Lamentations of
Invisible Owls

Kipling and "The City of Brass"

(by Julian Moore, from
the Kipling Journal of June 1999)

the poem


The title of the poem is taken from The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night, where it is one of the stories told by Shahrazad to King Shahryar.

Kipling's use of the title and, to a large extent, of the general tone and content of the story, marks an example of the literary cross-referencing that was an integral part of his later verse. Although his intertextual references were usually biblical, his 1919 collection of verse, The Years Between, contains a wide variety of literary sources that range from Shakespeare and John Bunyan to Christmas carols and the classical canons of Greek and Latin texts.

In the case of '"The City of Brass'", his choice of source text must have been influenced by the melodramatic power of the original, and its pervasive message of gloom. The implications of the detailed description in Shahrazad's 'City of Brass' fit so well with Kipling's view of the doom of his own society that his choice of the reference cannot have been confined to the title alone. Indeed, it is the narrative content of Shahrazad's story that parallels Kipling's fears for British society, in the face of what he and the ultra-Conservative group, of which he was a vocal member, saw as the death of a once-great civilisation.

In a land that the sand overlays — the ways to her gates are untrod —
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!
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.

The story in the original Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night is in the form of a quest, in which a wise caliph sends his servants to search for magical spirit-jars that may contain clues to the nature of a lost society. To do this, they must travel to the farthest parts of the known world, and thence on a long and dangerous journey to find the long-lost City of Brass, "which no stranger has ever entered."

The expedition members take on the dual role of archaeologists and tourists as they find and decipher inscriptions on ruins, and take note of the crows who are the only inhabitants of this strangely silent land. One of the inscriptions tells of the temporality of power:
"... the rulers... passed ...and were dispersed like shadows ... driven like straws before the wind of death."
Another mentions that:
About this table
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.
But 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:

When the wine stirred in their heart their bosoms dilated.
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 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.

After leaving the ruined tomb, the searchers come upon a statue:

... the appearance of a motionless rider, set upon a high pedestal, brandishing a mighty lance which glowed like flame. The inscription on it reads:

If you know not where to go
In this forbidden place
. . . I will show
Your path by the direction which at length
I face.
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."

Having been set in the right direction by the statue, the questing party find a mountain from which to look down on the fabled City of Brass, which appears to them as "a city of dream". They can see no trace of human life, and the only living things are:

... 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 men
... 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.
The 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:

Swiftly these pulled down the walls that their fathers had made them –
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.
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:

... 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.

This, of course, is the crucial point of Kipling's intertextual use of an Arabic legend when discussing the possible fate of a Western high- capitalist society. Britain, for Kipling, was about to parallel the destiny of the legendary City of Brass, and pass "from the roll of the Nations in headlong surrender". The Empire would become the desert, lifeless and unproductive; and the people would be mummified into inaction, lulled into stillness by a welfare system provided by the State. Britain would become powerless by being frozen in time, petrified by a dangerous socialist ideology that threatened the very foundations of centuries of British progress.

With some hindsight and a larger measure of determinism, it seems that Kipling was probably right about the fate of Britain in the latter half of the twentieth century. However, what is more interesting to the contemporary reader than his political foresight is his use of a text from a totally different milieu, to make a point about the events of his own time. The connection between the two texts creates a new light in which to re-read both.


©Julian Moore 1999 All rights reserved