Friday, December 18, 2009

Oh the toil that knows no breaking! (Friday's Sunday's Poem, 40)

Christmas in India

by Rudyard Kipling

Dim dawn behind the tamerisks -- the sky is saffron-yellow --
As the women in the village grind the corn,
And the parrots seek the riverside, each calling to his fellow
That the Day, the staring Easter Day is born.
Oh the white dust on the highway! Oh the stenches in the byway!
Oh the clammy fog that hovers
And at Home they're making merry 'neath the white and scarlet berry --
What part have India's exiles in their mirth?

Full day begind the tamarisks -- the sky is blue and staring --
As the cattle crawl afield beneath the yoke,
And they bear One o'er the field-path, who is past all hope or caring,
To the ghat below the curling wreaths of smoke.
Call on Rama, going slowly, as ye bear a brother lowly --
Call on Rama -- he may hear, perhaps, your voice!
With our hymn-books and our psalters we appeal to other altars,
And to-day we bid "good Christian men rejoice!"

High noon behind the tamarisks -- the sun is hot above us --
As at Home the Christmas Day is breaking wan.
They will drink our healths at dinner -- those who tell us how they love us,
And forget us till another year be gone!
Oh the toil that knows no breaking! Oh the Heimweh, ceaseless, aching!
Oh the black dividing Sea and alien Plain!
Youth was cheap -- wherefore we sold it.
Gold was good -- we hoped to hold it,
And to-day we know the fulness of our gain.

Grey dusk behind the tamarisks -- the parrots fly together --
As the sun is sinking slowly over Home;
And his last ray seems to mock us shackled in a lifelong tether.
That drags us back how'er so far we roam.
Hard her service, poor her payment -- she is ancient, tattered raiment --
India, she the grim Stepmother of our kind.
If a year of life be lent her, if her temple's shrine we enter,
The door is hut -- we may not look behind.

Black night behind the tamarisks -- the owls begin their chorus --
As the conches from the temple scream and bray.
With the fruitless years behind us, and the hopeless years before us,
Let us honor, O my brother, Christmas Day!
Call a truce, then, to our labors -- let us feast with friends and neighbors,
And be merry as the custom of our caste;
For if "faint and forced the laughter," and if sadness follow after,
We are richer by one mocking Christmas past.


As I searched for a Christmas poem today, I was struck by how many sad Christmas poems there are. I've heard that the holidays tend to be sad for many people, and can bring on or exacerbate depression, and I think that's terrible; it seems more awful to be sad at the holidays than to be sad at other times of the year. By the same token, though, Christmas can make little things seem more special: Looking at Christmas lights, or a small gift from a friend or coworker, or just a Christmas card with updated pictures of old friends you never talk to anymore.

This poem seemed to reflect both of those thoughts, as well as a third that I ponder on from time to time: What Christmas used to be like before it was a months-long buildup and frenzy of good will and shopping. I love to hear stories of how people spent Christmas when it was an important holiday but not so big as it is now, and in other countries where the traditions differ.

Kipling's poem does all that, positing a Christmas that is barely there: The speaker or people in the poem are in a foreign land, working amid the sun and strange sights, and barely acknowledging Christmas... until at the very end, there is a glimmer of hope and happiness and an acknowledgment that even a poor, mocked Christmas is better than no Christmas at all.

That seems an appropriate sentiment for this time of year: We are better off for having a period of time in which we, to a greater or lesser degree, try to be something better than we are the rest of the year, and we are that better off even if we don't reach our ideal.

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