Call of Poetry

Because Poetry is Meant to be Read Aloud

The Gods of the Copybook Headings

This one is about the old and sage advice. it is about empty promises and being sold hope and upliftedness. It echoes and expands upon advice given elsewhere by Kipling on the value of things, and nothing being given for free – see “MacDonough’s Song” about being lured by the loudest throat. It also, in two lines, perfectly encapsulates the misery of the breadlines in the Soviet Union, and the empty store shelves. Though there was “plenty of money” – there was nothing to buy. Keep in mind – the marketplace here, from several references, isn’t just consumer culture, but the “marketplace of ideas”.

Moreso – it is about harsh reality turning around to bite you in the rear, if in a more delayed manner than such things as fire, but with all of the same inevitability.

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!


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  1. Ori Pomerantz

    I wonder why Kipling chose "The Gods of the Market Place" as the opposite to reality.

  2. I really do not know, Ori. Here’s my guess.

    I was going to say it predated the modern usage of "the marketplace of ideas" – but as it turns out that was coined by John Stuart Mill and thus a very current concept. That said, the poem only seems to attack the marketplace concept as coined indirectly. If at all.

    Since the "Gods" of the copybook headings can be treated as memes, then so would be the gods of the marketplace. It’s just that the ideas that would be popular would be the "gods" of the marketplace – and the copybook heading "gods" – or memes – were those that were true, but unpopular. They were named such, IIRC – because they were the kind of proverbs and such that schoolboys would write into their copybooks to practice writing. The ones that won out due to their "hope" and "uplift", that were popular at the time, would be the collectivist ones full of hope and false promises. It is worth noting that the hope and uplift memes were not new – the french revolution, after all, promised Fraternity, Egalitarianism, etc. – and of course descended into the terror.

    • Ori Pomerantz

      I see, "market" as "marketing", with the easily marketable memes being the destructive ones. I guess that makes sense.

  3. I’m relaly into it, thanks for this great stuff!

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