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!"
- "When I was a King and a Mason -- a Master proven and skilled -- ": Kipling was a Freemason for four years. He attained the ranks of a Mark Master and a Royal Ark Mariner. Freemasons form a society that uses metaphors relating to masonry to understand God and what he has built, the universe. The poem can, therefore, be read as either about a real king who was a real mason building a real palace or as a Freemason with the rank of Master involved in a spiritual endeavour.
- "I cleared me ground for a Palace such as a King should build.": this line implies that the palace will be fit for a king, but it also implies that kings should build. That is their function.
- "Presently under the silt": the old palace had been covered by soil deposited by a river during floods. That implies a cycle of building and ruin, flood, and rebuilding. The King initially believes in the European idea of progress: his plans and workmanship are simply better than earlier ones. He abandons this for the Hindu concept that everything cycles. Hindus teach, for example, that a man is born over and over, and the universe itself goes through grand cycles called yugas. This poem shows Kipling's doubts about progress. In this, it is similar to his poem "Recessional," in which he foresaw a time when the British Empire would become "one with Nineveh and Tyre," taking its place in a cycle of building and destruction.
- "There was no worth in the fashion--there was no wit in the plan--": It is easy for someone to disregard the efforts of his predecessors and believe that his own efforts are unique. The poem is about unlearning this attitude. He learns that he is not a climax to history but "After me cometh a Builder."
- "I tumbled his quoins and his ashlars": A quoin is a large stone or brick at the corner of a wall, a corner-stone. An ashlar is a square-hewn stone used to construct a wall or masonry made of such stones. It may cover brick-work or rubble.
- "Lime I milled of his marbles; burned it, slacked it, and spread": Lime is a powder formed by burning limestone (or marble) which is then mixed with water ("slacked" or "slaked") and spread over a wall to form a smooth, white surface.
- "Taking and leaving at pleasure the gifts of the humble dead.": This line has great meaning for me. Whenever we use words, objects, concepts, writings, or other aspects of culture, this is what we are doing. It is humbling and appropriate to remember that we are using what others made, which is why he "despised not nor gloried."
- "so did I understand/The form of the dream he had followed in the face of the thing he had planned.": The builder learned to understand his predecessor from his works because both belonged to the same craft, faced the same problems, and were parts of one tradition.
- "* * * * *": Time passes.
- "They sent me a Word from the Darkness.": Who are "they"? Death is an "it" and God a "He." Are these the spirits of previous builders?
- By carving the same message as his predecessor, the King accepts the same fate, to provide physical and spiritual raw materials for his successor.