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!

Posting Will Start Soon

My apologies.

Due to emergencies coming up at work, tax season, and other things that I placed at a higher priority than maintaining this blog, I have not updated for a while.

Posting will resume soon, with some Robert Frost, and Kipling (of course). They are already recorded. and the videos are being cut together.


I love this poem. I’ll admit the section where McCaulay goes on about the “good old days where everyone was great to each other” is a bit… utopian… but this poem evoked in epic form heroism in the face of impossible odds. 

The poem also vividly and graphically displays how brutal warfare could be.

More information on what is known, or is thought to be known, of the actual battle is available at wikipedia.

Due to its length, the poem itself is after the jump.


Thomas Babington Macaulay, Lord Macaulay


LARS Porsena of Clusium
  By the Nine Gods he swore
That the great house of Tarquin
  Should suffer wrong no more.
By the Nine Gods he swore it,
  And named a trysting day,
And bade his messengers ride forth,
East and west and south and north,
  To summon his array.


East and west and south and north
  The messengers ride fast,
And tower and town and cottage
  Have heard the trumpet’s blast.
Shame on the false Etruscan
  Who lingers in his home,
When Porsena of Clusium
  Is on the march for Rome.


The horsemen and the footmen
  Are pouring in amain
From many a stately market-place;
  From many a fruitful plain;
From many a lonely hamlet,
  Which, hid by beech and pine,
Like an eagle’s nest, hangs on the crest
  Of purple Apennine;


From lordly Volaterræ,
  Where scowls the far-famed hold
Piled by the hands of giants
  For godlike kings of old;
From seagirt Populonia,
  Whose sentinels descry
Sardinia’s snowy mountain-tops
  Fringing the southern sky;


From the proud mart of Pisæ,
  Queen of the western waves,
Where ride Massilia’s triremes
  Heavy with fair-haired slaves;
From where sweet Clanis wanders
  Through corn and vines and flowers;
From where Cortona lifts to heaven
  Her diadem of towers.


Tall are the oaks whose acorns
  Drop in dark Auser’s rill;
Fat are the stags that champ the boughs
  Of the Ciminian hill;
Beyond all streams Clitumnus
  Is to the herdsman dear;
Best of all pools the fowler loves
  The great Volsinian mere.


But now no stroke of woodman
  Is heard by Auser’s rill;
No hunter tracks the stag’s green path
  Up the Ciminian hill;
Unwatched along Clitumnus
  Grazes the milk-white steer;
Unharmed the water fowl may dip
  In the Volsinian mere.


The harvests of Arretium,
  This year, old men shall reap;
This year, young boys in Umbro
  Shall plunge the struggling sheep;
And in the vats of Luna,
  This year, the must shall foam
Round the white feet of laughing girls
  Whose sires have marched to Rome.


There be thirty chosen prophets,
  The wisest of the land,
Who always by Lars Porsena
  Both morn and evening stand:
Evening and morn the Thirty
  Have turned the verse o’er,
Traced from the right on linen white
  By mighty seers of yore.


And with one voice the Thirty
  Have their glad answer given:
‘Go forth, go forth, Lars Porsena;
  Go forth, beloved of Heaven;
Go, and return in glory
  To Clusium’s royal dome;
And hang round Nurscia’s altars
  The golden shields of Rome.’


And now hath every city
  Sent up her tale of men;
The foot are fourscore thousand,
  The horse are thousands ten.
Before the gates of Sutrium
  Is met the great array.
A proud man was Lars Porsena
  Upon the trysting day.


For all the Etruscan armies
  Were ranged beneath his eye,
And many a banished Roman,
  And many a stout ally;
And with a mighty following
  To join the muster came
The Tusculan Mamilius,
  Prince of the Latian name.


But by the yellow Tiber
  Was tumult and affright:
From all the spacious champaign
  To Rome men took their flight.
A mile around the city,
  The throng stopped up the ways;
A fearful sight it was to see
  Through two long nights and days.


For aged folks on crutches,
  And women great with child,
And mothers sobbing over babes
  That clung to them and smiled,
And sick men borne in litters
  High on the necks of slaves,
And troops of sun-burned husbandmen
  With reaping-hooks and staves,


And droves of mules and asses
  Laden with skins of wine,
And endless flocks of goats and sheep,
  And endless herds of kine,
And endless trains of waggons
  That creaked beneath the weight
Of corn-sacks and of household goods,
  Choked every roaring gate.


Now, from the rock Tarpeian,
  Could the wan burghers spy
The line of blazing villages
  Red in the midnight sky.
The Fathers of the City,
  They sat all night and day,
For every hour some horseman came
  With tidings of dismay.


To eastward and to westward
  Have spread the Tuscan bands;
Nor house, nor fence, nor dovecote
  In Crustumerium stands.
Verbenna down to Ostia
  Hath wasted all the plain;
Astur hath stormed Janiculum,
  And the stout guards are slain.


I wis, in all the Senate,
  There was no heart so bold,
But sore it ached, and fast it beat,
  When that ill news was told.
Forthwith up rose the Consul,
  Up rose the Fathers all;
In haste they girded up their gowns,
  And hied them to the wall.


