Rudyard Kipling was perhaps the most popular poet in England at the dawn of the twentieth century. His Barracks-Room Ballads had been a tremendous success upon its publication in 1892, and it propelled him to the top of the list of possible successors to the post of Poet Laureate upon Tennyson’s death; Kipling declined, and in 1896, the post was filled by minor pastoralist Alfred Austin. In 1907, he won the Nobel Prize in literature, the first English writer to do so. His reputation as a major writer has been in decline ever since. T.S. Eliot referred to him as a writer not of great poetry but of "great verse", and George Orwell’s typically thoughtful 1942 essay (link via Stuttercut) on Kipling’s place in history responds by calling Kipling’s power that of a "good bad poet". Orwell despised Kipling’s imperialism where Eliot did not (hardly surprising, given the two men’s politics), but Orwell quite sensibly locates Kipling’s decline in two root causes. One is Kipling’s reflexive, casual racism, so closely tied to his feelings about country and empire. The other is Kipling’s snobbishness. Kipling was never in the military due to his poor eyesight, but he had once been on a path to become an officer. Orwell acknowledges Kipling’s obvious love of the military as an institution, but accuses him of making the common soldier a sort of comic figure even in poems like "Tommy" (written from the point of view of an enlisted man, one "Tommy Atkins", a sort of "John Doe" for the British army) and other sympathetic works:
If one examines his best and most representative work, his soldier poems, especially Barrack-Room Ballads, one notices that what more than anything else spoils them is an underlying air of patronage. Kipling idealizes the army officer, especially the junior officer, and that to an idiotic extent, but the private soldier, though lovable and romantic, has to be a comic. He is always made to speak in a sort of stylized Cockney, not very broad but with all the aitches and final "g’s" carefully omitted.
But Orwell notes Kipling’s great poetic gift — not as a poet or a verse-maker, but as, essentially, a copywriter ("Kipling is the only English writer of our time who has added phrases to the language"). And it is that, along with his sympathy, condescending though it might have been, and genuine and heartfelt belief in Crown and Country, that made Kipling the natural choice to head write the inscriptions for the Imperial Graves Commission. Kipling had already served England during the war. Like a number of other writers, including G.K. Chesterton, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Ford Maddox Ford, Kipling was a member of the War Propaganda Bureau. He knew loss; his son, John, had died during the Battle of Loos in 1915; Kipling’s poem, "My Boy Jack", asked what comfort he could find in his son’s death. His answer: "None… Except he did not shame his kind." John Kipling’s body, vanished into the muck of Loos, was to remain a consuming passion for the rest of Rudyard’s life. The monument that remained for his boy Jack was a plain headstone bearing the inscription Kipling had penned for so many of the lost: "Known Unto God".
When Sir Fabian Ware selected Kipling to write the epitaphs for the British war dead, he must have known that Kipling’s star was fading. But the war poets and war novelists whose experiences were shaped by the war weren’t appropriate for memorials; so many of the tens of thousands of British who had died had never been repatriated — whether simply unidentifiable or ground into the mud of places like Boezinge and Ypres — that the words were all their families had left, and the purpose of the war memorials was not to express truth about the war but to bring comfort to the grieving. A man who shared their sorrow, believed in the rightness of the cause their loved ones had died for, and had a genius for aphorism was the right man, in Ware’s mind, to write the last few words of the war. It was that idea of providing closure that caused first France, with its eternal flame at the Arc de Triomphe, then England, with its Tomb of the Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey, then the United States, with its Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington (dedicated on Armistice Day, 1921), and then the rest of the nations of the beligerent nations to open memorials to their unknown soldiers. A single representative body selected at random from the war dead was buried with highest honors; the French and British unknown soldiers, for instance, were given the Medal of Honor, the highest award given to American soldiers.
Advances in forensics mean that there may never again be an unknown soldier from a major power. The airman buried as a representative of America’s dead in Vietnam was identified using mitochondrial DNA testing and given a burial under his own name; today, the Vietnam tomb remains empty, a monument to solely to an idea, the idea of honoring the dead. The body in John Kipling’s grave, identified and buried in 1992, may not be his at all. And if Orwell was right about Kipling’s inability to see enlisted men as real people rather than representatives of his nation — unappreciated, underpaid, capable of cowardice as well as bravery, but simply types for all that — nonetheless he was the perfect man to eulogize an idea. The words engraved on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior were chosen by Richard II for the Bishop of Salisbury, but they speak of the sacrifices of all the war dead (and perhaps of Kipling’s brighter world, shattered at Mons, Ypres, and the Somme): "They buried him among the Kings, because he had done good toward God and toward his house." May he rest in peace, whoever and whatever he was.