Apparently written during the second half of 1902 during the surge of renewed inspiration, which began at that time and culminated in the 1903 publication of The Five Nations. Collected in I.V. 1919, and in D.V. 1940, the Sussex Edition vol. 33, and the Burwash Edition vol. 26. Reprinted in Selected Poems (1931).
“The Palace” appears to describe the experience of recognising one’s place in history, within a tradition. At least part of Kipling’s intention in publishing The Five Nations, where “The Palace” first appeared, was to rouse his countrymen to a sense of the grand creation, over time, of the national heritage which they too were involved in building. Yet the poem also strikes a note that is more personal, concerning Kipling’s own experience as a poet, plundering the works of the past, while hoping to create a more perfect statement of the underlying vision which he divined in writers long dead and shared with them. It was certainly written at a time, following his near-fatal illness and the loss of his daughter Josephine, when he was questioning what he was doing with his life.
Experience has taught the poet, as “The Palace” asserts, that no more than his predecessors could he make a complete and unequivocal statement of all that he understood. (According to the poem ’Tell them I too have known’ is the message artists leave for each other, in support.) An external veto, ‘a word from the Darkness’ rather than his own incompetence comes between. This could imply a fatalisim on Kipling’s part, or that he imagined a kind of death drive in the world, blotting out the creations of the human mind. On the other hand, this language might indicate that it is a refusal on the part of readers, something inside them which is the problem; that readers shy away from full illumination, and with it perhaps the shattering of their view of the world, and it is this which obliges the poet to stop short.
It was not easy for Kipling to situate himself with regard to others, to find a community outside the world of his family, one made up of others to whom he felt kin and whom he could respect. Rejecting a community founded on Christianity, he had embraced the ideal of mutual respect and brotherhood he discovered among Freemasons. As he said in Something of Myself (p.53) of his membership of Lodge Hope and Perseverance in Lahore in 1885 ‘…yet another world opened to me, which I needed.’ It was not surprising that when he came to explore his understanding of his own place within the historical community of artists, he should turn to the language of Freemasonry as he does in this poem.
Freemasonry: a note on the background
George Kieffer writes: Much of the symbolism and imagery in Freemasonry is centred around construction, more specifically the building of King Solomon’s Temple under the Master Builder, Hiram Abiff, subsequently destroyed. With the death of Hiram Abiff, the genuine secrets of a Master Mason were lost. The ceremony of Royal Arch, of which Rudyard Kipling was not a member, dramatically illustrates the preparation of the ground for the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem and the discovery of the vestiges of the former building. “The Palace” follows a similar pattern albeit in connection with the building of a royal palace rather than the Temple. The reader should not assume that this is a purely Masonic poem, but rather that Kipling drew on Masonic imagery. Indeed as is so often the case with his work Kipling shows himself knowledgeable about the detail of construction and its materials. Nevertheless, the poem abounds with Masonic terms and references, an understanding of which will allow the reader to appreciate the poem more fully. [G.K.]
Notes on the Text
The line of dots after stanza 4, a device used in both “White Horses” and “The Dykes”, appears to indicate a pause rather than an omission.
[Stanza 1] a King and a Mason: an allusion to the equality among Freemasons, drawing their membership from all levels of society, with the king laying aside his sceptre to take up the Mason’s trowel. Edward VII, who was on the throne when the poem was first published, was a Mason and Grand Master of the Freemasons.
A Master proven and skilled: A member of the Freemasons can only become a Master Mason by acquiring the necessary skills and is required to prove he is a Master Mason by signs and words.
levels: uniform depth calculated (‘decreed’) in the plans for the building.
[Stanza 2] footings: projecting course or courses at the foundation of a wall, or the actual trenches into which foundations are installed..
[Stanza 3] ground-works: foundations.
quoins: cornerstones in a building, or any one of the angular stones that form an arch.
ashlars: square-hewn stones, sometimes the thin slabs used in facing a rubble or brick wall. Ashlars are displayed in a Freemasons’ Lodge in their rough and smooth or perfect forms as an emblem of human nature and a symbol for the Mason to reflect on.
slacked it and spread: slaked, added water to it, and spread it in the form of cement for stonework, perhaps.
[Stanza 6] shears: a structure comprising two upright spars, joined at the top to form a triangle, with a hoisting tackle suspended from the apex. Used to lift cargo or other weights
©Mary Hamer and George Kieffer 2008 All rights reserved