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Rudyard Kipling's "The Gods of the Copybook Headings"

Updated on September 21, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Rudyard Kipling

Source

Introduction and Text of "The Gods of the Copybook Headings"

The speaker in Rudyard Kipling's poem of social commentary, "The Gods of the Copybook Headings," declaims in a cosmic voice, similar to the cosmic voice employed by Langston Hughes in his masterpiece, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers."

The speaker in Kipling's poem demonstrates that fads and fallacies that appear in the "Market Place" and political arena come and go and, at times, wreak havoc, while the wise sayings that appear in the children's copybooks remain viable throughout time.

The Gods of the Copybook Headings

As I pass through my incarnations in every age and race,
I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market Place.
Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.

We were living in trees when they met us. They showed us each in turn
That Water would certainly wet us, as Fire would certainly burn:
But we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind,
So we left them to teach the Gorillas while we followed the March of Mankind.

We moved as the Spirit listed. They never altered their pace,
Being neither cloud nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Market Place,
But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come
That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome.

With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch,
They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch;
They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings;
So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things.

When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "Stick to the Devil you know."

On the first Feminian Sandstones we were promised the Fuller Life
(Which started by loving our neighbour and ended by loving his wife)
Till our women had no more children and the men lost reason and faith,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "The Wages of Sin is Death."

In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "If you don't work you die."

Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew
And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.

As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;

And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!

Reading of Kipling's "The Gods of the Copybook Headings"


Commentary

Turns out that an important learning tool for students ends up the best yardstick for wisdom and morality.

First Stanza: Reincarnating in Every Historical Period

As I pass through my incarnations in every age and race,
I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market Place.
Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.

The speaker begins with a remarkable claim that suggests he is aware of the reincarnating soul that travels immortally and eternally through space and time. After this remarkable assertion, he broaches his important subject that the passing frivolities that become dominant in the casual society cannot stand up to time-tested wisdom—like that present in children's literature, offered to instruct.

The speaker is implying that morality does not change, despite the fads of social interaction. And society will always teach its children what it knows deep in its psyche to be the correct modes of behavior. What jaded adults have accepted as appropriate behavior often takes on a new light when they consider passing that behavior on to the next generation. For example, the moral chickens of depravity hatched during the 1960s sexual revolution have finally come home to roost in the #MeToo movement that now seeks to hold accountable men who took that sexual depravity to heart and acted upon it for decades. The hippies who said to hell with moral values fathered the likes of Bill Clinton, Harvey Weinstein, Al Franken, Keith Ellison, Sherrod Brown, and others of the ilk.

With the moral pendulum swinging back too far, the #MeToo gang will eventually have to recognize that they had the answer to their moral dilemma all along; they just refused to use common sense and recognize it. After they make scapegoats of many innocent, decent men, their credibility will have shot itself in the foot, and they will understand finally the difference between morals and fictitious power.

Second Stanza: The Elites Who Lack Vision

We were living in trees when they met us. They showed us each in turn
That Water would certainly wet us, as Fire would certainly burn:
But we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind,
So we left them to teach the Gorillas while we followed the March of Mankind.

The wise snippets that have come down from such the ancients as the Biblical writers include humankind's historical roots that run as far back as the lower primates. Common sense told the ancients as it still tells the moderns, "That Water would certainly wet us, as Fire would certainly burn." But the supposedly sophisticated elites decided that ancient wisdom had grown musty and "lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind."

So these philosophical bits of wisdom were assigned to the copybooks that teach children how to write. They were no longer heeded as important for adult guidance.

The elites preferred to heed the "March of Mankind," instead of observing spiritual wisdom from scripture and other wise sources.

Third Stanza: Wisdom and Morality Entwining

We moved as the Spirit listed. They never altered their pace,
Being neither cloud nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Market Place,
But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come
That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome.

