Sunday, November 21, 2010

Rudyard Kipling and "Late Came the God"


Some folks are serious about falling in love. If you have your love in your life right now, and some of you have had that special love in your life for decades, then this is not something you think much about for yourself. You may get caught up in someone else’s search for the love of her or his life when your child is making that great search or when one of your friends gets divorced and begins to try again at love or in your favorite genre of reading material. Otherwise, you are happily settled and in love.

Not everyone is concerned about love and falling in love, but it is a major theme in the history of humanity. Most people have been or are concerned about finding true love, falling in love, staying in love. It’s the theme of untold numbers of books, films, and poems.

For the person who has trouble finding Ms. or Mr. Right, there’s an abundance of help. There are well-meaning busybodies who double as your friends. There are fretting parents. Today, it’s mechanized on the internet, and before that there were introduction services. Before those, in some cultures, there were those, mostly women, whose job it was in a village or community to provide matchmaking services; they were called “matchmakers.”

My favorite matchmaker is not someone who, in real life, has tried to fix me up with someone they thought could be my true love; rather, she is Yenta, the matchmaker, in the marvelous musical, “Fiddler on the Roof.” The role was originated on Broadway by the late Bea Arthur, the great comic actor most remembered for her trailblazing television show, “Maude,” and for her long stint as Dorothy on “The Golden Girls.”

In “Fiddler,” the daughters of even a poor milkman like Tevya will get their husbands through the work of Yenta, and they are encouraged not even to think about trying to match themselves up with a love interest through their own efforts. The daughters sing one of the three or so most memorable songs from the musical, “Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me a Match.”

Matchmaker, Matchmaker,

Make me a match,

Find me a find,

catch me a catch

Matchmaker, Matchmaker

Look through your book,

And make me a perfect match

Matchmaker, Matchmaker,

I'll bring the veil,

You bring the groom,

Slender and pale.

Bring me a ring for I'm longing to be,

The envy of all I see.

For Papa,

Make him a scholar.

For mama,

Make him rich as a king.

For me, well,

I wouldn't holler

If he were as handsome as anything.

Matchmaker, Matchmaker,

Make me a match,

Find me a find,

Catch me a catch,

Night after night in the dark I'm alone

So find me a match,

Of my own.

Some people who can’t find love become desperate. They pick out the person they want, even if they’ve never met that person, and seek out all sorts of ways to be noticed by the person with whom they’ve decided to share love. In the extreme, the person on the prowl for love may become a stalker. Movie stars and other famous people are often the love interests of lonely fans who cross the line, trying to establish intimacy.

There are also those who are jilted in a relationship or an affair who simply can’t take, “No,” for an answer. Simon and Garfunkel furthered their tremendous popularity singing, “There Must Be Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover,” but none of those could ensure that the left lover would agree to the new arrangement. If you ever saw the chilling film, “Fatal Attraction,” you’ll never forget Glenn Close’s creepy character who will not stand for Michael Douglas’s rejection.

Some jilted lovers have killed the one whom they said they loved with all their hearts. Some jilted lovers, as is also the case with some lonely lovers, take their own lives because they cannot share love with the one they want or because they feel that there is no one in all the world who loves them.

Anyone who has ever had to struggle for the cause of love, for the sake of love, whether that meant dealing with the pitfalls of a long distance relationship or having to wait patiently for one’s beloved to let go of heavy baggage certainly understands, heart to heart, Diana’s song in “A Chorus Line,” “...won’t forget, can’t regret, what I did for love.”

It interests me that in societies where arranged marriages are the norm, and there are several places in the world this is still the case, love isn’t taken to be a requirement in the arranged relationship. Matters of functionality take the lead. Who does this chore, and who does that chore in the maintaining of the household? If love evolves, that’s a wonderful extra, but it’s not a requirement for a successful marriage.

