Rudyard Kipling

The City of Sleep by Rudyard Kipling

‘The City of Sleep’ was published in 1895 without a title. It appeared within a longer story, “The Brushwood Boy,” one of the best-loved of Kipling’s short stories, then was later published in a collection of poetry. The story tells the tale of George Cottar’s life. He is an English Army officer and Kipling depicts his youth, his dreams, and his tour of duty in India. The story ends positively with the main character meeting, in the real world, a girl about whom he has dreamed for twenty-one years. ‘The City of Sleep’ falls in the middle of the story and is an important part of the narrative. 

The poem, which appears in the story as a song, was composed and sung by the girl. In the song are elements the two have shared within their mutual dreams of the other. It is through these details that George Cottar realizes the connection they share. You can read more about the story here.

The City of Sleep by Rudyard Kipling


Summary of The City of Sleep 

The City of Sleep’ by Rudyard Kipling features in the author’s popular short story “The Brushwood Boy” and depicts the shared dreams at the centre of the story. 

The poem takes the reader through an emotional depiction of the world of dreams and the waking world. In the stanzas, the young woman who is singing them, describes the nature of Merciful Town and everyone’s desire to lay down their tools and troubles and go there. It is a place where one can escape from their life, but, it is not always accessible.


Structure of The City of Sleep 

The City of Sleep’ by Rudyard Kipling is a three-stanza poem that is divided into sets of ten lines. These lines follow a rhyme scheme of ABABCDEEDC, with a couple of alterations, throughout. In all three stanzas, the poet makes use of a refrain or a section of the verse that is repeated word or word. In this case, the last four lines of each stanza. There is also a distinct musical quality to these lines, a fact which is emphasized by the poem’s context. 


Poetic Techniques in The City of Sleep 

Kipling makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘The City of Sleep’. These include, but are not limited to, anaphora, alliteration, allusion, and caesura. The first, anaphora, is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This technique is often used to create emphasis. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation. In this case, two lines at the end of each stanza begin with the word “We”. 

An allusion is an expression that’s meant to call something specific to the mind without directly stating it. Phrases like “Policeman Day” and “City of Sleep” are allusions to the broader narrative of “The Brushwood Boy,” the story in which this poem first appeared. They allude to the shared dreams that the main character and a young woman had. 

Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “pity,” which appears three times, and “Policeman” in lines seven, eight, and nine of all three stanzas. Another example can be seen in line two of the second stanza with “prayer and plough”. 

Another important technique is the caesura. It occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might come before an important turn or transition in the text. For example, line eight of all three stanzas reads: “We wakeful; ah, pity us!” 


Analysis of The City of Sleep 

Stanza One

Over the edge of the purple down,

Where the single lamplight gleams,

Know ye the road to the Merciful Town

That is hard by the Sea of Dreams – 

Where the poor may lay their wrongs away,

And the sick may forget to weep?

But we – pity us! Oh, pity us!

We wakeful; ah, pity us! –

We must go back with Policeman Day – 

Back from the City of Sleep!

In the first stanza of ‘The City of Sleep,’ the speaker begins by describing two things about which she and George Cottar have both dreamed, “Policeman Day” and “the City of Sleep”. She sings about the landscape first. In this dreamland, one travels through the ”purple down” in the area where the “single lamplight gleams”. It is a gloomy seeming atmosphere but it leads to the “Merciful Town” that is near the “Sea of Dreams,” a place where grief does not exist. The mood in the poem shifts frequently. Sometimes feeling whistful and at others depressing.

The speaker describes this place as one in which the “poor may lay their wrongs away” and the “sick may forget to weep”. But, the speaker adds, not all can go there. The dream world is not accessible to those who are awake. She exclaims over this, asking for those awake to be pitied by those sleeping. 


Stanza Two

Weary they turn from the scroll and crown,

Fetter and prayer and plough – 

They that go up to the Merciful Town,

For her gates are closing now.

It is their right in the Baths of Night

Body and soul to steep,

But we – pity us! ah, pity us!

We wakeful; oh, pity us! –

We must go back with Policeman Day –

Back from the City of Sleep!

The second stanza explores more of this dream world and concludes with the same refrain. “They,” those that are dreaming, turn away from their lives and walk to the “Merciful Town”. There, they do not have to worry about being “fettered,” or chained. There are no prayers to worry over or ploughs to work. It is their turn, the speaker adds, as they sleep to enter into this world. 

These facts do not stop her from expressing jealously, on behalf of all humankind, for the land of peace that these people are accessing. The stanza ends with the repetition of the “pity us” lines and the same reference to “Policeman Day” and “the City of Sleep”. 


Stanza Three 

Over the edge of the purple down,

Ere the tender dreams begin,

Look – we may look – at the Merciful Town,

But we may not enter in!

Outcasts all, from her guarded wall

Back to our watch we creep:

We – pity us! ah, pity us!

We wakeful; ah, pity us! –

We that go back with Policeman Day –

Back from the City of Sleep!

In the third stanza of ‘The City of Sleep,’ the speaker brings back in the image of the “purple down,” over its edge is where the “tender dreams begin”. In these lines, she speaks of the inaccessibility of Merciful Town. They watch from its walls, wishing they could enter, but they are unable to. The third line of this stanza is a good example of caesura. It emphasizes the separate nature of the two worlds. 

 They are “Outcasts,” thrown out from this guarded place. She uses words like “creep” to show that they do not belong there and have to hide their presence. 

The poem concludes with a repetition of the refrain again. This gives the poem some of its musical qualities and makes it more believably song-like. It also emphasizes the unending nature of their plight and their desire to get to a more merciful existence. 

Discover the Essential Secrets

of Poetry

Sign up to unveil the best kept secrets in poetry,

brought to you by the experts

Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

The Best-Kept Secrets of Poetry

Discover and learn about the greatest poetry ever straight to your inbox

Discover and learn about the greatest poetry, straight to your inbox

Start Your Perfect Poetry Journey

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap