Return to the Copybook Headings
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Joseph Rudyard Kipling
by  Martin S. Spiller, D.M.D.
Rudyard Kipling
Joseph Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) was an English poet, short-story writer, and novelist chiefly remembered for his celebration of British imperialism, tales and poems of British soldiers in India, and his tales for children.  He wrote classic poems and stories which include (among many others) "The Jungle book" A book of short stories which contains the famous story "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi", the poems "Gunga Din" and "Mandalay", the novels "The Man Who Would Be King" and "Captains Courageous", and 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 many of the same qualities that so many inhabitants of our modern civilization dislike him.   He stood for unabashed masculinity, the British Empire, and pride in British inspired civilizations such as America, the nation that was eventually to supplant Britain in world dominance.  To me he stood for qualities which are rapidly vanishing in our modern society; self reliance, patriotism, the virtues and values of Judeo-Christian morality, faith in your fellow man, the ability to tell right from wrong and good from evil, and the self confidence to stand up to those who's self indulgence and narcism 

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

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.  Here is a partial list:

  • 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
  • Turn-of-the-century copybookThese 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... poem, you need to understand some of the phrase's 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. 
    Kipling's derisive reference to the "Gods of the Market Place" was not intended as anti-capitalist. "The market" is not short for "the free market," as it is in contemporary parlance. Rather, the "market" refers to the public spaces where people gather to listen to demagogues who promise the impossible and the irrational -- the function performed by CNN today.      by Robert Tracinski   Jun 02, 2010
    Currently writing at RealClearMarkets
    "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.

    Sid Note: However one source describe the Feminian Sandstones as being the base stones of church structures.   Another source states that during the era when the first temples and churches were being constructed, the promises were for “the Fuller Life.”
    "Stilton" is a type of (green) cheese.
    The last two stanzas may be difficult to interpret in light of our modern sensibilities.
    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.  This was exactly what Kipling meant when he coined the phrase! 
    When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins
    This was a 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 deserts those moral values.  And after the fall, all is dark until moral values reassert themselves and allow for the usually violent dismantling of the old order and the rebuilding of a new civilization.