The Gods of the Copybook Headings

Let’s pretend this is Poetry Corner for today…

Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Gods of the Copybook Headings” has been running around in my brain a bit these days, and it seems so relevant to the mentality of many today that I thought I would print it here for others to peruse.  But before I do so, let me explain a few things.

First, what are “Copybook Headings”?  They are little proverbs and nuggets of practical wisdom–some biblical, some secular, some just plain ol’ common sense–that used to be copied over and over as handwriting practice for little boys in England and America.  A child would have a copybook for learning good handwriting, and at the top of each page would be this little fundamental truth about the world or maxim of good practice written as a model of good handwriting.  The child would then copy the proverb multiple times down the page, and, hopefully, the truth contained in that proverb would sink at least a little bit into his or her young and fertile mind.

Second, don’t let Kipling’s references to “Gods” or even to a bit of evolutionary theory throw you.  The latter is brief enough that it doesn’t distract from the great meaning of the poem, and the former is simply a poetic device.  The “Gods of the Copybook Headings” aren’t meant to be literal “Gods” but instead they are those truths about the world that we are often taught as children but which we wish to ignore as adults hoping for an easier approach to life and gain.  Similarly, the “Gods of the Market Place” are also not “Gods” but those false “principles” that are so easy to believe in (and so easy to sell to us) but which must always fail and succumb to the fundamental truths of the world, leaving us desolate for having vainly “worshiped” them as we did.

Lastly, I think it is the very last stanza of the poem that leaves me so haunted.  It seems to reflect the state in which my society now finds itself–the mindset to which my nation is increasingly addicted.  I read that paragraph and thank my God that He is watching and that He has a plan.  For after the false “brave new world” is achieved and meets its ultimate end, a true brave new world will, indeed, arrive.  I thank Him for that, and I thank Him that some have the opportunity to taste that new world, today.

(And perhaps, to make up for today’s not-exactly-upbeat poetic posting, I may post one of his other poems in the future.  I find his poem “If–” to be particularly inspiring, as do lots of folks, I believe.)

Here’s Kipling.

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!

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4 thoughts on “The Gods of the Copybook Headings

  1. Time To Regroup 2008

    “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” will re-emerge with a vengence, thank goodness, because Glenn Beck has not only quoted it in his new book, “The Overton Window”, but has used it in a trailer for the book. I have been a Kipling fan forever, and am glad this is getting another spotlight. It emerged last time as a warning for the re-election of George W. Bush, and it was true then, too. Human nature drives history, unfortunately. Truth is built in to us, and we have striven mightily to surpress it. Kindness is natural to us, but we are taught that Kindness is stupid and weak. Listen to the inner voice (and you will not hear it in a church), and you will know the Truth.

  2. Howdy, Time, and thanks for the comment. (And I apologize that it has taken me so long to get to the moderation queue!)

    I agree with your observation that kindness is often misunderstood as stupid and weak. However, I do disagree with you that listening to “the inner voice” will lead one to the truth. God’s Word clearly says otherwise in many places (e.g., Jer. 17:9). Everyone simply listening to their “inner voice” is part of why the world (and America) is in the chaotic state it now is — reminiscent of Judges 21:25, which God condemns. Man has an innate sense of some things, to be sure (as Rom. 2:14 indicates), but it is not enough. But left to ourselves, our hearts are corrupted and need a guidance that must be found outside of ourselves, from the only One who knows the Way.

    Thanks, again, for stopping by!

  3. Just to add my two cents, Mr. Smith, in reply: even from the SECULAR point of view the idea of listening to one’s “inner voice” as a quasi-infallible guide is…well, I just wish I could point you and Time alike to a chart I have. Wait a minute, I can.

    When I realized what the attached simplified model of the human personality really implied, I was flabbergasted. Right there is a secular model of why the human mind is so treacherous and why one can’t simply listen to the feedback that comes from it. All of it has positive and negative tendencies, half of it is normally unconscious and that half is more naturally negative than positive. It’s as if our minds are all floating in a vast sea of negativity which pulls us all almost entirely under its surface. And we think we can rely on ourselves?

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