Report for Wellington.Scoop by Stephen Olsen
Victoria University’s Harry Ricketts’ turn at the crease for his inaugural Professorial Lecture last night managed to break all previous popular records for attendance at such an event at the university.
The number attending topped 280, and this was duly noted when Vice-Chancellor Professor Pat Walsh introduced Professor Ricketts to a packed Maclaurin Lecture Theatre, where the audience were treated to a whistle-stop rendezvous with the world left by Rudyard Kipling.
A renowned biography of Kipling is amongst the 16 books authored by Ricketts – a Professor of English in the School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies – and his captivating lecture circumnavigated many of Ricketts’ other academic and literary pursuits, inclusive of fellow poets Rupert Brookes and Siegfried Sassoon for instance, and at least one reference to his homophonic sporting passion: cricket.
The lecture began by bedding-in the term that was being applied to Kipling 100 years ago at the height of both his success and his derision, namely the term “Kiplinesque”.
Ricketts deftly highlighted why and how this term entered the vernacular of other literary figures in the early 20th Century, leading through to traces of Kipling’s undeniable command of “Tommy voices” evident in the poetry of the Great War and furthermore his dominance amongst the reading public.
As in the progress of a drop of ink through water, Ricketts went on to portray the extent of the meme-like influence that Kipling’s works have had in bringing colour to so many other writing, theatrical, filmic and even song writing endeavours.
He then took the audience through a roll call from W.H. Auden “intertextualising” Kipling to George Orwell’s acute observations of traceable “slang” seeded by Kipling, from echoes found in the theatre of Bertolt Brecht to songs of homage by Billy Bragg – bringing to bear such memorably scanned lines as “Rome never looks where she treads… We are the Little Folk, We”.
In traversing these signal points of legacy, Ricketts lauded the ability of “chameleon Kipling” to perfectly capture what it means to belong to an underclass, and, to borrow a phrase, the way in which Kipling has seeped into the “narrative DNA” – be that his shaping effect on others’ portrayal of the military, or the cultural shorthand co-opted and re-coded by others from his famous Jungle Books, his timeless poem “If”, or the enduring novel “Kim”.
This most popular lecture was rounded off by Ricketts by a citation from a famous speech by Kipling delivered in 1926, in which the great man spoke in regard to literary legacy of “the residue that may be carried forward to the general account … and there perhaps diverted to ends of which the writer never dreamed”.
In the end Kipling’s legacy is one, Ricketts successfully concluded, “that any writer might envy”.
See also: http://wellington.scoop.co.nz/?p=60494