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Yeats’s Legacies

Warwick Gould

Review essays and reviews

Alexander Bubb, Meeting Without Knowing It: Kipling and Yeats at the Fin de Siècle

(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 288. ISBN 97801987538721

Jad Adams

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  • 1 Note—Further information may have been gathered since this article was prepared for publication. If (...)

1The relationship between Yeats and Kipling is such an obvious area of study it is surprising that no one has worked on it before. They were born in the same year (1865); had their first books published in 1886: Departmental Ditties for Kipling, Mosada for Yeats; arrived in London to begin literary careers in close proximity—1889 for Kipling, 1887 for Yeats; they became the first and second English language recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature, 1907 in Kipling’s case, 1923 in that of Yeats; and they died within three years of each other in 1936 and 1939.

2However, as Alexander Bubb indicates in his title, the two poets did not know each other, and their presence in each other’s lives and work was more like planetary influence than direct contact. We thus have this consideration of how the authors, in Foucault’s phrase which Bubb borrows for his title, ‘criticise one another, invalidate one another, pillage one another, meet without knowing it’.

3Bubb refers to ‘uncanny echoes’ despite their apparent antipathy. Yeats tended not to make public pronouncements on living writers, waiting until they ‘had the goodness to die’. He did make one unguarded comment to an American reporter in 1903, ‘Kipling had a soul to sell and he sold it to the devil… Undoubtedly Kipling is a man of great genius. He has done a work of great beauty and of a new kind. But latterly he has turned himself into a kind of imperialist journalist in prose and verse, and with all that I have no sympathy’.

4Over time the popular judgement has presented us with Kipling the imperialist and Yeats the Irish nationalist; Kipling the lyricist and Yeats the occultist. In such a presentation Kipling the modernist and Yeats the Victorian are erased from the canonical memory while at the same time their many similarities are glossed over. Alexander Bubb brings abundant evidence to emphasise the ways their work and their lives in fact reflected those of each other, while at the same time demonstrating the complexity of their literary development in terms of source material, national sentiment and artistic pose.

5Several of us have questioned whether the early Kipling really deserves to be in the camp of his and Yeats’mutual friend w. e. Henley’s imperialist ‘hearties’. Bubb remarks that Kipling’s ‘cod-Rossetti juvenilia’ is comparable to those of Ernest Dowson and early Yeats. Yet even later than juvenilia, in the early 1890s, Kipling’s artistic heritage is demonstrably closer to that of the aesthetes Pater and Wilde and therefore closer to that of the Rhymers’Club with which Yeats was associated, than it is to the poets of empire. Both writers inherited from aestheticism and the pre-Raphaelites, Yeats from his father John Butler Yeats’studio and Kipling from that of his father Lockwood Kipling, and also from his uncle Edward Burne-Jones.

6Bubb sees Ireland and India offering both men something similar in landscape and belonging with thoughtful transpositions of Yeats’and Kipling’work such as Yeats’being ‘a boy with never a crack in my heart’ and Kipling’s ‘life unaltered our childhood knew’. Both poets lament their losses, of Sligo and Bombay respectively,

7Both writers experimented with forms and tropes in the context of fin de siècle London; both conducted experiments in modern mythology; both strove to express vernacular. Kipling did so with the common soldier’s slang and use of Hindi in which he had been brought up. Yeats, who Bubb remarks ‘would only ever possess a rudimentary grasp of Gaelic’ aimed for ‘an indefinable Irish quality of rhythm and style’ and used vernacular idiom in his verse and drama.

8In artistic dead ends there were also similarities: both wrote novels, a form in which neither was to excel: Yeats’ John Sherman and Kipling’s The Light That Failed, both published in 1891, both worked out, in less than satisfactory terms, questions relating to art and women. Bubb remarks that ‘Both concern heroes who are self-divided, vagrant and meandering, and who in their shiftless exile are tempted by female characters associated with a frivolous and rootless art….This precipitates a crisis of identity, resolved by an awakening from troubled dreams that is consummated in a geographic homecoming’.

9The comparisons can be pushed too far, however. By 1898 Kipling was one of the world’s wealthiest authors while Lady Gregory was still paying Yeats’dental bills. Kipling’s talking-animal fantasy world in The Jungle Book was superlatively successful; Yeats’occultism and folklore contributed to his poetic universe but he never took the public by storm with it, ‘Fairies are not popular this side of the water, are considered unscientific’, he remarked gloomily.

10Bubb shows a wide reading of Victorian influences on, and contemporaries of, his chosen authors, most valuably in the chapter ‘Negotiating the Literary World of Fin de Siècle London’. In this chapter the poets do not quite meet at the dinner tables of w. e. Henley and Edmund Gosse. In the event, they were to meet only in cartoons and satirical gossip.

11It is easy to recommend this painstaking analysis and detailed use of sources in pursuing the ‘submerged relationship’. Bubb considers that among Yeats’s contemporaries, perhaps only Kipling could rival him in the determination to seek poetic authority. With this in mind, he restores an understanding of their shared intellectual background which he finds in the mutually formative period he describes here before the Boer War, in which conflict they supported opposite sides and which, in Bubb’s words, ‘initiated their estrangement within the historical record’.


Alexander Bubb, Meeting Without Knowing It: Kipling and Yeats at the Fin de Siècle (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 288. ISBN 9780198753872


1 Note—Further information may have been gathered since this article was prepared for publication. If you would like to find out if any further information has been discovered that may help your own research, why not write to the author at Quite apart from anything else, feedback is always welcomed.


Research Fellow at the Institute of English Studies, University of London. He is an historian working as an author and an independent television producer. He specializes in radical characters from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the Decadence of the 1890s. His literary work includes Kipling (2004), Madder Music, Stronger Wine: The Life of Ernest Dowson (2000) and Hideous Absinthe: A History of the Devil in a Bottle (2004). His most recent book is Women and the Vote: A World History (2014); other books include Tony Benn: A Biography (1992 and, updated, 2011) Gandhi: Naked Ambition (2009) Pankhurst (2003) and The Dynasty: The Nehru-Gandhi Story. His television work includes biographies of Kitchener, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and of historical characters from London’s East End. See