Almost every couple we come upon in Hebrew and Christian scripture came together because their relationship was arranged, and this applies to men who had more than one wife. We see a few instances of inspiring love that has grown between them, but this wasn’t the norm; and again it wasn’t the expectation. Adam and Eve are mythological characters, not historical people, but their relationship was of utmost importance to the ancient Hebrews and later the Christians who included Hebrew scripture as a part of their Bible. There is no indication that Adam and Eve loved each other unless the writer’s assertion that the two of them became one flesh is meant to point to love; I think that is not the case. There IS evidence that Adam preferred the company of Eve to the company of a donkey, and there is evidence that Eve and Adam relied on each other and were helpmeets; but love isn’t required for that.

Literalists want to make Eve’s and Adam’s relationship the paradigm for all successive relationships in history. Those who interpret the creation stories in such a way as to make the relationship of Eve and Adam exemplary for all relationships in all generations after them miss a lot of key points. One is, Eve and Adam were not married. Their creation predated the establishment of marriage. Today, the judgmental folk call such an arrangement, “living in sin.” Oops!

Furthermore, all of Eve’s and Adam’s children were born to unwed parents. Are these the kinds of “family values” that James Dobson has in mind for his “Focus on the Family” principles? No, not at all, but the stories of creation can’t be twisted around to accommodate modern, Christian, fundamentalist views on just what marriage is.

Adam and Eve were never married--though they were monogamous, which was pretty easy considering the fact that for the longest time there were no other humans with whom they could have cheated; and when there were other humans, they were the children and grandchildren of Adam and Eve. There is no indication whatsoever that Adam and Eve loved each other; in fact, Eve didn’t mind encouraging Adam to get involved in her ploy to disobey God. Adam, for his part, to rationalize his inappropriate behavior blames Eve for luring him into the act that displeased God, and he blames God for creating Eve to begin with. They were companions by default, but there is no indication of love.

Things were good in the sex department, but hot sex doesn’t have to have love as an ingredient.

It’s worth throwing in here, too, that the fact the ancient storytellers envisioned God as creating one man and one woman at the dawn of creation is not a condemnation of homosexuality. The human race had to propagate so a woman and a man were required to get things rolling. This did not presume that all Eve’s and Adam’s progeny would be straight and would be child bearers. This silly slogan, “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” is based on homophobic biblical illiteracy.


Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “Late Came the God,” on which we focus today, is about a man who desperately wanted the love of a woman who didn’t return his love, and the god to whom the poem refers isn’t the God of the ancient Hebrew matriarchs and patriarchs; he is instead one of the polytheistic gods of love, such as the Greek god, Eros. It is a complicated poem, nothing at all like the straightforward poem, “If,” for which many people know Kipling as a poet.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream--and not make dreams your master;
If you can think--and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with wornout tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on”;

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings--nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run--
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And--which is more--you'll be a Man my son!

Rudyard Kipling won the 1907 Nobel Prize for literature. He was born in Bombay, today called Mumbai, in 1865; he was educated in England. He returned to India in 1882 where he became a newspaperman. Though he would become most known for his short stories, his literary career began in 1886 with a collection of poems titled Departmental Ditties.

He was a prolific writer; he obviously loved to write, and he achieved fame as a writer very quickly--a rare experience for a writer, some of whom never receive any fame at all. One of his biographers has said, “Kipling was the poet of the British Empire and its yeoman, the common soldier, whom he glorified in many of his works, in particular Plain Tales from the Hills (1888) and Soldiers Three (1888), collections of short stories with roughly and affectionately drawn soldier portraits.”

His 1894 release, Jungle Book, took the children of the world by storm. Many of us first heard or read the unusual name “Rudyard” when we read the book or saw the Disney animated version of the unforgettable Kipling characters.

It is not surprising that he won many awards and had honorary degree after honorary degree conferred on him. In addition to the Nobel Prize, which I mentioned earlier, he also received the Royal Society of Literature’s Gold Medal. Kipling was the recipient of many honorary degrees and other awards. At the time he was named a recipient of this most prestigious award, only three others had received it: Sir Walter Scott, George Meredith, and Thomas Hardy. Interestingly he turned down the offer of several honors--most notably, perhaps, knighthood.

