Poetry: 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!

The Gods of the Copybook Headings, Rudyard Kipling

I’ve known about this poem for years, but I hadn’t read it in quite some time. So I asked some friends for suggestions on which poem to write about next, and one said Kipling. He didn’t know this one, and I hadn’t studied it too deeply before, so I thought, why not? As with so many timeless works, this one finds itself applicable 100 years after its original publication, so I am happy to share it with you. Honestly, before coming back to this poem, all I really remembered about it was the repeating phrase “the Gods of the Copybook Headings.” That’s it. Not the message or even what the sayings were. Just that! Which, after reading through this poem again, seems rather unfortunate, considering the poem’s intent. I also caught some things in the poem that I had not noticed before. Like the figure at the beginning. Is it God, Kipling, other poets? Perhaps next time I will noticed something new. And isn’t that partially why we reread good things, to see anew and learn? Isn’t that why we used to copy those headings? So read, and learn, and perhaps this time, don’t forget.

Of course, as I begin, I must also note that I had forgotten that Kipling mentions that we had been “living in trees” when these eternal truths reached us. I obviously balk at such a depiction, as I don’t think we ever lived in trees as he implies (and Kipling’s religion was…unique). But at the same time, I appreciate the poetic usage with the last line of that first verse. For here were we lowly people and blessed with knowledge and truth, and we shunned that, saying, “That’s fine and all, but keep your truth and goodness and religion and give it to those less evolved than we.” We thought ourselves too enlightened for eternity.

And so, Kipling constructs his poem as though working through geographic layers of history that, though describing his own time, describe so many eras before and even after. While he uses enlightenment terms, he also includes how often we really didn’t follow science but our own hearts. For what else is left but man’s reason when you reject truth? So we moved as our spirits enlisted us, flowing and progressing as our marketplace demanded. But steadily, those truths arrived as they always did, and nations would rise and fall as we held to or rejected those same truths. What eternally stubborn creatures we are!

Still, we modern, progressive, enlightened people marched on! Clearly, we still knew so much better than those truths we first knew. How could things eternal question the ideas we hold now? Where was the magic, the beautiful things with such rules and norms? Why have constancy when we could have ecstasy? But now, digging through the ashes of history, we see the path of our lies. We listened to talk of peace when there was slavery, thinking, “This time, things will be different.” But those timeless truths reminded us that human nature is not so easily changed. Note, now, that this poem was published only two years after the end of WWI. They really thought that before and after the War. We really think that now.

The next layer shows us our following mistake: we would unbind ourselves from moral truths, familial truths. We’d create greater people, fulfilled people, successful people. People who could be anything and nothing, and they’d be glad for it. We made women into bad men and men with no spines, turning to whomever and whatever would give them a sense of meaning. And so, we began to die. I wonder, reading this again, how this poem was written over one hundred years ago.

But that generation was not done! The wars were not enough, and neither was the destruction of the family, of roles. Instead, society itself had to be upended. Yes, this time we would prove Truth wrong. We coveted and stole and cheated until (almost) everyone was collectively poor. We saw this happen across the globe, and now we bring it here, thinking, “This time, the outcome will be different.” So society began its collapse as its family base was upended. Our faith in truth was uprooted even though our faith had been in our own reason. But we blamed these “gods,” those repeated but outdated maxims, and marched on with mankind, refusing to look at what we had done. But these sandy structures didn’t and won’t last, though we try to prop them up. Then that quiet voice will explain the consequences once more to those who will hear the truth.

And thus, Kipling leaves us with a prophecy and little hope. And honestly, I have little to give for a world bent on its own destruction. Brave New World had not been written yet when this poem was published, and most of the 20th century had not played out. But Kipling was a poet with his finger on the heartbeat of time. Though his religion was unorthodox at best, he did not consider himself better than foundational truths. There is nothing new under the sun, and we have never stopped trying to be like God. We will return to our vomit and mire and burn ourselves once more. We will not work, sin freely, and die. No, we might not pay for this rebellion today or even tomorrow, but those copybook headings, those eternal truths, they’ll still calmly walk beside us. And when all has been burned in fire, Truth will return the same.

Blessings to you and yours,

~Madelyn Rose Craig

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