The City of Brass

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The twenty-eighth in my ongoing series examining the poetry of Rudyard Kipling. The other posts in the series may be read here, here , here , here, here , here, here, here, here, here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here , here , here, here and here.

There is a curiously prophetic quality to some of Kipling’s poems.  He saw the birth of the welfare states, just as we are witnessing the death throes of such states.  He saw all too clearly where all this would lead.  For the poem we are looking at in this post, he took as his inspiration the tale of The City of Brass from the Arabian Nights, and shaped it into a prediction of how increasing taxation to pay for welfare would end up in disaster.  Kipling wrote the poem in 1909 in white heat in reaction to the so-called People’s Budget of Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George, the first British budget to explicitly call for raising taxes to redistribute wealth to establish what would become known as a welfare state:

This is a war Budget. It is for raising money to wage implacable warfare against poverty and squalidness. I cannot help hoping and believing that before this generation has passed away, we shall have advanced a great step towards that good time, when poverty, and the wretchedness and human degradation which always follows in its camp, will be as remote to the people of this country as the wolves which once infested its forests.

(How many empty promises like that have been made in the intervening one hundred and five years!)  Lloyd George was ably assisted by Winston Churchill, then President of the Board of Trade, although Churchill would always reject socialism, and do so with more vigor as the years passed.

Passages in Kipling’s poem read as if they were current commentary on America in the Age of Obama:

“Who has hate in his soul? Who has envied his neighbour?

Let him arise and control both that man and his labour.”

They said: “Who is eaten by sloth? Whose unthrift has destroyed him?

He shall levy a tribute from all because none have employed him.”

They said: “Who hath toiled, who hath striven, and gathered possession?

Let him be spoiled. He hath given full proof of transgression.”

They said: “Who is irked by the Law? Though we may not remove it.

If he lend us his aid in this raid, we will set him above it!

Kipling always had a strong distrust of the power of the State and as for the politicians who wielded that power he accurately summed up most of them in the phrase: “little tin gods on wheels”.  Here is Kipling’s poem:

The City of Brass

“Here was a people whom after their works

thou shalt see wept over for their lost dominion:

and in this palace is the last information

respecting lords collected in the dust.”

  The Arabian Nights.  

In a land that the sand overlays – the ways to her gates are untrod –

A multitude ended their days whose gates were made splendid by God,

Till they grew drunk and were smitten with madness and went to their fall,

And of these is a story written: but Allah Alone knoweth all!

 

When the wine stirred in their heart their bosoms dilated.

They rose to suppose themselves kings over all things created –

To decree a new earth at a birth without labour or sorrow –

To declare: “We prepare it to-day and inherit to-morrow.”

They chose themselves prophets and priests of minute understanding,

Men swift to see done, and outrun, their extremest commanding –

Of the tribe which describe with a jibe the perversions of Justice –

Panders avowed to the crowd whatsoever its lust is.

 

Swiftly these pulled down the walls that their fathers had made them –

The impregnable ramparts of old, they razed and relaid them

As playgrounds of pleasure and leisure, with limitless entries,  

And havens of rest for the wastrels where once walked the sentries;

And because there was need of more pay for the shouters and marchers,

They disbanded in face of their foemen their yeomen and archers.

They replied to their well-wishers’ fears – to their enemies laughter,

Saying: “Peace! We have fashioned a God Which shall save us hereafter.

We ascribe all dominion to man in his factions conferring,

And have given to numbers the Name of the Wisdom unerring.”

 

They said: “Who has hate in his soul? Who has envied his neighbour?

Let him arise and control both that man and his labour.”

They said: “Who is eaten by sloth? Whose unthrift has destroyed him?

He shall levy a tribute from all because none have employed him.”

They said: “Who hath toiled, who hath striven, and gathered possession?

Let him be spoiled. He hath given full proof of transgression.”

They said: “Who is irked by the Law? Though we may not remove it.

If he lend us his aid in this raid, we will set him above it!

So the robber did judgment again upon such as displeased him,

The slayer, too, boasted his slain, and the judges released him.

As for their kinsmen far off, on the skirts of the nation,

They harried all earth to make sure none escaped reprobation.

