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Gods of the Copybook Headings

Updated on December 31, 2010

Rudyard Kipling's Prophetic Poem

Rudyard Kipling lived from 1865 to 1936. During his lifetime, he wrote several stories and poems, including Just So Stories and The Jungle Book. One poem that he wrote was "The Gods of the Copybook Headings". He published this poem for the first time in 1919. The poem was recently used in Glenn Beck's book "The Overton Window". I was fascinated by the poem when I first heard it.

I am including the poem here, along with my interpretation of it. Let me know if you have a different idea of what these words mean.

The Poem

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!

Gods of the Copybook Headings Vocabulary

The poem is easier to understand if you know what some of the terms that he uses mean.

copybook headings - students used to use copybooks to practice their handwriting. At the top, there would be a perfect example of how to print something. The student would copy the handwriting on the rest of the page.

Stilton - Stilton is a British kind of cheese

Dutch - the Dutch were known for their cheesemaking

The Cambrian Measures - the Cambrian Measures are a part of the ocean that divide Britain from the rest of Europe

Feminian Sandstones - Feminian Sandstones were used to build churches in the Medieval era. Before that, they were used to build pagan temples.

The Carboniferous Epoch - many believe that the Carboniferous Epoch was a period of time when the mountain ranges were formed

Stanza 1

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.

At the top of a copybook, there was an example of perfect handwriting. The "expert" was telling us how to do something, and students had to do things that the experts told them to to.

My interpretation of the "Gods of the Market Place" would be capitalism. Capitalist countries do not last forever. They flourish for a while, and then fall. Many civilizations were run by the experts, "the Gods of the Copybook Headings". They told people how to do something... there is always somebody out there that thinks they know better than us. Their ideas outlast the ones of capitalist civilizations.

Stanza 2

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 "experts" make us believe that without them, we were primitives, living in trees. They think that we came from monkeys, who live in trees. They were able to civilize us, showing us that water was wet and fire was hot (don't monkeys even know that?).

However, these "experts" are godless, and cannot feed our souls. They are narrow minded and are not tolerant of ideas such as Christianity.

"We left them to teach the Gorillas..." we were more interested in capitalist ideas. We ignored the Gods of the Copybook Headings, and they, being people that generally worship nature (notice how all these experts today are trying to shut down capitalism to save one animal or another, or keep places like ANWR pristine?), were left to teach the gorillas.

Stanza 3

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.

We followed capitalism, which can change as people step up and create or provide a service. The Gods of the Copybook Headings are always trying to take away our freedoms.

The Gods of the Copybook Headings continued to overtake civilizations, such as tribes, or even Rome, as it became an Empire.

Stanza 4

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 Gods of the Copybook Headings were out of touch with the common people.

I'm not sure about lines 2 and 3 of this stanza. As I mentioned earlier, Stilton was cheese. Perhaps it's referring to the common people who at the time believed that the moon was made out of cheese. The common people continued to believe in capitalism, which could provide beautiful things.

Stanza 5

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 Cambrian measures is the part of the ocean that divides Britain from the rest of Europe. Perhaps this refers to the when the Romans took over the tribes that were located in present-day Britain. Caesar persuades the Britons to exchange tribute and hostages for peace, and installed a Roman-friendly king, but they eventually came back with more war and conquest. Caesar was the first emperor of Rome.

Rudyard Kipling on eBay

Check out some of his works.

Stanza 6

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 Feminian Sandstones were stones which were originally used to build pagan temples. They were also used to build cathedrals. Religion can promise a fuller life. While many religions may start out with admonitions to love our neighbor, over time, if corrupted by the people that believe that they know better than you, people tend to slip into pagan tendencies - "loving his wife". Taxes make life expensive, and fertility goes down (ancient Greece had a problem where people were not having enough children, today, many people in Europe do not have many children due to the cost).

Men lose reason and faith because they are taught to depend on others. They are taught things like "God is dead". They are taught to rely on the experts.

"The Wages of Sin is Death" is from the Bible, but the Gods of the Copybook Headings tend to distort the word of God. Sin, to the Gods of the Copybook Headings, do not mean the typical sins like adultery, but it is a sin to oppose their rule. People have been thrown in prison or have been killed, over the years, for opposing these Gods of the Copybook Headings.

Stanza 7

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."

The Carboniferous Epoch was when the mountains were created. In the early days, when the Gods of the Copybook Headings are beginning to gain a foothold, they promise that we would all have abundance. They do this, however, by taking from others and redistributing wealth.

