The Song of Seven Cities

(notes by John Radcliffe and John McGivering)


This poem, listed in ORG as No 1047, was first published with the story “The Vortex” in A Diversity of Creatures on April 1st, 1917.

Collected in:

  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • The Sussex Edition vols ix and xxxiv (1940)
  • The Burwash Edition vols ix and xxvii (1941)
  • Cambridge Edition (2013) Ed. Thomas Pinney, p. 973.

The poem

The seven roaring cities of the poem are seven humming beehives. People walked carefully past them, no-one dared to threaten the bees when they flew abroad. Like soldiers, they had their guards and their outposts. But then came disaster. They were swept away by rising flood waters, Queen, workers, hatchlings and all, leaving only the ruins of the hives. The poet vows to revive the colonies, building new hives set safe above future floods.


Kipling was very interested in the fascinating ways of bees, and kept some hives at Bateman’s. The River Dudwell, which runs through his garden, is liable to flood, which was clearly what happened in this sad episode.

He wrote a number of times about bees. In“The Vortex” (1917), the story linked to this poem, a swarm of bees in a box is dropped over a bridge onto a railway platform as a train approaches, bringing hilarious chaos, lovingly described.

In “Red Dog” (1895) in The Second Jungle Book Mowgli leads a pack of marauding wild dogs over a cliff, where many of them are stung to death by the savage bees that have lived there for generations.

In “The Mother Hive” (1908) in Actions and Reactions, an allegory about British politics, a wax moth gets into a hive, spreading infection and persuading the workers they do not need to work. In “The Bee-boy’s Song” (1906) he celebrates the mysterious relationship between a bee-keeper and his charges; and in “The Bees and the Flies” (1908) he writes of the ancient myth that bees could be generated within a slaughtered beast.


Notes on the Text

[Verse 1]

outposts: small parties of men sent ahead of the main body to look out for the enemy.

guardrooms:  accommodation for armed parties near the entrance to the fort, camp etc. ready for any emergency. See With the Main Guard”. (Soldiers Three.)

Amazons: a race of female warriors believed by the ancient Greeks to come from Scythia, North of the Black Sea. The worker bees, who gather the honey and protect the hive, are female.

[Verse 3]

mailed: in this context, wearing armour

sacked: plundered, looted.

[Verse 4]

The river: the Dudwell runs through Kipling’s garden at Bateman’s and is liable to flood. See “My Son’s Wife” also in “A Diversity of Creatures”, and “Below the Mill Dam” in Traffics and Discoveries.

Atlantis: a legendary island in the Atlantic Ocean that was thought to have mysteriously disappeared.

The Flood: See the story of Noah and the Ark in the Old Testament,
Genesis, Chapters 6 to 9. Kipling drew this picture of the Ark for Just So Stories.

[Verse 6]

plinths: in this context, the heavy slabs at the base of columns, a good foundation.

[Verse 5]

in one night:  reminiscent of the Lord’s slaying of all the first-born of the Egyptians in a single night (Exodus 12.29).[D.H.]

[Verse 7]

Daughters of the Palace … Princesses:    queen larvae [D.H.]

bridegrooms:  the male ‘drones’ which mate with  the queen ‘ [D.H.]

harsh envenomed virgins: though the myriad worker bees, armed with stings, are female, they never mate. Only the Queen can lay eggs.

[Verse 8]

I will build anew … Nor will I rest:   surely an echo of William Blake’s Jerusalem. [D.H.]

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green and pleasant Land.

the dark, enduring blood:  an ancestry capable of great endurance.

[Verse 9]

the horses and the chariots fleeing:   perhaps an echo of Pharaoh’s chariots in Exodus 14, 24-25  [D.H.]

And it came to pass, that in the morning watch the Lord looked unto the host of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and of the cloud, and troubled the host of the Egyptians,And took off their chariot wheels, that they drave them heavily: so that the Egyptians said, Let us flee from the face of Israel; for the Lord fighteth for them against the Egyptians.


©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2018 All rights reserved