Behind many great works of art--whether visual art or writing or music--are artists who endured great pain on their way to producing their masterpieces. Kipling falls into that category. Another of his biographers said that he lived a “largely tragic and unhappy life.” Howso? Well, said this Kipling biographer,

He was starved of love and attention and sent away by his parents; beaten and abused by his foster mother; and a failure at a public school which sought to develop qualities that were completely alien to Kipling. In later life the deaths of two of his children also affected Kipling deeply.

“...starved of love and attention....” I assume that means as a child. Sadly, this area of his life didn’t improve so much in adulthood. His marriage wasn’t a particularly happy one. His wife, Caroline Starr Balestier, was a domineering wife who didn’t like a lot about the man she married. There are several reasons, perhaps, to ponder love frequently; the top two of those reasons, I’d guess, would be because someone is so loved that she or he is continually overjoyed or, in contrast, because someone wants love desperately and can’t find it. Kipling, evidently, fell into the latter category.

With that in mind, hear again our poem for today--which, by the way, closes out this brief sermon series, “God through Poets’ Pens.”

Late came the God, having sent his forerunners who were

not regarded--

Late, but in wrath;

Saying: “The wrong shall be paid, the contempt be rewarded

On all that she hath.”

He poisoned the blade and struck home, the full bosom receiving

The wound and the venom in one, past cure or relieving.

He made treaty with Time to stand still that the grief might

be fresh--

Daily renewed and nightly pursued through her soul to her


Mornings of memory, noontides of agony, midnights unslaked for her,

Till the stones of the streets of her Hells and her Paradise ached for her.

So she lived while her body corrupted upon her.

And she called on the Night for a sign, and a Sign was allowed,

And she builded an Altar and served by the light of her Vision--

Alone, without hope of regard or reward, but uncowed,

Resolute, selfless, divine.

These things she did in Love's honour...

What is a God beside Woman? Dust and derision!


In Kipling’s poem, “Late Came the God,” the God is clearly not Yahweh and must be one of the gods of mythology. A good candidate is Eros, the Greek god of love. Evidently, Eros is very angry with this unnamed woman for not falling in love with the narrator of the poem who could be Kipling or any unlucky-in-love man, wanting a woman who doesn’t return his love and may not even acknowledge him. Eros, through his minions, had made many efforts to cause the woman to become bedazzled with this man, but nothing worked. Eros read her refusal to respond to his will as arrogance, and one thing we learn quickly when we read Greek or Roman mythology is that human arrogance is what the goddesses and gods detested most about humans and what they were quick to punish.

For example, in Homer’s “Odyssey,” Odysseus’ troubles are compounded when, after a small victory of some sort, he has the gall to yell out, “I did this without the gods! I do not need the gods.” Already separated from his family for seven years, if I recall correctly Aeolus, Poseidon, and Zeus saw to it that he wouldn’t see his wife or son again for another seven years as a result of his arrogance.

The woman in the Kipling poem did not love the man Eros chose for her; she loved another man, and Eros saw to it that she suffered for her choice. She appeals to a god for help with the pain that had been inflicted upon her; sadly, ironically, without realizing that Eros was the cause of her pain, she probably appealed to him. Of course, he did not relieve her pain.

Given these poetic circumstances, I’m thrown trying to figure out what the final line of the poem could mean: “What is a God beside Woman? Dust and derision!” This seems to be the opposite of what the poem has been getting at--that Eros is powerful enough to make the woman miserable. Yet, Kipling says that next to this woman, Eros is powerless; he is nothing more than dust and derision--meaning, perhaps, that the woman won out after all. She bore her pain yet stood her ground. She would not pretend to love a man she did not love, and, conversely, she refused to pretend not to love the man she DID love. In the end, therefore, she was more powerful than the god.