However, when collectivism gains a foothold, nobody has any incentive to work hard. Even though you may have money, productivity slips, and there is nothing that you can buy with your money. This results in bread lines, like they had in the Soviet Union.

But the Gods of the Copybook Headings have an answer for that. If you don't work you'll die. If you don't carry your fair share of the load, you can't justify your existence. George Bernard Shaw suggested that people stand before a committee every five to seven years to justify their existence. Why should a society pay to maintain a bunch of "useless eaters?"

Stanza 8

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.

When capitalism takes a dive, people suffer, and are humbled. Then is the perfect time for the Gods of the Copybook Headings to step up and take over.

How many times has Barack Obama tried to explain to us the joys of public health care? Even if the people don't agree, the Gods of the Copybook Headings believe that they know better than us, and have to explain to us their principals... because obviously we're too stupid to understand it (if we are in our right minds, they surmise, we wouldn't disagree).

Stanza 9

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;

History repeats itself. Fools will return to the mistakes that they made in the past, even if it hurts them.

Stanza 10

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 bum,

The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!

Once the market collapses, and people search for an expert to come rescue them with a solution, the world changes... a "brave new world begins." Everyone is paid for existing (welfare) but we do not have to pay for our sins (because there is no God, we're all victims of circumstance).

As sure as water is wet and fire burns, once the Gods of the Copybook Headings have control over us, terror and slaughter return (French Revolution, Stalin, Mao, Che, etc.).

The Poem and The Overton Window

This was the video that introduced me to the poem.

Overton Window

This book has a connection to the poem. Based on my interpretation of the poem, I can see how.

Do you agree or disagree with my interpretation? Let me know what you think. There are some passages that I didn't really understand as much as I'd like to, and your interpretation might be better than mine.

You do have to be a member of Squidoo to comment, but you can join Squidoo for free.

What Do You Think?

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      barbara-marinakis 4 years ago

      @barbara-marinakis: Go to PJTV.com and look for Bill Whittle's video "The Gods of Wisdom and Virtue". : )

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      barbara-marinakis 4 years ago

      @barbara-marinakis: Ooops! It won't let me post a link.

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      barbara-marinakis 4 years ago

      Here's Bill Whittle reading the poem, with a few words changed to show what he thinks the poem means - and I think he's right.

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      barbara-marinakis 4 years ago

      I think you have this poem interpreted backwards!

      The "Gods of the Copybook Headings" are the *wisdom* and the *virtues* distilled in the sayings at the top of copybook pages that children copied over and over while practicing their hand writing. Kipling uses the term "God's of the Copybook Headings" to mean the universal truths that never die, that cannot be wished away, that are true at all times and in all places. They are cause and effect, facts and reality. And they are true whether we like them or not.

      The "Gods of the Marketplace" are not "capitalism" or "free markets" or banking or anything at all to do with economics in the financial, buying and selling sense. Kipling is using the term "Gods of the Marketplace" to mean the fad views and beliefs, the things people WANT to believe because they're convenient and allow them to get away with going against the laws of cause and effect, against wisdom and virtue. The "Gods of the Marketplace" are popular untruths, the kind of ideas that politicians use to win votes, such as the idea that government can print piles of money and spend us into a healthy economy, that trillions of dollars of national debt can be a good thing, that we can solve all our economic problems by eating the rich, etc., etc.,etc. The "Gods of the Marketplace" means those seductive untruths that dishonest politicians and dishonest merchants use to buy voters or lure customers by playing to wishful thinking rather than time-tested truths and wisdom.

      Please remember that Rudyard Kipling lived and wrote during the 19th century, and that the kind of statements made in the copybook headings then were time-tested truths and observations, like: "A stitch in time saves nine." Or "As a dog returns to his vomit, so a fool repeats his folly".

      In today's "politically correct" atmosphere, however, I would expect to see a very different kind of statement heading a copybook page - a statement made by the "Gods of the Marketplace" usurping the rightful place of the Copybook Gods of Kipling's time.

