kipling is never as simple as he seems. Even when apparently articulating the views of his peers, there are things that make one wonder: is he in fact holding up the mirror instead?

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  5. Have to confess that I have always thought his verse was trite. Then watching a documentary about his life, his story couldn't alter my opinion. Liked your discussion about the mirror concept though and wrote about it here

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    1. Thank you, much enjoyed your mirror poems, and the page of revisions. :)

      I think his most famous poem, If, is pretty awful, LOL.

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  6. Rosemary, I really enjoyed this very much. And even moreso, I think, the commentary you made & the comments of others. I had not realized that Queen Elizabeth I was the one who had Mary Queen of Scots beheaded. Oh my! I like the discussion about the mirror. Interestingly, the only poem I can really remember having read by Kipling in school is "If," which you mentioned being quite awful. Thank you for all the work you do!

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    1. Perhaps I should have said, "awful in my opinion" lol. Lots of people seem to think it's wonderful. In my own school days it was dinned into us, so I too can remember it with ease.The sentiments seem to belong to a past era, and I dislike the sing-songness — despite which quality, it seems to me prosey in its language.

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  7. Thanks for sharing this poem, Rosemary! Both Elizabeths are quite formidable queens in their own ways.

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  8. Interesting that this pops up here because I have been over the past week reading a volume of Kipling short stories. They are fascinating albeit a slow read as a lot of the dialog is written in British slang and I have to think a lot about what they are saying before I understand. Anyway thanks for sharing this here.

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    1. Not only British slang, but that of a bygone era!

      I love his short story collections, Puck o' Pook's Hill and Rewards and Fairies.

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