Romantic love is a mysterious force; it can’t be quantified, manufactured, or predicted. These matchmaking services that claim to be able to match you up with your ideal match find out your likes and dislikes in a romantic partner and rely on a computer to find an applicant based on a pairing of preferences, but a perfect pairing of preferences will not guarantee that love will grow. It might guarantee a decent dinner conversation, but someone can be with the person whose traits on paper would seem to make the person the woman or man of the seeker’s dreams with no fireworks; face to face, nothing at all may happen in the love department. It’s all about chemistry, which means that people often find themselves in love with someone their stated preferences on paper would have ruled out absolutely.

As a woman I barely know who friended me on Facebook said to her friends, automatically copying me, “Prince Charming may not have a 32-inch waist.” I hear the odds for straight men in nursing homes are really strong; there are so many more women than men still living in those higher age brackets.

The great rhetorician Aristotle, who obviously had a way with words, said: “Love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies.” The gifted Lebanese American writer, Kahlil Gibran, saw love as the basis for making life anything more than life at its barest: “Life without love,” he wrote, “is like a tree without blossoms or fruit.” And John Keats’s poem has stirred many a lover:

I have been astonished that men could die martyrs for their religion--

I have shudder'd at it.

I shudder no more.

I could be martyr'd for my religion

Love is my religion

And I could die for that.

I could die for you.

Here’s a bad news/good news twist. The bad news is, very often love felt and expressed isn’t reciprocated. It doesn’t have to be reciprocated to be true love. It feels a whole lot better if it is reciprocated, but if you really love someone with all your heart, then you love her or him whether or not that love is returned. That’s the bad news. The good news is, we humans are capable of loving more than one person. When it comes to romantic love, I think it’s much more tidy to let that love extend to only one person at a time, and I wonder if those people who are carrying on loving romantic relationships with more than one person at a time aren’t diluting the true intensity of love for themselves as well as for those whom they love. But if I told you that you shouldn’t love more than one person at a time, that is if you are male, I’d be advising you to defy holy scripture. Women, however, are biblically limited to one husband at a time.

So, again, love doesn’t have to be reciprocated to be true love, and often it will not be. If it is not being reciprocated, the healthy thing to do is to acknowledge your emotions and move on. Someone will tell you, “There’s more than one fish in the sea,” which is no consolation whatsoever, but the good news is, it is possible to love someone else who may well love you in return; that’s the goal.

If you do head out in search of love when someone you love stops loving you in return or never has been able to love you in return, here is some really sound, solid pastoral advice, which also happens to be common sense: never settle. Never settle. I say that knowing that after facing rejection even by someone who is very kind about the rejection, saying that she or he just doesn’t feel what you feel, the easiest thing in the world to do is to take the very next halfway decent candidate who has limited baggage and no criminal background.

Love on the rebound rarely happens. Lust on the rebound happens all the time.

Waylon Jennings sang it this way:

I've spent a lifetime looking for you

Single bars and good time lovers, never true

Playing a fools game, hoping to win

Telling those sweet lies and losing again.

I was looking for love in all the wrong places

Looking for love in too many faces

Searching your eyes, looking for traces

Of what I'm dreaming of...

Hopin’ to find a friend and a lover

God bless the day I discover

Another heart, lookin’ for love

Sometimes, love, real love, happens at first sight; there is no question about it. It absolutely can happen that way, but often like evolves into love. Mariah Carey wrote and sung on her debut album, “Love Takes Time.” She was signing about something entirely different from we’re talking about right now, but the title to her song is, nonetheless, something someone searching for love should keep in mind. We’re so programmed, by having seen countless films where true love begins and blossoms in the duration of a typical movie that we let ourselves think a couple of hours should be enough time to see if true love is going to grow or not. Remember how well things worked out for Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in “Sleepless in Seattle” in about two hours? That’s how many of us think.

There are plenty of couples who begin as friends and find themselves together more and more as the years pass, and only after a long time does the epiphany hit them: what they’re sharing is love. The real thing.

When love happens, you’d better be alert enough to grab it and nourish it if that is what you want; if not, don’t play with someone else’s emotions. It doesn’t come to everyone, or if it does, not everyone notices. One of the lovers speaking or singing to the other in the most erotic book in the Bible says this:

Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame.