Aung San Suu Kyi, Kipling and Henley

June 28, 2011

In the first of her Reith Lectures, Aung San Suu Kyi cited four poets. Two were Russians: Anna Akhmatova and Irina Ratushinskaya,  who were voices of independence and hope in the dark years. Two were English. She finished her talk with some lines from Kipling:

I’d not give way for an Emperor,
I’d hold my road for a King —
To the Triple Crown I would not bow down —
But this is a different thing.
I’11 not fight with the Powers of Air,
Sentry, pass him through!
Drawbridge let fall, ’tis the Lord of us all,
The Dreamer whose dreams come true!


These lines are Kipling’s heading to chapter XV of Kim.  It’s good to think that Kipling’s works are still known and respected in the East, at a time when he is rather conspicuously not on the secondary school curriculum in England.

The other English poet she mentioned was W.E.Henley, with  a reference to his Invictus:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.


Bust of Henley, by Rodin

Invictus has become a popular poem recently, even giving its name to a film directed by Clint Eastwood. I wish some other Henley poems were as well-known. His In Hospital sequence, for example. ( From an early age, Henley suffered from tuberculosis of the bone, and his left leg was amputated below the knee. He carried this off with a swagger, though, and his friend Robert Louis Stevenson cited him as the original of Long John Silver.)

STAFF-NURSE: NEW STYLE

Blue-eyed and bright of face but waning fast
Into the sere of virginal decay,
I view her as she enters, day by day,
As a sweet sunset almost overpast.
Kindly and calm, patrician to the last,
Superbly falls her gown of sober gray,
And on her chignon’s elegant array
The plainest cap is somehow touched with caste.
She talks BEETHOVEN; frowns disapprobation
At BALZAC’S name, sighs it at ‘poor GEORGE SAND’S’;
Knows that she has exceeding pretty hands;
Speaks Latin with a right accentuation;
And gives at need (as one who understands)
Draught, counsel, diagnosis, exhortation.

Maybe the very best of his poems, though, is this one:

Madam Life’s a piece in bloom
Death goes dogging everywhere:
She’s the tenant of the room,
He’s the ruffian on the stair.

You shall see her as a friend,
You shall bilk him once and twice;
But he’ll trap you in the end,
And he’ll stick you for her price.

With his kneebones at your chest,
And his knuckles in your throat,
You would reason—plead—protest!
Clutching at her petticoat;

But she’s heard it all before,
Well she knows you’ve had your fun,
Gingerly she gains the door,
And your little job is done.

A terrific poet.

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3 Responses to “Aung San Suu Kyi, Kipling and Henley”

  1. peter loizos Says:

    Many thanks, Snakeskin, for helping us out with both Kipling, and Henley. A week or two ago, a young Egyptian woman strongly active in the democracy movement finished a video with quotes from Kipling’s “If”, and that made me think how ironic it is that in the UK Kipling has been neglected because he has been pigeon-holed as a gung-ho imperialist by people who cannot have read him very carefully, and here he is getting a new life among people who really know what it means to fight for their freedoms.


  2. Having just listened to Aung San Suu Kyi’s lecture sent to me by our Burmese Humphrey Fellow. I wondered how I would find the poetic references that she used so beautifully. Thank you for posting this and enabling the communication that she speaks of in her lecture. Kim Rosen , author of “Saved by a poem” , also has helped me appreciate the power of poetry. Thanks again whoever you are at Snakeskin.

  3. Penelope Says:

    Hooray for your erudition, and grateful thanks for making it available, though with my love of Kim I am ashamed that I did not recognise it.


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