The cyclical nature of things—of time, of nature, and indeed of manmade things is the subject of Rudyard Kipling’s (1865–1936) ‘Cities and Thrones and Powers’, which also reflects on how then does one live life, with this knowledge that it must eventually end. This poem formed part of his collection, Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906), a great favourite with me, in which Puck (yes, that very same one from A Midsummer Night’s Dream) appears to two children Dan and Una, and brings various characters out of history to meet and tell them their stories or of the times they lived in.
‘Cities and Thrones and Powers’, as Kipling tells us in the poem, are in the eye of time, much like flowers that bloom and die each day. For when seen against eternal time, the ‘lives’ of cities and powers, long though they may seem to us who are living in them or by them are but a blip. But then, also just as happens with flowers, out of the ashes as it were, ‘the spent and unconsidered earth’, cities arise once again. (Delhi is one example that springs to mind from my part of the world, for here, seven cities have stood (according to some accounts, eight), successively, the oldest references tracing back to the epic, The Mahabharat).
But this truth is something that every daffodil that blooms is blissfully unaware of. She knows not how and why last year’s daffodils came to an end, but boldly lives on, living the life that she has, and seeing those few days she has as eternal.
This ‘boon’ that time has given daffodils, according to Kipling is given to other life as well, letting us be as blind, such that we can move as boldly on, enabling us to see these cycles as our life itself enduring.
In the poem, it is really the second part that I find most interesting and philosophical for it brings up the question of how one lives to the fullest, and with confidence, and attaches value to life even though when considered in the wider perspective, against eternal time, our lives seem insignificant and momentary. Where does this ability come from to see and to know this, yet be able to proceed as though it is unseen? A gift of time itself, as Kipling asserts? But apart from this, I think it also leads us to realise that this perspective should factor into how we live our lives, and to what we attach significance and worth, for a blip though it may be, it is a blip that holds meaning for those who live it and that does have some impact on those that follow—more than we might sometimes comprehend.
Another aspect worth noting in the poem is its final two lines, for I was note quite sure how one should really interpret them. Stanza 3 reads:
So Time that is o'er-kind
To all that be,
Ordains us e'en as blind,
As bold as she:
That in our very death,
And burial sure,
Shadow to shadow, well persuaded, saith,
"See how our works endure!"
What do we make of ‘shadow’ here? Shadow as the line indicates (and one analysis confirms) represents the beginning and end. Does it point to a sort of blur between different cycles—in that they simply flow from one another, us not really being able to tell where one ends and the other begins?
The reflections in this poem about an understood yet complex truth, and its role in our lives, and the questions it gives rise to makes ‘Cities and Thrones and Powers’ both appealing and thought-provoking, one of many Kipling poems which I find myself coming back to or at least thinking back to.
On a tangent, though a related one, when thinking about this poem, I was reminded of a story from Indian mythology I only heard relatively recently (on television a few years ago in a programme by the author, mythologist and illustrator who also wrote the piece on the same story I’m linking, Devdutt Pattanaik) which incorporates the cyclical nature of life. It tells of how Lord Ram is told when the time has come for him to die. But because his faithful friend and companion, the monkey god Hanuman is always with him, Yama the god of death is afraid to come collect Ram, for Hanuman would never permit it. So, to distract Hanuman, Ram tells him to go fetch a gold ring which he has dropped in a crack in the palace floor. When Hanuman shrinks his size (he is able to both increase and reduce his size) and enters the crack, he finds himself in the land of serpents. There he meets the king of serpents, Vasuki, and informs him of his search, upon which Vasuki points him to a mountain of gold rings. As Hanuman wonders how he will determine which of these were dropped by Ram, it emerges that they all belong to Ram. For in each cycle, when it is time for Ram to die, a ring falls here and a monkey follows it while the Ram on earth dies. A rather interesting way of putting across how life ends, and yet endures, don’t you think?
Are there any favourite stories or poems you know of which talk of the cyclical nature of things? And what do you think he meant by his use of ‘shadow’? Looking forward to your thoughts!
Find the full poem on the Poetry Lovers Page here