As I watched “First Reformed” amongst a small audience at the Curzon, I could hear one filmgoer sighing at intervals, perhaps expressing something for us all. The plot tells a story of disintegration, and at a personal level begins before the action opens with the death in combat of an American pastor’s son in Iraq. The priest comes from a line of military men, and, against his wife’s wishes, had encouraged their son Joseph to join up. When the young man is killed, the marriage falls apart.
The Rev Mr Toller reluctantly agrees to give pastoral counselling to the husband of a young, pregnant woman in his dwindling congregation. In the event, they meet only once, and near the end of their conversation acknowledge Joseph as the “boy who was thrown down the well” in the Book of Genesis.
As we witnessed the deepening anguish of this isolated man, I thought of Rudyard Kipling and the death of his son, John. Like his father, John had very poor eyesight, but even before the outbreak of World War One, harboured ambitions for a military career. Rudyard was a lifelong friend of Lord Roberts, commander in chief of the British Army, and when John had twice been rejected, pulled strings for him to be accepted for the Irish Guards. After John’s mother, Carrie, had waved him off to War, she wrote in her diary: “There is nothing else to do….One can’t let one’s friends and neighbours’ sons be killed in order to save us and our son.”
Six weeks after his eighteenth birthday John was lost in what Robert Graves termed the “bloody great balls-up” at Loos, on the Western Front, in September 1915.
In 1863, courting couple John Lockwood Kipling and Alice Macdonald had visited Rudyard Lake, at that time the “Blackpool of the Potteries”. Two years later they named their son, the poet to be, Joseph Rudyard Kipling. He was born in Mumbai, described by him as “Mother of Cities to me…..Where the world-end steamers wait.”
About a year after John’s death, Kipling wrote the poem “My Son Jack”. It forms an “in memoriam” tribute for all those who died at sea in the Great War, and was probably driven by the Battle of Jutland:
“Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?”/None this tide, Nor any tide”
The final stanza runs:
“Then hold your head up all the more,/This tide,/And every tide;/Because he was the son you bore,/And gave to that wind blowing and that tide.”
Kipling’s biographer, Andrew Lycett, remarks that the poem shows Kipling “could call on a vast reservoir of pain at the loss of his son.”. As Gérard Manley Hopkins wrote of the “cliffs and mountains” of the mind:
“…………………Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there……….”.