Analyzing ‘The Gods of the Copybook Headings’ by Rudyard Kipling

July 4, 2020 Updated: July 4, 2020

Rudyard Kipling’s “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” was published in London in 1919, and in the United States in Harper’s Magazine in January 1920—just over 100 years ago—as “The Gods of the Copybook Margins.” It is sometimes referred to as “Maxims of the Marketplace.”

Copybooks in Kipling’s day—in the UK and, perhaps, in the United States—were books with lined pages, similar to a “yellow pad” today, but at the top were short sayings: aphorisms, maxims, verses from Scripture that drilled into the young student’s perception the rules for life, the things that mattered, ostensibly given not as moral instruction but as examples for penmanship. On the dozen lines beneath, the student, using cursive script, wrote an exact copy, one copy on each line, until he had written the same maxim a dozen times—technically, to learn the art of exact handwriting, but in fact to have certain ideas driven into his or her head.

Copybook_example_text_of_isaac_barrow
A page from a 19th-century copybook, in which the printed headings have been copied. The homily is paraphrased from a 17th-century sermon of Isaac Barrow, “Against Detraction.” (Public Domain)

‘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 burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!

A Poem for Our Time

The gist of the poem is simply that spiritual values exceed material values in every case. The way Kipling develops this idea, starting each verse as a would-be historical metaphor, explains why he is appreciated, outside of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, as a mountaintop poet.

Imagine if today’s elementary school graduates, raised in our throwaway culture, had been required to write at least a dozen times—and with great care—the saying, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” Perhaps our national debt, and people lying homeless in the street, would be reduced problems.

kipling as young man
Rudyard Kipling, circa 1892, in a photographic postcard, by Bourne & Shepherd. Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University. (Public Domain)

Kipling’s poem does not include any exact examples of these copybook headings. In his day, that was unnecessary. In ours, it requires a bit of research; that done, the meaning and the relevance of the poem come into focus.

His first verse pays some obeisance to “the Gods of the Market Place”—undefined, but in brief terms, the worship of business and material gain—but notes that the contrary Gods of the Copybook Headings have always outlasted them.

What would our Austrian economists, who believe that “the market solves all problems,” have to say about that? Or present-day philosophers who believe that the Ten Commandments can easily be replaced by the lodestar “self-realization”?

In his second verse—when, he says, we were still living in trees—the human race deserted the copybook headings, finding them “lacking in Uplift, Vision, and Breadth of Mind,” and went instead to follow “the March of Mankind.”

Each verse provides another example of what happens when society makes that fateful choice. Unlike the bulk of post-World War I poets, who, from Bloomsbury to Greenwich Village, became utterly disillusioned with warfare, his fifth verse offers the following: “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.’” Weren’t Mr. Churchill for his “Iron Curtain” speech, and America for the blood, sweat, tears, and treasure spent on NATO and U.S. defense, fully vindicated, as explained by Mr. Kipling, when Ronald Reagan called on a dictatorship to “Tear down this wall!” and freedom returned—or bloomed for the first time—in Eastern Europe?

The next verse offers a further viewpoint on contemporary values: “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.’” Isn’t the birthrate in the Western world, for reasons unknown to experts, in decline? Isn’t church attendance in free-fall?

Additional verses and lines seem prophetic: “Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew / And the hearts of the meanest were humbled …” And later: “All is not Gold that Glitters,” and still later, “After all this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins / When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins ….”

“Paid for existing”—interesting; “and no man must pay for his sins”—let the reader decipher.

A university faculty (Ph.D. University of California 1967, political science) and freelancer in his early career, Ted Hayes moved into full-time journalism and is now retired.

This article is reprinted with permission from the Society of Classical Poets.