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The Palace -- Rudyard Kipling

Brought to mind by Sunday's poem (Poem #938)...
(Poem #940) The Palace
When I was a King and a Mason -- a Master proven and skilled --
I cleared me ground for a Palace such as a King should build.
I decreed and dug down to my levels. Presently, under the silt,
I came on the wreck of a Palace such as a King had built.

There was no worth in the fashion -- there was no wit in the plan --
Hither and thither, aimless, the ruined footings ran --
Masonry, brute, mishandled, but carven on every stone:
"After me cometh a Builder. Tell him, I too have known."

Swift to my use in my trenches, where my well-planned ground-works grew,
I tumbled his quoins and his ashlars, and cut and reset them anew.
Lime I milled of his marbles; burned it, slacked it, and spread;
Taking and leaving at pleasure the gifts of the humble dead.

Yet I despised not nor gloried; yet, as we wrenched them apart,
I read in the razed foundations the heart of that builder's heart.
As he had risen and pleaded, so did I understand
The form of the dream he had followed in the face of the thing he had planned.

            *   *   *   *   *

When I was a King and a Mason -- in the open noon of my pride,
They sent me a Word from the Darkness. They whispered and called me aside.
They said -- "The end is forbidden." They said -- "Thy use is fulfilled.
"Thy Palace shall stand as that other's -- the spoil of a King who shall build."

I called my men from my trenches, my quarries, my wharves, and my sheers.
All I had wrought I abandoned to the faith of the faithless years.
Only I cut on the timber -- only I carved on the stone:
"After me cometh a Builder. Tell him, I too have known!"
-- Rudyard Kipling

 quoin: An external angle of a wall or building; also, one of the stones
    or bricks serving to form the angle; a corner-stone
 ashlar: A square hewn stone for building purposes or for pavement
 sheer: The fore-and-aft upward curvature or rise of the deck or bulwarks of
   a vessel [Anything more appropriate? That's all I could get out of the
   OED - m.]

Man's relationship with Time has ever been an uneasy one, and all the more so
for its essentially one-sided nature - time sweeps on heedless of man or his
works, of whether he "goes gentle into that good night" or "rage[s] against
the dying of the light".

And with Time come its attendant evils - entropy, decay, and, of course,
Death, making the vain bid for immortality one of the most poignant of human
impulses. (On the other hand, it is the same impulse that gave us the pyramids
and Shakespeare's sonnets, so perhaps 'vain' is not quite accurate).

Today's poem is an interesting look at that relationship. The king's tone is a
curious mixture of pride, cool efficiency, and a genuine sympathy for the
dream of the deceased builder, and his reaction to the "Word From the
Darkness" is wonderfully philosophical, particularly for a king in the "open
noon of his pride".

Gratifyingly if not unexpectedly, Kipling's verse proves equal to the
(somewhat weighty) subject. The language is consistent and nicely balanced,
and there are several lines that made me shiver (still, despite all I have
learnt of criticism, one of my primary criteria in deeming a poem 'good'). One
phrase seems slightly out of place ("I cleared me ground for a palace"), but
that's most likely due to a minor difference in dialect.


  Kipling Biography: See Poem #17

  Other Kipling poems on Minstrels:
    [broken link]


32 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Boris Smilga said...

The word "sheers" is not the plural of "sheer". It's a distinct
lexeme that is synonimous to one of the meanings of "shear". thus defines the word:

An apparatus used to lift heavy weights, consisting of two or more
spars joined at the top and spread at the base, the tackle being
suspended from the top.

William Oswald said...

This pome was mentioned by R. McNamara, def secretary during Vietnam War, in his 1995 book attempting to explain why the war was such a failure: America's best and Brightest just didn't know what the hell they were doing and utter disaster was the result. W. Oswald Feb.23, 2003.

Herrjuan said...

Reading this poem after reading today's NY Times makes me feel that the
supremacy that the US has enjoyed for the last 100 years is, as wih the Roman
Empire, soon to be over. If so, one wonders what King will be building his Palace
a hundred years form now. John Butcher

Schoonmaker James said...

I stumbled on this site when looking for commentary on Kipling's "The
Palace". Below are my comments:

I come at this poem from a somewhat different perspective: Rudyard
Kipling was a Freemason, as am I, and this poem is fraught with Masonic
symbolism and meaning. I read this as a warning to the Master of a
Lodge to avoid pride and the assumption that you are the first to have
great plans.

The Master of a Lodge is, in Masonic symbolism, a king and a Mason.
Each Master is elected for a one-year term, and will quickly come upon
the "wreck of a Palace such as a King had built"- the plans and dreams
of the Masters before him.

The term quoin was new to me, but the definition given here is not: the
corner-stone has great Masonic significance. The ashlar is a common and
well-known Masonic symbol for the attempt that each person should make
to better themselves. Time, particularly noon, also plays a symbolic
role in Masonry; essentially the same role it does in this poem. Also
mentioned is a Word- capitalized for emphasis. Each Master is
symbolically the keeper of the Master's Word.

James Schoonmaker

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