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      walter2 6 years ago

      The "Gods of the Copy Book Headings" refers to the Victorian era teaching method of having children copy, in their copybooks, the headings at the top of each page. These headings were, generally, truisms in the form of quotes from the Bible or literature that children copied to practice their penmanship, spelling, etc. "if you don't work, you die", is an example. Secondarily, over time, children internalized these truisms that then became part of their moral conviction. Each of the "headings" presented in the poem are of this sort; time honored, traditional wisdom. But,"we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind". They are passe, man says, they argue for a moral and ethical standard, are exclusive, intolerant, inflexible. So, the "headings" have been set aside by modern, progressive man and deemed irrelevant in this brave, new, licentious world. Through the long cast of history, though, the truisms remain true. In spite of man's aversion to them and his conceit in, without reference to any morality save his own judgment, what he tells himself - that he is improving, learning and moving "forward" - they remain true. "There is nothing new under the sun", says Ecclesiastes about human nature and behavior. Is it surprising then, when our disappointment in the false promises of the marketplace, abundance for all by robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul, are realized, when men call good evil and evil good, when they behave in ways inimical to their own interests, when the 7 deadly sins triumph, that terror and destruction return? Man, absent the observance of the copy book headings - a moral imperative - says Kipling, will get his fingers burned, not once but, repeatedly.

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      walter2 6 years ago

      The "Gods of the Copy Book Headings" refers to the Victorian era teaching method of having children copy, in their copybooks, the headings at the top of each page. These headings were, generally, truisms in the form of quotes from the Bible or literature that children copied to practice their penmanship, spelling, etc. "if you don't work, you die", is an example. Secondarily, over time, children internalized these truisms that then became part of their moral conviction. Each of the "headings" presented in the poem are of this sort; time honored, traditional wisdom. But,"we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind". They are passe, man says, they argue for a moral and ethical standard, are exclusive, intolerant, inflexible. So, the "headings" have been set aside by modern, progressive man and deemed irrelevant in this brave, new, licentious world. Through the long cast of history, though, the truisms remain true. In spite of man's aversion to them and his conceit in, without reference to any morality save his own judgment, what he tells himself - that he is improving, learning and moving "forward" - they remain true. "There is nothing new under the sun", says Ecclesiastes about human nature and behavior. Is it surprising then, when our disappointment in the false promises of the marketplace, abundance for all by robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul, are realized, when men call good evil and evil good, when they behave in ways inimical to their own interests, when the 7 deadly sins triumph, that terror and destruction return? Man, absent the observance of the copy book headings - a moral imperative - says Kipling, will get his fingers burned, not once but, repeatedly.

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      Ponch 6 years ago

      You have it backwards, listen to Emmit, the "marketplace" is literal, a market where the community meets to buy food and goods, a person who stands on their soapbox and spouts radical ideas is "the god of the marketplace"

      Think about it if you where correct why would uber-consertave Glen Beck use the poem for his book?

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      Brookelorren LM 6 years ago

      Spoken like a true progressive, Emmit. The poem can be interpreted in one of two ways. I think that I recall in the Overton Window that the protagonist's father had the same interpretation that you did.

      I for one, reject the gods of the copybook headings. I prefer freedom, even if that means that I will fail, or even die (but die free, or at least rejecting a life of enslavement to the progressives and their repressive cause).

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      Emmit 6 years ago

      Oh my God! You are so out of touch it hurts! I don't have the time to correct all of your misinterpretations so let me just point out a few. The Gods of the Copybook Headings refers to common sense handed down from time and memorial through such things as the Bible, The Declaration of Independence, The Constitution, etc. They are consigned to the copybook for children to practice their penmanship because Man now knows "better". However, their wisdom cannot be denied and, continuously, throughout the ages this is proven over and over again. It is the Gods of the Marketplace (Which by the way does not refer to Capitalism necessarily. It is more pointedly directed at all those who think they know better than aged wisdom and therefore make false promises.) who lure mankind away from the truth of the copybook headings. These particularly include the Socialists, Progressives and Collectivists who in Kipling's time tore the world apart and led to the deaths of millions, including Kipling's only son, in the First World War. The Gods of the Market are the ones in stanzas 5, 6 and 7 who make unrealistic promises to Mankind and fail in the end. It is the Gods of the Copybook Headings who show up time and time again to deliver their wisdom and in the end after man has suffered terror and slaughter once more because of his arrogance he will return to the ageless wisdom of the Gods of the Copybook Headings and they will return to mankind.

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      JohnBrush 6 years ago

      You might add a reference to the origin of the phrase "brave new world" which is mentioned in Shaekspeare's "The Tempest"; Act V, Scene I:

      "O wonder!

      How many goodly creatures are there here!

      How beautious mankind is!

      O brave new world,

      That has such people in't!"

      Source: Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brave_New_World_%28di...

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      snickau 6 years ago

      Right on the nose !

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      SandraRoseDesigns 7 years ago

      It takes me back to school - in a good way. I like the way you broke down the poem and explained it.