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Kipling

The Gods of the Copybook Headings

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Joseph Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) was an English poet, short-story writer, and novelist chiefly remembered for his celebration of British imperialism, and also for his tales and poems of British soldiers in India.  He wrote classic poems and stories which include (among many others) “The Jungle book”, a children’s book of short stories which contains the famous story “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi”, the poems “Gunga Din” and “Mandalay”. He also wrote the novels “The Man Who Would Be King” and “Captains Courageous”, as well as his two most famous poems, “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” and “IF__”.  He was born in India, and spent his earliest years there, and then moved with his parents to England.  He lived in the United States for four years between 1892 and 1896, in Brattleboro Vermont, not far from my own home in Ashby, Massachusetts before moving back to Britain.

I admire Kipling for the same qualities that so many inhabitants of our modern civilization dislike him.   He stood for an unabashed sense of masculinity and pride in British inspired civilizations such as America, which one day would supplant Britain in world dominance. He spoke for those qualities which are rapidly vanishing from our modern society; masculine self reliance and self discipline, patriotism, and the virtues and values of Judeo-Christian morality. He assumed that from those virtues would spring faith in one’s fellow man, the ability to tell right from wrong and good from evil, and the self confidence to defend the civilization which was founded upon them! Today, these qualities have been deemed to be “politically incorrect”, and to voice a belief in them is to be met with cries of discrimination, sexism and racism. In reality, these qualities are the founding principles of western civilization.

The Gods of the Copybook Headings

Kipling wrote the poem “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” in 1919, after he had lost his son in the first world war. This was one of the most tumultuous periods in world history.  The war had ended on November 11, 1918, and the war-related traumas of death and destruction, combined with the outbreak of the great Spanish flu epidemic between 1918 and 1920 (which killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide), had left the people dazed, and desperate for some sort of deliverance.

Pacifism become popular, patriotism unpopular, and religious beliefs and their attendant morality had suffered a serious setback.  Jesus’ statement on the cross “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” was reinterpreted to mean “What sort of God would allow this to happen?”.  This lead to a generalized rejection of traditional morality and social values among large numbers of people, especially the national elites.

The first Russian revolution had deposed the Tsar in 1917, and many people began to look towards Marxist socialism as the ultimate solution to the world’s problems.  It made sense at the time.  Marxist socialism had never been tried on a large scale before.  It’s emphasis on rationalism and the rejection of God and his attendant  religious values appealed to the educated elites who tended to resent religion as an imposition that interfered with their own pursuit of “happiness”.

Marxist socialism appealed to the lower strata of society as well.  Socially acceptable hedonism combined with “free money” from the state would appeal to everyone except those who clung to religion as their source of solace and social cohesion!

The massive failures of all the great socialist experiments lay well in the future.  Communism (international socialism) and Fascism (national socialism) were in their infancy, and Nazism (racially defined national socialism) in Germany arose as an outgrowth of Fascism after 1919.  Progressivism, which advocates the gradual replacement of traditional democracy with socialist values and laws began in the US in 1912 with the election of Theodore Roosevelt.

The zeitgeist of the day therefore became a stew of Marxism and the abandonment of traditional values by a sexually liberated “popular culture” (think the “roaring twenties”) in many of the most prosperous countries.

It was against this background that Kipling wrote his poem, “The Gods of the Copybook Headings”.  He was well ahead of his time in doing so.  Kipling recognized that the abandonment of the morals and values that created the British empire would lead not only to the downfall of the empire itself, but the eventual downfall of the civilization that it had created.  A people who had abandoned their moral values would eventually abandon each other.  They would abandon honesty, and without honesty there would be no reason to trust anyone else.  Without sexual morality, the traditional social contract based on trust between the sexes would vanish, and the people would eventually abandon marriage.  Without marriage, the family, the most basic unit of any civilization would wither and die.  Money would become the holy grail, and people would stoop to any depths to get it.  At the top, leaders would betray their institutions and their countries, impoverishing virtually everyone else to get rich themselves.  At the bottom, gangs of thugs would roam the streets stealing anything of value.

Kipling knew that the abandonment of the values that built the civilization would lead to its destruction.  He also knew that as the destruction settled in on the civilization, the old values would resurface, probably with a vengeance.  This is the meaning of his poem, “The Gods of the Copybook Headings”.

The copybook headings

copybook
The “copybook headings” refer to proverbs or sayings printed in perfect handwriting at the top of the pages in a 19th century schoolchild’s notebook.  The object of the exercise was to produce good handwriting by making the student copy out the heading phrase over and over again until he formed each letter perfectly.  While the people who produced the copybooks, and the teachers that used them were not especially interested in teaching moral values, (these were amply taught at home by parents in those days), the headings that were printed at the top of the pages were always old proverbs.

Copybook_pageHere is a partial list of copybook headings:

  • Haste makes waste.
  • A stitch in time saves nine.
  • Ignorance is bliss.
  • You mustn’t cry over spilt milk.
  • You can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar.
  • You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.
  • Those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
  • A Bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
  • Well begun is half done.
  • A little learning is a dangerous thing.
  • If wishes were horses then beggars would ride.
  • If pigs had wings they would fly.
  • The wages of Sin is Death.
  • If you don’t work you die
  • Stick to the Devil you know.
  • All is not Gold that Glitters.

