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.)
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!