Sunday, January 25, 2009

Rudyard Kipling on Smell?

Rudyard Kipling wrote these well known olfactory lines:
Smells are surer than sounds or sights
To make your heart-strings crack—
They start those awful voices o’nights
That whisper, “Old man, come back!”
They are the opening stanza of the poem Lichtenberg. Set in South Africa during the Boer War, it’s about an Australian trooper who smells the blossoms of a tree called Golden Wattle and is reminded of his home in New South Wales.

The lines are often used to defend the notion that smell is a predominantly emotional sense. (A notion that has been tremendously overplayed in my view. In What the Nose Knows I point out the major role that cognition—thinking, remembering, comparing, evaluating—plays in the psychology of smell.) Reading beyond the first lines, however, it is clear that Kipling’s theme was that smell creates a sense of place and thus becomes a trigger for memory and home sickness.

Kipling traveled widely and wrote about many places and cultures. So we are not surprised when he is cited as the author of this popular quotation:
The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.
This aphorism is attributed to him in about a thousand places on the Web. Of course, repetition of a meme is no evidence of accurate citation. The fact that it shows up in carefully researched and edited books is more reassuring. The line is a popular epigraph to chapters in scholarly books. Tahir Shah uses it in Chapter 2 of In search of King Solomon’s mines (Arcade Publishing, 2003), as does James Mak in Chapter 6 of Tourism and the economy (University of Hawaii Press, 2004). Both authors cite Kipling as the source. Even more reassuring is Rosemarie Jarski, who attributes the line to Kipling in her reference compilation Words from the Wise: Over 6,000 of the Smartest Things Ever Said (Skyhorse Publishing, 2007, p. 447).

Yet something about this quote has always made the needle on my Bogosity Meter twitch a bit. It sounds too didactic and abstract for Kipling. Did he really write it? If so, where?

After a few hours of obsessive toil on the Internet, it becomes clear that no one quoting the line cites a specific poem, story, or novel by Kipling. The Bogosity Meter is showing levels not seen since the “happiness is a perfume” episode. I spend another hour in Google Books and then—paydirt! A lead worth tracking down in the real world.

Hunched over microfilm reader, deep in the bowels of the local campus library, I fast forward through a spool of Harper’s Magazine from 1942. I pause a moment to let the motion sickness pass, then advance slowly through the June issue to page 156. And there I find it, buried in a stuffy, convoluted, almost impenetrable essay titled “In praise of Kipling’s verse,” written by none other than T.S. Eliot.

For the masochists among you, here’s the line in context:
It should be said at this point, before passing on, that Kipling is not a doctrinaire or a man with a program. His opinions are not to be considered as the antithesis of those of Mr. H. G. Wells. Mr. Wells’s imagination is one thing and his political opinions another; the latter change but do not mature. But Kipling did not, in the sense in which that activity can be ascribed to Mr. Wells, think; his aim, and his gift, is to make people see (for the first condition of right thought is right sensation, the first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it, as you smell India in Kim.) If you have seen and felt truly, then if God has given you the power you may be able to think rightly.
So let’s see if I have this straight: Kipling’s gift is to make people see, which is why one must first smell a foreign country to understand it. Mixed metaphors, anyone? Is it just me, or is T.S. Eliot the most over-rated windbag of his time?

OK. Case closed. Time to put the Bogosity Meter back in its box and go have a brewsky.


Anonymous said...

OK, I just have to applaud this diligent pursuit of the phantom quote. I'm not sure if I have the skills to express how exquisite (in my favorite sense)I find the endeavor. And very very funny.

Avery Gilbert said...


How kind you are to describe my pursuit as diligent; others would call it nerdy or even obsessive. If my efforts amused you they were worth doing.

And did you know one can now scan from a microfilm reader directly to a memory stick? Neato!

radj said...

"So let’s see if I have this straight: Kipling’s gift is to make people see, which is why one must first smell a foreign country to understand it."

I'm not proficient enough in English to argue about metaphors but I think what they mean by "see" is to perceive, get to know or be more aware of, not the "see" that refers to acquiring visual information.

This is an example as to how poor the vocabulary is when it comes to smell yet it gives the more lingering emotion/reaction. Smells are indirectly described and there are only a few direct adjectives for smell unlike sight.

Avery Gilbert said...


Eliot argues that correct perception is a prerequisite for correct thinking. He might well have intended "see" to mean "perceive", as you suggest. But when he calls smell "the first condition", instead of, say, "one of several sufficient conditions", he muddles his own imagery.

Therefore I stand by my bitch-slapping of the great poet.

As for the alleged lack of smell adjectives, consider the fact that every scented brand name is a descriptor: from Play-Doh to WD-40. As I point out in my book, the limitation is one of imagination, not vocabulary; there are lots of examples of great olfactory description in literature.

H. Lee Pratt said...

Dear Mr. Gilbert,

I believe the sentence you quote, “The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it,” was not written by Kipling.

First, the punctuation and word rhythm of the passage you quote from T.S. Eliot does not ‘feel’ like Kipling; and the part beginning “But Kipling …” and ending “Kim,” is all of a piece, and reads as one continuous idea from Eliot, with the parentheses indicating an aside by Eliot himself.

Second, I doubt Kipling would have written “… as you smell India in Kim.” This is Eliot stating that he can smell India when he reads Kim; hence the sentence could not have been Kipling’s.

Finally, Eliot would have had the courtesy to put quotations marks around Kipling’s own words.


Lee Pratt

Santa Barbara, 27 DEC 2012

Avery Gilbert said...

Lee Pratt:

I don't think we disagree. The entire quoted passage is from Eliot. Perhaps I should have been more emphatic in the post. The "first condition of understanding" line so often attributed to Kipling is actually from Eliot.

Anonymous said...

I am using this quote on my website and I am often sceptical of quotes widely used and blindly attributed. My decision to do some shallow research on this quote led me to your blog and I am grateful for your tenacious research. Thank you!

Avery Gilbert said...


You are welcome. Update your website's attribution to T.S. Eliot and you're good to go! Plus you can win bar bets if you're so inclined . . .