First published in the Morning Post June 28th, 1909, and then reprinted in the same nrwspaper on June 11th, 1931 with a special article. Collected in:
The poem is a fiercely patriotic defence of Britain’s age-old values and traditions and a denunciation of their potential destruction by the tax-raising, social-reforming Liberal government.
Kipling himself, writing ten years later to his American publisher Frank Doubleday about the new collection The Years Between, describes the poem as: “a careful outline of the state to which socialism reduces a nation'. [Letters, Ed. Thomas Pinney , vol 4 p. 544].
Peter Keating writes:
...the broad-minded inclusiveness of "The Sons of Martha" did not extend to Liberal politicians, or - as the true nature of Liberal social reforms became clearer - to many of the working class men who had voted them into power. "The City of Brass", Morning Post 28 June 1909, was written during the long acrimonious debate on Lloyd George's proposals to increase income tax, and to introduce a new land tax in his "people's budget", though as the poem makes plain, it was the apparently unstoppable process of reform and the increasingly vocal demands of an organised working-class movement, rather than the budget itself, that provoked Kipling's fury.Kipling had already made similar prophetic warnings of impending disaster in two poems of 1902, “The Dykes” and “The Islanders” .
"The City of Brass"
The title and imagery of the poem are taken from a story in The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night. As Julian Moore writes in KJ 290 it is a tale about the death of a once great society. A wise Caliph sends his servants on a quest to find the mysterious City of Brass in the far desert wastes, which no one has ever entered. They endure severe trials and tribulations before breaching the walls.
Inside they find a population of corpses, frozen in symbolic parallel “in a lifeless simulacrum of a once powerful society”. They discover the mummified body of a beautiful princess. The trappings of wealth and power lie everywhere as a prophetic warning, discarded and useless in the dust.
For the story itself see the Harvard Classics edition of A Thousand and One Nights (Collier, New York 1909-1914).
Though in his later years he had some political friends, Kipling had never had much use for politicians, in particular for Liberal politicians. As early as 1886 he had lampooned them in "Pagett, M.P.". "Little Foxes" of 1909, published a few weeks before "The City of Brass", was equally derisive. The description of the bandarlog of The Jungle Book expressed a scathing view of democratic political debate.
Since the days of Gladstone and before, the Liberals had been dubious about the merits of extending the Empire. Before 1900 they had several times tried to give Home Rule to Ireland, and they had been sceptical about the need for war with the Boers in 1899. The Boers had been defeated by 1902. But the Liberals won a landslide majority in the election of 1906, and soon after gave independence under nominal British sovereignty to the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, destroying Kipling's vision of a British dominated Southern Africa. [See our notes on "The Science of Rebellion".]
Now, at home, with the aim of mitigating the effects of poverty, a new generation of Liberal leaders, including David Lloyd George as Chancellor of the Exchequer, had embarked on a radical programme of reforms, laying the foundation of what would later be called 'The Welfare State'. These included pensions for the old, unemployment benefits, free school meals, and health insurance, paid for by increases in taxation, including ìncome tax and taxes on property.
Kipling contemplated these proposals with consternation, particularly at a time when he believed that Britain's defences were being neglected, and urged his close friend H.A. Gwynne, the Editor of the Morning Post to denounce them in his columns. "The City of Brass" was published when political controvery over Lloyd George's 'People's Budget' was at its height.
Peter Keating comments:
There could be no stronger indication of just how far Kipling was out of touch with the reformist spirit of the age than "The City of Brass" which includes, in its damning comprehensive sweep, many of the very people whose spokesman he had previously been. He seems never to have felt any repentance for what many of his readers must have regarded as a betrayal. Indeed, some years later he would proudly instance "The City of Brass" as a justification of his prophetic gifts. But he never wrote another poem in quite th same vein.
Here was….dust an inscription found as the expedition entered the City.
In a land….knoweth all The city is heading for disaster, Kipling's central theme.
[Line 8] Panders…lust The Government is playing into the hands of militant socialists.
[Line 1] Swiftly…made them Britain’s age-old defences are in danger of destruction.
[Lines 3-4] As playgrounds…sentries the story has many references to wealth discovered in the palace of the City of Brass. The implication is that the government has been seduced by financial greed. .
[Lines 1-6] “They said…transgression Andrew Lycett (p. 534) sees these lines as Kipling’s attack on the new unemployment benefit system introduced by the Liberals.
David Gilmour (pp. 217/8) quotes this section as expressing Kipling’s anger at 'the Labour movement and the class conflict which the Government was encouraging'. He sees Kipling’s last line as referring to 'the whole of the Lloyd George gospel'.
See also "The Islanders".
[Lines 7-8] Who is irked by the Law?...above it The idea of the Law, underpinning the whole of a society, was crucial to Kipling. See The Good Kipling, Elliot L Gilbert (Ed.) (pp.47-8) which refers in to 'Kipling’s Law as 'a right knowledge of truth,,a necessary acceptance of things as they are' rather than a 'soulless authoritarian principle'.
[Lines 1-2] They unwound…forefathers piled them A reference to what Kipling saw as the betrayal of the Empire’s past strength and military power. See also “The Dykes”:
These are the dykes our father left, but we would not look to the same.[Verse 6]
[Line 2] And the heart of a beast… This echoes the many ‘beast’ references in the Book of Revelations about the Biblical last days, where 'beast' implies 'devil'. Ann Parry quotes this line and comments (p.122) 'the poet’s’ voice was that of a prophet seeking to warn and arouse Britain against such a fate.
[Line 2] 'Out of the sea…terror' In his letter to Frank N. Doubleday (cited above) Kipling writes that one of the English papers in 1911 published a comic illustration of this line in the shape of a sea full of submarines and a sky full of aeroplanes!. The newspaper is not identified.
[Line 4] An host... the German armies.
[Line 9] There was no need…to pursue them. The Arabian Nights story refers to a horseman of brass carrying a lance. In an inscription the searchers read:
If thou knowest not the City of Brass, rub the head of the horseman and he will turn and then will stop, and in whatsoever direction he stoppeth, thither proceed.[Line 11] tares weeds.
©Geoffrey Annis and John Radcliffe 2011 All rights reserved