Thoughts for an Uncertain Morn

September 26, 2008 | 9 comments
By

The Gods of the Copybook Headings
by Rudyard Kipling

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 bum,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return.

9 Responses to Thoughts for an Uncertain Morn

  1. Julie M. Smith on September 26, 2008 at 10:24 am

    Some background here:

    http://www.olimu.com/readings/GodsOfTheCopybookHeadings.htm

    (Maybe I like this because my children do have copybooks.)

  2. Neal Davis on September 26, 2008 at 2:01 pm

    I’ve always liked this poem, but never completely understood it.

  3. Tatiana on September 26, 2008 at 9:14 pm

    Hah, so appropriate!

  4. C Jones on September 26, 2008 at 9:27 pm

    Your link in #1 says:
    “The Gods of the Copybook is a clinging to old-fashioned common sense by a man deeply in need of something to cling to.”

    Kipling and his old-fashioned common sense have been out of style for a while. Kipling’s “If” is another famous example of this “manly” worldview. But apparently there is a growing movement rebelling against the modern metrosexual persona and emphasizing the old school manliness of Kipling and his generation.

  5. mlu on September 27, 2008 at 12:25 am

    Hey, I needed that..

    Aside: If you’re in the mood for the real things and some humble but powerful truths, you might give a moment’s attention to some remarkable work our friend Jim Cobabe has been doing: http://snailhollow.cobabe.net/

  6. bfwebster on September 27, 2008 at 10:23 am

    Neal: the poem is obscure without a few background bits about Victorian-era England.

    copybooks = blank lined notebooks used in schools for handwriting practice and/or compositions
    copybook headings = proverbs, quotations, and aphorisms often found at the top of each page (and copied for handwriting practice)
    gods of the copybook headings = hard-won wisdom about how the world really works (“if you don’t work, you die”)
    gods of the market (place) = periodically fashionable ideas about how government and society ought to work (“we were promised abundance for all,/By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul”)

    The gist of the poem is how societies tend to reject hard truths and adopt idealistic, if ultimately self-defeating ideas:

    With the Hopes that our World is built on they [the Gods of the Copybook headings] were utterly out of touch
    They denied that the Moon was Stilton [cheese]; 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.

    Ultimately — like, say, this past week or so — reality catches up with them and they crumble (“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.”)

    The trickiest part of the poem is that Kipling makes no effort to clarify which “gods” he’s talking about when he used “they” — he assumes you’ll figure it out. Here’s how it works: “they” refers to the Gods of the Copybook Headings up through the stanza that ends, “So we worshipped…” — from then on, “they” refers to the Gods of the Market.

    The poem was written 90 years ago, but feels remarkable contemporary and relevant. :-) ..bruce..

  7. bfwebster on September 27, 2008 at 10:33 am

    “they” refers to the Gods of the Copybook Headings up through the stanza that ends, “So we worshipped…”

    Except, of course in the first stanza, when it refers to the Gods of the Market Place. And then in the second stanza, “they” starts referring to the Gods of the Copybook Headings.

    I said it was confusing. ..bruce..

  8. Julie M. Smith on September 28, 2008 at 9:26 pm
  9. Jonovitch on October 1, 2008 at 3:43 pm

    I thought this post was for an “Uncertain Mom” — about halfway through the poem, I figured it out. Tee-hee.

    If I didn’t know this was written by Kipling, I’d say it sounded like a brilliant piece of work penned just for this week, and whoever was the author ought to be given a prize. As it is, I’d say Kipling is brilliant, clairvoyant, ever-relevant, and worth every prize he ever got.

    Jon