The City of Sleep

(notes by Philip Holberton)



Published, without title, in The Century Magazine in December 1895, within the story “The Brushwood Boy“, and in The Day’s Work in 1898 when the story was collected, and in the many subsequent editions of that collection. Also collected as “The City of Sleep” in Songs from Books (1913) , Inclusive Verse, Definitive Verse, and the Sussex and Burwash editions.

The poem

This poem is central to the plot of “The Brushwood Boy” – the story in which it is embedded. (See the notes on the story by Alastair Wilson). The hero, George Cottar, is a subaltern in India. In Kipling’s account:

One peculiarity of his dreams he noticed at the beginning of his second hot weather. Two or three times a month they ran in series. He would find himself sliding into dreamland by the same road – a road that ran along a beach near a pile of brushwood. [Hence the title of the story.]

By that road he would travel over a swell of rising ground, into valleys of wonder. Beyond the ridge, which was crowned with some sort of street-lamp, anything was possible.

But one night sleep stood away from him altogether. At last he saw the brushwood-pile, and hurried along to the ridge. He reached the lamp in safety, tingling with drowsiness, when a policeman – a common country policeman – sprang up before him and touched him on the shoulder ere he could dive into the dim valley below. He was filled with terror, for the policeman said, in the awful, distinct voice of the dream-people, “I am Policeman Day, coming back from the City of Sleep. You come with me.” Georgie knew it was true – that this Policeman Thing had full power and authority to head him back to miserable wakefulness. He met the policeman several times that hot weather, and his coming was the forerunner of a bad night.
[The Day’s Work, abridged from pp 373-5]

In many of these dreams he meets a companion, at first a “person” but later always “she.”
At length, he goes home to England on leave. One evening he gets back to the family home late, to hear a girl, a guest he hasn’t met, singing this song that she has composed. He realises that if she knows the dream landscape and Policeman Day, she must be the one with whom he has shared his dream-adventures through all those years.
Peter Keating (pp. 44-45) sees much more in the song than just a plot device by which the hero and heroine recognise each other:

Miriam’s song is intense, dramatic, a mixture of childlike images and an adult consciousness of suffering. Together with her companion, at this point the unidentified Brushwood Boy, she takes ‘‘the road to Merciful Town” that is “hard by the Sea of Dreams’, but is stopped by ‘ Policeman Day ‘ and sent ‘ back from the City of Sleep.’ It is possible that the refrain of the song (‘ Back from the City of Sleep! ‘), and perhaps other aspects of “The Brushwood Boy “, contain an allusion to Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem ” Young Night Thought “, from A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885). This poem opens with the child being put to bed by his mother. He lies comfortably, creating romantic images in his head, marching along with ‘ armies and emperors and kings ‘ until ‘ we reach the town of Sleep ‘. The child’s daytime experiences are not mentioned: he relishes the opportunity bedtime offers to live in the world of his imagination, and then sleep soundly.

“The Brushwood Boy” reverses this pattern. The details of Miriam’s song replicate those already given of Cottar’s dream. Both of them lead waking lives of apparent fullness and achievement, and nights of terror. Miriam begs for ‘pity’. Everyone it seems – the sick, the poor, the famous and the obscure — is allowed to enter the City of Sleep, except her and Cottar: they are stopped by Policeman Day. In this dream-allegory, Day is not simply the policeman who appears to be accusing them of an unspecified crime: he is the punishment as well. Miriam and Cottar must ‘ go back ‘ with him, to live constantly in daytime. If Miriam’s song is a true representation of Cottar’s inner thoughts and feelings — and he is rapturously sure that it is — then the daily experiences of this ideal Englishman, Galahad and martyr, have been a constant torment to him. The precise nature of that torment — sexual frustration, perhaps, or a denial of the imagination, or the psychological strain of living an ideal life — it’s not revealed by the story, but whatever it is, Miriam releases Cottar from it. The past, the dream-world, can now be left behind, and a new kind of daytime experienced. The final words of the story are full of hidden meanings. As Miriam and Cottar part to dress for dinner, he seeks assurance that she won’t hide away in her room and ”leave me all the evening ‘. Her reply is carefully considered: ‘ Yes, I’ll come down to dinner; but — what shall I do when I see you in the light!’

But does Keating read too much into it? For instance, the “nights of terror” when Miriam and/or Cottar are stopped by Policeman Day are rare, only “several times that hot weather”. Most of Cottar’s dreams fill him with “an incommunicable delight”. Nor are they condemned to “live constantly in the daytime”: Policeman Day leads them back to wakefulness and one sleepless night. When Cottar hears Miriam’s song he is “rapturously sure” that he has found the real person with whom he has shared his marvellous dream adventures, not that it reveals “a true representation of (his) inner thoughts and feelings”. Nor is there any suggestion in the story that (his) “daily experiences have been a constant torment to him.”

Surely in the story, we have a picture of one of Kipling’s ideal men of action, wholly fulfilling himself in the position in life for which he is fitted by education and training.

J M S Tompkins agrees on this point, writing (p. 198) that Cottar ‘is active and happy in all the aspects of his young life, and firmly set on his duty, he keeps this strange extension of his consciousness in healthy subservience to his immediate living.’

See also Mary Hamer’s article on “Kipling and Dreams”.

Daniel Hadas adds:  This poem surely has strong echoes of Pilgrim’s Progress: the City of Sleep, Merciful Town, Sea of Dreams, and Policeman Day are all Bunyanesque, and the City of Sleep is presented as a sort of temporary Celestial City, where the poor, sick and weary are comforted. [D.H.]



© Philip Holberton 2012 All rights reserved