As the modern intelligentsia followed its own misguided direction, those gods of the copybook remained focused and steady. The "Market Place" gods, however, continued to plunder and pillage, "caught up with our progress." But from time to time, the rootlessness of foolhardy activity has resulted in "a tribe" being wiped out or Rome falling.

Fourth Stanza: The Stink of Moral Relativism

With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch,
They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch;
They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings;
So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things.

The aphorisms and proverbs became fodder for ridicule as relativism rose to justify inappropriate behavior and thought. As the copybook gods maintained a steady common sense perspective, the gods of the marketplace continued to offer ludicrous promises of "beautiful things"—concocting notions of the moon being made of cheese, that wishes were, in fact, horses, and that pigs could fly. The speaker uses these outlandish sayings to emphasize the outrageous claims made by companies who exaggerate the efficacy of their products.

Fifth Stanza: Politics as Delusional as Commerce

When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "Stick to the Devil you know."

The gods of the political sphere turned out to be as delusive as the gods of the market place. Exaggerated efforts at appeasement for peace turned nations into enablers of dictatorial power grabbers.

Thus when a nation gives up its means of self-defense, it finds itself "sold and delivered" to their "foe." Again, the copybook provides the appropriate wisdom, "Stick to the Devil you know."

Sixth Stanza: Modern Morality Fails to Deliver the Goods

On the first Feminian Sandstones we were promised the Fuller Life
(Which started by loving our neighbour and ended by loving his wife)
Till our women had no more children and the men lost reason and faith,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "The Wages of Sin is Death."

The promise of "the Fuller Life" was made during the time that the first churches and temples were being built. But that promise morphed from "loving [one's] neighbor" to "loving his wife."

And the copybook gods delivered again the proper guidance that "The Wages of Sin is Death." The transformation from wisdom had caused men to lose faith and women to refuse to continue to bear children.

Seventh Stanza: The Failure of Statism

In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "If you don't work you die."

In the next era, the socialistic statist promised care from cradle to grave by taking from Peter to pay Paul. But the abundance of money did not motivate growth, while again the copybook admonished, "If you don't work you die."

The socialist mind-set always rears its ugly head because too many folks fail to learn the lesson of history. Instead of thinking through the false claims of power seekers, too many citizens allow themselves to blinded by the shiny objects. Thinking that a power-hungry politician can help you pay your mortgage and put gas in your car is akin to believing the tooth fairy will leave cash under your pillow.

Eighth Stanza: Returning to Stayed Wisdom

Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew
And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.

After eons of folly, mankind, even in the market place where "their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew," begins to return to stayed wisdom, to common sense, to values that work. Even the "hearts of the meanest" begin to believe, "That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four." And yet again the copybook "limped up to explain it once more."

Society has to operate according to basic moral laws or it will cease to operate at all. The existential dilemma of right and wrong do have absolutes attached regardless of the mistaken philosophical psycho drama offered by the relativism of the secular humanists. Each human being has free will, but there is a limit to that free will, and that limit is the boundary between good will and ill will. If you fail to accept the fact that, like you, your neighbor also has free will, you will commit heinous crimes against your neighbor and against yourself.

Ninth Stanza: The Failure Social Progressivism

As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;

The speaker summarizes the human condition saying that throughout all human history, "There are only four things certain since Social Progress began": 1) "the Dog returns to his Vomit"; 2) "the Sow returns to her Mire"; 3) "the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire." He placed number four in his final stanza.

Tenth Stanza: Wisdom the Only Security

And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!

After all humankind's foolishness has delivered them into his just rewards, he finally learns that "Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn," 4) "The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!" Thus, the wisdom of the copybook gods provides the permanent security that a foolhardy humankind has spurned.

Boiling itself down to good old common sense, taking life one step at a time, remaining humble and seeking self understanding, while following the Golden Rule, the wisdom of the Copybook retains a luster that will light the behavior of humankind as long humankind walks upon the earth.

Rudyard Kipling speaking on writing and truth

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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