Penguin presents this selection in chronological order and it's remarkable how Kipling's style, intensity and thoughtfulness change as he goes through the experiences of the Boer and First World wars. Initially his poems are simple, jaunty tales of the British Empire and its characters, with an especial fondness for the ordinary soldier. The poems are full of funny accents and excruciating rhymes reading more like something out of music hall than serious introspection, although they often have a nugget of intensity behind them and are frequently funny. My favourite of these early poems is `The Betrothed', which is based on the true story of a man given a 'me or the cigars' ultimatum by his fiancé and who chose the cigars - leading to a court case for breach of promise. Kipling imagines the man turning over the arguments for and against in his mind and mints the famous line, `a woman is just a woman but a good cigar is a Smoke.'
When war comes Kipling becomes more serious by degrees. He lashes out against the men in charge who let down the ordinary soldier both in permitting the war to happen and in its woeful execution. He remembers the roles of nurses and other non-combatants who died in the conflict. Later, he worked with the War Graves Commission and some of his finest work consists of four or five verse epitaphs for war memorials and graves. His verse becomes steadily more political - trying to rally America against Germany for example and, after WW1, poems that predict the rise of Hitler and remilitarisation of Germany. It's not all work and no play however and his famous poems 'If' and 'A Smugglers Song' are included in this collection.
If you had an image of Kipling as jingoistic, patronising or even vaguely racist these verses should sweep all of that away. His style is direct and open, by-and-large keeping to everyday language and using easy to follow rhyming patterns and structures. His choice of subject matter remains up to date, the stupidity of politicians for example or the lot of the ordinary man. However the world has moved on a bit over the last nearly 100 years and the explanatory notes at the back are worth reading to get the context of some of the poems.
I was surprised how much there was here that I enjoyed, and I found myself agreeing with and appreciating the neatness of expression of some of Kipling's sentiments. If you hadn't considered Kipling before it's worth giving him a chance.