A paper by Harry Ricketts presented on April 7th 2004 at the Kipling Society seminar on "Scylla and Charybdis", the 'lost' Stalky story. Harry Ricketts has taught literature at a number of Universities in England and overseas. He has taken a strong interest in Kkipling's writings, and has edited various editions of his stories, poems, and speeches. He is also the author of a major critical biography of Kipling, The Unforgiving Minute.
Regulus, a Roman general, defeated the Carthaginians 256 B.C., but was next year defeated and taken prisoner by the Carthaginians, who sent him to Rome with an embassy to ask for peace or an exchange of prisoners. Regulus strongly advised the Roman Senate to make no terms with the enemy. He then returned to Carthage and was put to death.Kipling’s story then plunges straight into a minutely detailed recreation of a Latin lesson as the acid-tongued King chivvies the mostly recalcitrant Fifth Form (and hence the reader) through Horace’s ‘Regulus’ ode, more or less line by line, certainly howler by howler. In an often hilarious tour de force Kipling lingers on various boys’ half-baked efforts to render Horace into English. These begin with that of his fictional surrogate Beetle and wind up with that of the central character of the subsequent story – ‘Pater’ Winton, described as “a long, heavy, tow-headed Second Fifteen forward, long overdue for his First Fifteen colours, and in aspect like an earnest, elderly horse”. Here is a snippet of King turning the full flow of his eloquence and invective on the inattentive Beetle:
‘Beetle, when you’ve quite finished dodging the fresh air yonder, give me the meaning of tendens – and turn down your collar.’What Kipling so entertainingly dramatises here (and throughout this whole opening section of the story) is the kind of experience he was to describe more mundanely in ‘The Possible Advantages of Reading’, a talk he gave on 25 May 1912 to the Literary Society of Wellington College, where his son John was a pupil. In the course of his talk Kipling offers his own rationale for the traditional approach to studying the Classics. It is no coincidence that he uses Horace’s odes as his talismanic example:
‘Me, sir? Tendens, sir? Oh! Stretching away in the direction of, sir.’
‘Idiot! Regulus was not a feature of the landscape. He was a man, self-doomed to death by torture. Atqui sciebat – knowing it – having achieved it for his country’s sake – can’t you hear that atqui cut like a knife? – he moved off with some dignity. That is why Horace out of the whole golden Latin tongue chose the one word “tendens” – which is utterly untranslatable.’
The gross injustice of being asked to translate it, converted Beetle into a young Christian martyr...
The reason why one has to parse and construe and grind at the dead tongues in which certain ideas are expressed, is not for the sake of what is called intellectual training ... but because only in that tongue is that idea expressed with absolute perfection. If it were not so the Odes of Horace would not have survived. (People aren’t in a conspiracy to keep things alive.) I grant you that the kind of translations one serves up at school are as bad and as bald as they can be. They are bound to be so, because one cannot re-express an idea that has been perfectly set forth .... Yet, by a painful and ludicrous acquaintance with the mechanism of that particular tongue; by being made to take it to pieces and put it together again, and by that means only, we can arrive at a state of mind in which, though we cannot re-express the idea in any adequate words, we can realise and feel and absorb the idea.This is exactly the process presented so vividly in Kipling’s story. In the opening section, the boys, cajoled, harried and browbeaten by King, are shown literally “tak[ing] [Horace’s ode] to pieces and put[ting] it together again”.
Winton was in King’s House, and though King as pro-consul might, and did, infernally oppress his own Province, once a black and yellow cap was in trouble at the hands of the Imperial authority King fought for him to the very last steps of Caesar’s throne.So the school is seen as a miniature Roman empire, in which the boys are confronted with equivalent moral tests and choices. But the reader is also aware (from the earlier Stalky & Co. and from specific details in this story) that the school’s entire raison d’être is as a training ground for a real contemporary empire, the British Empire. The Fifth Form boys (with the exception of Beetle) are all studying for the Army Examination. Part of Winton’s perturbation at the 'mouse-business' and his consequent punishment is that it may count against his future career – and that career, it is plain, will be conducted in some branch of the Army in some far-flung corner of the empire.