They awakened unrest for a jest in their newly-won borders,

And jeered at the blood of their brethren betrayed by their orders.

They instructed the ruled to rebel, their rulers to aid them;

And, since such as obeyed them not fell, their Viceroys obeyed them.

When the riotous set them at naught they said: “Praise the upheaval!

For the show and the world and the thought of Dominion is evil!”

They unwound and flung from them with rage, as a rag that defied them,

The imperial gains of the age which their forefathers piled them.

They ran panting in haste to lay waste and embitter for ever

The wellsprings of Wisdom and Strengths which are Faith and Endeavour.

They nosed out and digged up and dragged forth and exposed to derision

All doctrine of purpose and worth and restraint and prevision:

And it ceased, and God granted them all things for which they had striven,

And the heart of a beast in the place of a man’s heart was given. . . .

               .          .        .          .          .           .          .          .          

When they were fullest of wine and most flagrant in error,

Out of the sea rose a sign – out of Heaven a terror.

Then they saw, then they heard, then they knew – for none troubled to hide it,

A host had prepared their destruction, but still they denied it.

They denied what they dared not abide if it came to the trail;

But the Sward that was forged while they lied did not heed their denial.

It drove home, and no time was allowed to the crowd that was driven.

The preposterous-minded were cowed – they thought time would be given.

There was no need of a steed nor a lance to pursue them;

It was decreed their own deed, and not a chance, should undo them.   The tares they had laughingly sown were ripe to the reaping.

The trust they had leagued to disown was removed from their keeping.

The eaters of other men’s bread, the exempted from hardship,

The excusers of impotence fled, abdicating their wardship,

For the hate they had taught through the State brought the State no defender,

And it passed from the roll of the Nations in headlong surrender!       

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10 Comments

  1. Its so cold joke #2
    IT’S SO COLD… The government has its hands in its own pockets.
    Deut. 14:26-29 God informs the Israelites to bring their tithes (not taxes levied nor charity extorted by the government), but the tenth of their produce that the individual person deems and redeems. The faithful servant and the true steward is instructed to care for the Levites who have no share in the community property, the alien (slave), the orphan and the widow who belong to your community may eat their fill, so that the Lord, your God, may bless you in all that you undertake.
    Two things become apparent: 1) The individual chooses how much he will tithe in the virtue of charity. (This excludes the HHS Mandate and emphasizes human conscience) 2) The poor may eat their fill. In Justice, only life-saving measures are necessary to fulfill the virtue of charity. When the poor have enough to sustain life, they then, must make effort to sustain themselves. All of this is voluntary before the Lord.
    The HHS Mandate storm boots walk all over the citizens’ neck.

  2. There was a time when people thought they could eradicate poverty and bring in something very much like the kindom of God. It was in this spirit that much work began during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As many have already cited, progress seemed inevitable until the Great War.

  3. So much in this poem that speaks right to us today. This part jumps out “the excusers of impotence fled, abdicating their wardship”. It is so important that we do not excuse impotence. allow weak leaders to sink our ship.

  4. “little tin gods on wheels”. reminds me of a phrase you like Mr. McClarey: “on stilts” : )
    Albert Einstein lived in Princeton, New Jersey, which he described as “a quaint little village populated by demi-gods on stilts”. This poem has sparked much interest in me of Kipling. I saw this nation in the poem but I read “practicing homosexuals” in the phrase: “…excusers of impotence” as surely as I read that all natural law was torn down, sanctions against all vices, pornography, licentiousness, lust, sloth, in these words: “Swiftly these pulled down the walls that their fathers had made them –
    The impregnable ramparts of old, they razed and relaid them
    As playgrounds of pleasure and leisure, with limitless entries,
    And havens of rest for the wastrels where once walked the sentries;” I like this poem very much.

  5. Don, thanks for your series on this. I’ve submitted this post (and by extension, all the previous ones) to my wife for inclusion in the home school curriculum. Kipling was someone I was a fool to ignore when I was in high school.

  6. Thank you John. The main reason for this series is because Kipling tends to be ignored today or misremembered as a Colonel Blimp figure and either fate is a grave injustice to an original thinker and a literary genius.

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