These sayings may seem trite today, but almost all of them states a basic truth which should constitute common sense.  The children learning good handwriting would copy them over and over again until both the handwriting and the proverb were firmly implanted in their heads.

Unfortunately, few children (and few adults) today have any idea of what these proverbs mean or why each one is the doorway to a concept of basic morality and values that used to be universal in our society.  In those days, common knowledge of these concepts acted as a glue that held society together and placed moral limits on an individual’s behavior.  Even if they all had cell phones, no kid in those days would dream of joining a “flash mob” to rob or assault innocents.  They would all know from early childhood that “if you don’t work, you die”, and “the wages of sin is death”!  These are just a few of the moral truths that were taught to all children in those days, and they were known and understood by the poorest members of society as well as the richest.

In order to interpret the following poem, you need to understand some of the phrases and terms Kipling uses.

The gods of the marketplace” stand for materialistic values .  Materialism is not new.  It has always been the default value system since before we first climbed down from the trees and began to think in abstractions.  It wasn’t really until mankind overcame his immediate physical needs that he developed transcendent moral values and began to form enduring social groupings, and ultimately entire civilizations.

The gods of the copybook headings” stand for the transcendent values that made those civilizations possible.  They include self reliance,  loyalty to family and nation, and a belief in something outside and above ourselves that rewards us for restraining our base instincts.  They include a compact that makes families possible, and a basic need for personal integrity and honesty.  These are the moral values that made it possible to create civilizations, and to maintain them intact, and without them, civilizations crumble and fall.

“Cambrian measures and Carboniferous Epoch” are both acknowledgements that materialistic values are ancient, and have always been with us.

“Feminian Sandstones” has no modern definition, but refers, like Cambrian measures, to the ancient origin of materialism.  It was probably a phrase thought up by Kipling because it sounds ancient.

“Stilton” is a type of cheese.

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 Heading said: “Stick to the Devil you know.”

On the first Feminian Sandstones we were promised the Fuller Life
(Which started by loving our neighbor 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 interpretation of some stanzas

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:

The first two lines of the second stanza talk about how materialistic values were the default position of humans before the advent of civilization. The second two lines speak of the reasons that spiritual values began to replace base instinct as the guiding principles of civilized behavior.

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.

The third stanza speaks of the uneven pace of civilization. Even as the society progresses, base instinct always sneaks back in to wreak havoc. Spirit can be recognized exclusively by intellect while material forces are obvious even to the lowest of animals. But no matter the fits and starts, as a civilization builds, its spiritual values always reassert themselves.

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 fourth stanza speaks of the reasons that people are naturally inclined to overthrow spiritual values in favor of materialistic ones. It is always the path of least resistance.

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 Heading said: “Stick to the Devil you know.”

On the first Feminian Sandstones we were promised the Fuller Life
(Which started by loving our neighbor 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 fifth and sixth stanzas speak of marriage and disarmament, two issues that are of paramount importance in any society; the ability for a civilized society to reproduce and pass its values on to future generations, and the ability of individuals in that society to defend themselves from those who live by uncivilized values.

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 seventh stanza is interesting in that it touches on the value of “free money”. The Soviet Union was (prior to the fall of the Soviet Union) famous for its lack of consumer goods. Soviet citizens were issued lots of rubles, but there was often very little to buy with them. This is the default situation in all mature socialist societies. (See Hugo Chavez and Maduro in Venezuela, and Fidel Castro in Cuba today.)

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,

The dog and the sow represent base instinct, the very source of material values. The origin of The Gods of the Marketplace.

And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire

Albert Einstein once said “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  John Adams once said, “There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”  Kipling said that a fool refuses to learn from past failures.

And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins

The “Brave New World” was the phrase chosen by Aldous Huxley for the title of his  famous 1932 novel about a dystopian future society based on what he knew of Stalinist Communism.  This was exactly what Kipling meant when he coined the phrase! The phrase “Brave New World” was originally coined by Shakespear in “The Tempest”.

When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins

This was another slap at Marxist/Materialist values, a welfare state in which all people are paid for existing, and morality is forgotten.  In other words, a society that worships at the alter of materialistic values.

As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!

Throughout history, we have watched the cycle of civilizations based on moral values rise, and then fall into bloody chaos as the culture decays.  Anarchy is the fate of any civilization when its citizens abondon their foundational morality. And after the fall, all is dark until the Gods of the copybook headings reassert themselves.

Samual_Adams” Immorality of every kind comes in like a torrent. It is in the interest of tyrants to reduce the people to ignorance and vice. For they cannot live in any country where virtue and knowledge prevail. The religion and public liberty of a people are intimately connected; their interests are interwoven, they cannot subsist separately; and therefore they rise and fall together. For this reason, it is always observable, that those who are combined to destroy the people’s liberties, practice every art to poison their morals. How greatly then does it concern us, at all events, to put a stop to the progress of tyranny.  It has advanced already by far too many strides. We are at this moment upon a precipice. The next step may be fatal to us.
Samuel Adams,  October 5, 1772

John_AdamsRemember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself.  There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”
John Adams, 1814

Note: This page, unlike others on this site, is freely available to copy and distribute on the internet, and other mass communication media, with or without attribution.