Alexander Bubb and Elleke Boehmer, ‘Meeting Without Knowing It: The Intertwined Lives of Rudyard Kipling and W.B. Yeats’

Elleke Boehmer set the scene for this talk by showing us a photograph of William Rothenstein and Abaninadrath Tagore. The two had their first contact in India and through these visual means, Boehmer opened up questions of centre and periphery when discussing the British imperial legacy. The photo, Boehmer told us, showed conform in the domestic home, the Indian poet being welcomed into the interior space of the Rothenstein home. In this sense, the relationship between the two offers a paradigm of understanding that goes against the usual imperial grain to offer a more nuanced understanding of colonial contact.

Alexander Bubb continued this theme of reimagining colonial impact in his talk, ‘Meeting without Knowing It: the Intertwined Lives of Rudyard Kipling and W.B. Yeats’. Bubb began with the issue of centenaries—why are centenaries so popular, and what can they tell us about the subjects they celebrate? Why do we choose births and deaths as moments of commemoration? For Bubb, the fact that Kipling and Yeats were born in the same year offered him an opportunity to re-examine the legacies these two authors left behind, as well as their uniquely intertwined and parallel histories.

As Bubb’s biography demonstrates, Kipling and Yeats were in direct political opposition for much of their careers. Yet the two were pained by the same antithetical influences, and grappling with many of the same problems, albeit in radically different ways. They even found the same patron in W.E. Henley, and in 1890s London they were stylistically, ideologically, and literally proximate. And yet, they never quite met, both on political grounds, or in person. The Boer war was a good example of this proximity at a distance; while Kipling was in favour of it, Yeats, on the other hand, discouraged Irish enlistment. Yet in both these aims, their poetry drew on similar themes of mythology in culture. Bubb explored close-readings of several of Yeats’ and Kipling’s poems to show how reading them in parallel produces echoes across both lives and works—for instance, when Kipling adapts Yeats in ‘Chant-Pagan’, both drawing on nationalist and colonialist discourses in different ways. Despite different political ends, their shared conservatism arose from similar anxieties, and both concerned themselves with what they saw as the corruption of their respective national identities.

Underlying all this was the question of proximity with a distance, which arose again explicitly in the questions asked as Bubb finished. What does it mean to meet without knowing it—to circle around each other obliquely, to come into contact only through print and a shared historical context? What would it have meant if Yeats and Kipling had met, even briefly? (Indeed, there was a point in the project where Bubb was afraid this might have been the case, given their close proximity in London). Bubb represents a new kind of biography that traces individual lives through a shared aesthetic, historical and political context, not unlike the recent biography Wildly Romantic: The English Romantic Poets, by Catherine Adronik. Like the photograph Boehmer began with the talk with, it represents a paradigm that, by going against the traditional grain, promises new directions in biographies of authors.

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