Cities and Thrones and Powers

a note by Naren Menon

The Poem

Cities and Thrones and Powers is one of Kipling’s most carefully constructed poems. It is an amalgam of resignation and promise, almost religious in its presentation, a statement of the poet’s belief in the cyclical nature of things.  It serves as a chapter heading to “A Centurion of the Thirtieth” in the Puck  stories.

In his biography of Kipling, (Rudyard Kipling, Hamlyn 1974, p. 124) Martin Fido writes of the Puck stories:

He worked carefully on the stories, using all his skill to ensure that the simple narratives were not lost on children, while hinting at layers of deeper political meaning for adults

In The Americanisation of Edward Bok, Mr Bok, then Editor of the Ladies Home Journal, quotes from a letter he received from RK in 1905. ‘Watt’  refers to his literary agent, A P Watt and Son.

“I told Watt to send to you” he writes to Bok, “the first four of my child stories (you see I hadn’t forgotten my promise), and they may serve to amuse you for a while, even if you don’t use them for publication. Frankly, I don’t myself see how they can be used for the LHJ; but they’re part of a scheme of mine for trying to give children not a notion of history, but a notion of the time sense which is at the bottom of all knowledge of history; and history, rightly understood, means the love of one’s fellow-men and the land one lives in.”  [Pinney, Letters vol 3]

So here we have a poem that covers grown-up themes as a preamble to a story for children.

Notes on the text

[Stanza 1]

This very carefully, and not in a frightening manner, tells the young reader about the ephemeral nature of things; the inevitability of disaster (Mathew 24:6 See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.) but the promise of new beginnings.

[Stanza 2 ]

This gives an example of a being, in this case a daffodil, who lives life to the fullest, because she is not overly conscious of the transient nature of life. Incidentally, in The Answer, a rose suffers the sort of “chance” accident referred to in the wonderfully alliterative third line in this stanza. Again, in imagery a child can follow, and an adult can easily explain.

[Stanza 3]

This suggests that we can best meet Time’s passing by following the daffodil’s approach and be “blind” to the reality, our short tenure on Earth. And, there is also a sense that our shadows, our shades, pass the baton from the past to the present, in Time’s never-ending relay race.

Religious language

Kipling relies heavily on religious references in this poem.

Colossians 1:16: For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him:

And Psalm 103:15-18

As for man, his days are like grass;
As a flower of the field, so he flourishes.
 For the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
And its place remembers it no more.

Some other echoes

It is also worthy of note that in “A Centurion of the Thirtieth”  Puck recites the verse by the 13th-century poet Jacopone da Todi Cur Mundus militat Sub vana Gloria, which translates (roughly) into

Why does the world march under vainglory’s banner
When prosperity is transitory?

Kipling’s  Buddhist-themed work (Kim and various poems) often refers to the circle/cycle of Life, and I have little doubt Meeta, his Hindu bearer, told him the story of Lord Rama and his rings. The Bridge-Builders is a story where the Hindu Gods dismiss the long-term impact of a bridge constructed by humans.  He returns to the theme of the flowing river of Time in his poem, The River’s Tale, although the poem is more a history lesson than a moral tale. Of course, there are many other poets who write about the transient nature of Time…Shelley and his Ozymandias comes readily to mind.

An unusual wall inscription attributed to the Mexican poet-king Nezahualcoyotl (1403-1473) in the Central Park Zoo in New York reads

Could it be true we live on earth?
On earth forever?
Just one brief instant here.
Even the finest stones begin to split
Even gold is tarnished,
Even precious bird-plumes
Shrivel like a cough.
Just one brief instant here.