What is the central idea of the poem "The Runaway City" by Rabindranath Tagore? Why does it seem the city is on the move?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Rabindranath Tagore’s poem “The Runaway City” is a brief poem for children in which a first-person speaker (presumably a child) describes a literally unsettling dream. In the dream, the entire city of Calcutta appears to be on the move, and moving quickly.  Tagore, who began writing poetry from an early age himself, wrote a great many poems for children. The fact that he grew up in a very large family (with twelve older siblings) may also have prompted his later interest in trying to write from a child’s perspective.  He spent his very early life in Calcutta, another fact that gives “The Runaway City” some autobiographical relevance.

“The Runaway City” is an effective poem for children for a number of reasons, including the following:

  • It is written from the perspective of a child. The poem does not involve an adult telling a story about children; rather, it presents a child telling a story in a child-like voice.
  • It deals with events that seem unusual, almost magical. However, the fact that these events occur in a dream makes the poem credible. If the poem were presented as fact, it would seem literally fantastic (a piece of fantasy). Presented as part of a dream, the events it describe seem, oddly enough, somewhat realistic.
  • Most of its lines are short and exhibit vigorous rhythms and active verbs. The first four lines (describing the prelude to the dream itself) consist of ten syllables each; most of the remaining lines consist of six syllables each and often emphasize action verbs at the end of each line.
  • Various parts of the moving city are compared, ironically, to living creatures, such as “rhinos” (10), “pythons” (12), and “a giant centipede” (20). Children might especially enjoy such vivid images, while adults might find it interesting that Tagore compares man-made creations (the various parts of the city) to aspects of nature. It is as if the city has literally come alive in wholly literal and unexpected ways.
  • The poem ends on an especially numerous note as the young speaker describes a bridge being

Chased by Harrison Road

Breaking the traffic code

It is probably wise not to make too much of these lines, or of the poem in general, but it may be significant that the poem’s final two lines end with literal law-breaking, with a symbolic disruption of what is ordered, conventional, law-abiding, and “civilized.” One might interpret the poem as symbolizing a longing for anything unusual, energetic, exciting, and lively, particularly in large cities, which could sometimes seem dead, inhumane, unnatural, depressing, and stolid. The young speaker of the poem does not seem disturbed or unsettled by the city’s movements, although “Binu” (a sibling?), who speaks most of the poem’s words, is reported as “crying out in fright” (2), so that the poem begins on a somewhat disturbing note. For most of the rest of the work, however, the emphasis seems to be on the excitement of watching the various parts of the city move.  Most children would probably read the poem as an exercise in exuberant, imaginative playfulness, and many adults would probably concur and would not assume or expect any especially “deeper” meaning.

- See Tagore’s Selected Writings for Children, Oxford University Press (2002), p. 13.

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