The Truth Behind a Poem

A comment in our last workshop reminded me of a question Dr. Asher once asked us in our Philosophy and Literature course a year or two ago (side note, great class. Highly recommend). He put forth a poem about a man whose son died in one World War I, and asked if the poem would have any less meaning if the son in the poet’s piece did not truly exist.

As I’m unfortunately blanking on which poem he showed us, I will instead point to “Common Form” from Kipling’s Epitaphs of the War: “If any question why we died, / Tell them, because our fathers lied.”

This poem, or, rather, couplet, has stayed with me (haunted, may perhaps be a better word) since I was sixteen and speaking to my father—a major history buff, whose favorite war was WWI—about Kipling’s life.  For those who don’t know the details, Rudyard Kipling was a well-known English writer, big fan of imperialism, and who worked with the English government to write pro-WWI propaganda, an offer he immediately accepted. Much to his delight, his son John attempted to join the Royal Navy, but was rejected on medical grounds due to his terrible eye-sight. He then tried to join the military, but again was rejected for the same reasons. Finally, he was accepted into Irish Guards, but only because his father, who was close friends with the commander and chief of the British Army, pulled strings to get him in. Sadly, John died in battle, and sources say he was last seen stumbling in the mud in search of his glasses, which had fallen off during attack. Shortly after his death, Kipling wrote the famous lines: “If any question why we died, / Tell them, because our fathers lied.” Likely in reference to his grief in being the one to get his son into the military, despite his son’s repeated failed medical exams.

Obviously, there are countless stories and poems about death and loss of loved ones, but part of what makes Kipling’s poetry, particularly these two lines, so haunting to me is the tragic nature of his son’s death and the guilt he suffered for the rest of his life due to the role he indirectly played in causing it. In essence, it is Kipling’s experience that comes through in these lines that gives legacy to the poem. Even if Kipling did not have a son, and is instead an incredibly empathetic writer, I believe that true experience still must come into play in order for the poem to stick with the reader the way “Common Man” had for me. In the case of “Common Man,” the true experience came from knowing Kipling’s life, but I’m sure if it were a fictional poem read by an individual who had Kipling’s level of guilt for losing someone, and who read these lines, the reader’s true experience would come forth and take hold of the lines more than a reader who lacked that guilt… if that makes any sense.

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