Kipling and "The City of Brass"
(by Julian Moore, from
the Kipling Journal of June 1999)
In a land that the sand overlays — the ways to her gates are untrod —There are echoes here of a Saidian 'other', of an exoticism of setting that mirrors the essential differences between the time-honoured British ways of doing things and, from Kipling's point of view, the inherently undesirable ways of the new Liberal proposals that would change the whole face of British society.
A multitude ended their days whose fates were made splendid by God,
Till they grew drunk and were smitten with madness and went to their fall,
And of these is a story written: But Allah alone knoweth all!
"... the rulers... passed ...and were dispersed like shadows ... driven like straws before the wind of death."Another mentions that:
About this tableBut it is the words inscribed on a crystal tomb that Kipling takes for his own: "The drunkenness of youth has passed like a fever ... For tomorrow the earth shall answer", expanding them to fit into his thesis of the Liberals' overweening pride and misplaced ambition:
sat many hawk-eyed kings
with many one-eyed kings
to bear them company;
but now all sit in the dark and none are able,
none are able to see.
When the wine stirred in their heart their bosoms dilated.The atmosphere of inevitable doom is set, parallelling Kipling's view of the probable results of the social and economic reforms that the Liberals were proposing to undertake. The speed and the drastic nature of the Liberal programme were quite foreign to Kipling and his fellow- Conservatives, used as they were to the measured tread of Victorian politics. Change meant a shift in the traditional power-structure, and this could not be borne without protest.
They rose to suppose themselves kings over all things created –
To decree a new earth at a birth without labour or sorrow –
To declare: "We prepare it today and inherit tomorrow."
... the appearance of a motionless rider, set upon a high pedestal, brandishing a mighty lance which glowed like flame. The inscription on it reads:It is tempting for the contemporary commentator to see this armed rider as Kipling's view of himself, pointing out the follies of a mistaken political direction to any who would listen or read, and saying that he alone should be seen as a glowing signpost to the proper social destination. The temptation, however, would be misplaced since Kipling did not include a reference to the rider in his "City of Brass."
If you know not where to go
In this forbidden place
. . . I will show
Your path by the direction which at length
... thousands of enormous vampires whose flight was accompanied by the lamentations of invisible owls calling from dead palaces.The effect on the watchers of these surreal images is heightened by the fact that they cannot get into the city because it has no doors or gates. To gain entrance they must climb over the walls. An inscription on one of these walls warns of the fate of the city's previous inhabitants:
O sons of menThe connection here between an inaccessible city and the xenophobic insularity, physical and psychological, of the British people is not difficult to make; Kipling must have regarded it as one of the most important reference-points of the intertextual nexus. He stresses in his own "City of Brass" that a loss of power comes from the inability of a people to build on their tradition; and that any change in the fabric of society will begin a fatal downward slide to natural oblivion:
... you are caught in the web of the world
and the spider Nothing waits behind it.
Where are the men with towering hopes?
They have changed places with owls,
Owls that live in tombs
And now inhabit a palace.
Swiftly these pulled down the walls that their fathers had made them –Once inside the City of Brass, the searching party find only a population petrified by time into stillness. Sentinels, market-traders and warriors are all frozen in a lifeless simulacrum of a once-powerful society. The original text likens the effect to that of a:
The impregnable ramparts of old, they razed and relaid them .
. . They unwound and flung from them with rage, as a rag that defiled them,
The imperial gains of the age which their forefathers piled them.
... magnificently coloured carpet, where cunning looms had caused odourless flowers to flourish among sapless grass and had created all the lifeless life of a forest filled with birds and beasts caught in the exact beauty of their rigorous lines.Finally the questers find, guarded by a network of cunning traps and puzzles, a beautiful princess, mummified in a final mockery of the power that had once made the City of Brass great. She personifies, in the original text, the fate of empires and, more particularly, the fate of ambitious rulers who over-reach their own abilities and those of their people.