They held a council standing,
  Before the River-Gate;
Short time was there, ye well may guess,
  For musing or debate.
Out spake the Consul roundly:
  ‘The bridge must straight go down;
For, since Janiculum is lost,
  Nought else can save the town.’


Just then a scout came flying,
  All wild with haste and fear:
‘To arms! to arms! Sir Consul:
  Lars Porsena is here.’
On the lows hills to westward
  The Consul fixed his eye,
And saw the swarthy storm of dust
  Rise fast along the sky.


And nearer fast and nearer
  Doth the red whirlwind come;
And louder still and still more loud,
From underneath that rolling cloud,
Is heard the trumpet’s war-note proud,
  The trampling, and the hum.
And plainly and more plainly
  Now through the gloom appears,
Far to left and far to right,
In broken gleams of dark-blue light,
The long array of helmets bright,
  The long array of spears.


And plainly and more plainly,
  Above that glimmering line,
Now might ye see the banners
  Of twelve fair cities shine;
But the banner of proud Clusium
  Was highest of them all,
The terror of the Umbrian,
  The terror of the Gaul.


And plainly and more plainly
  Now might the burghers know,
By port and vest, by horse and crest,
  Each warlike Lucumo.
There Cilnius of Arretium
  On his fleet roan was seen;
And Astur of the four-fold shield,
Girt with the brand none else may wield,
Tolumnius with the belt of gold,
And dark Verbenna from the hold
  By reedy Thrasymene.


Fast by the royal standard,
  O’erlooking all the war,
Lars Porsena of Clusium
  Sat in his ivory car.
By the right wheel rode Mamilius,
  Prince of the Latian name;
And by the left false Sextus,
  That wrought the deed of shame.


But when the face of Sextus
  Was seen among the foes,
A yell that rent the firmament
  From all the town arose.
On the house-tops was no woman
  But spat towards him and hissed,
No child but screamed out curses,
  And shook its little fist.


But the Consul’s brow was sad,
  And the Consul’s speech was low,
And darkly looked he at the wall,
  And darkly at the foe.
‘Their van will be upon us
  Before the bridge goes down;
And if they once may win the bridge,
  What hope to save the town?’


Then out spake brave Horatius,
  The Captain of the gate:
‘To every man upon this earth
  Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
  Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
  And the temples of his Gods,


‘And for the tender mother
  Who dandled him to rest,
And for the wife who nurses
  His baby at her breast,
And for the holy maidens
  Who feed the eternal flame,
To save them from false Sextus
  That wrought the deed of shame?


‘Hew down the bridge, Sir Consul,
  With all the speed ye may;
I, with two more to help me,
  Will hold the foe in play.
In yon strait path a thousand
  May well be stopped by three.
Now who will stand on either hand,
  And keep the bridge with me?’


Then out spake Spurius Lartius;
  A Ramnian proud was he:
‘Lo, I will stand at thy right hand,
  And keep the bridge with thee.’
And out spake strong Herminius;
  Of Titian blood was he:
‘I will abide on thy left side,
  And keep the bridge with thee.’


‘Horatius,’ quoth the Consul,
  ‘As thou sayest, so let it be.’
And straight against that great array
  Forth went the dauntless Three.
For Romans in Rome’s quarrel
  Spared neither land nor gold,
Nor son nor wife, nor limb nor life,
  In the brave days of old.


Then none was for a party;
  Then all were for the state;
Then the great man helped the poor,
  And the poor man loved the great:
Then lands were fairly portioned;
  Then spoils were fairly sold:
The Romans were like brothers
  In the brave days of old.


Now Roman is to Roman
  More hateful than a foe,
And the Tribunes beard the high,
  And the Fathers grind the low.
As we wax hot in faction,
  In battle we wax cold:
Wherefore men fight not as they fought
  In the brave days of old.


Now while the Three were tightening
  Their harnesses on their backs,
The Consul was the foremost man
  To take in hand an axe:
And Fathers mixed with Commons
  Seized hatchet, bar, and crow,
And smote upon the planks above,
  And loosed the props below.


Meanwhile the Tuscan army,
  Right glorious to behold,
Come flashing back the noonday light,
Rank behind rank, like surges bright
  Of a broad sea of gold.
Four hundred trumpets sounded
  A peal of warlike glee,
As that great host, with measured tread,
And spears advanced, and ensigns spread,
Rolled slowly towards the bridge’s head,
  Where stood the dauntless Three.


The Three stood calm and silent,
  And looked upon the foes,
And a great shout of laughter
  From all the vanguard rose:
And forth three chiefs came spurring
  Before that deep array;
To earth they sprang, their swords they drew,
And lifted high their shields, and flew
  To win the narrow way;


Aunus from green Tifernum,
  Lord of the Hill of Vines;
And Seius, whose eight hundred slaves
  Sicken in Ilva’s mines;
And Picus, long to Clusium
  Vassal in peace and war,
Who led to fight his Umbrian powers
  From that grey crag where, girt with towers,
The fortress of Nequinum lowers
  O’er the pale waves of Nar.


Stout Lartius hurled down Aunus
  Into the stream beneath;
Herminius struck at Seius,
  And clove him to the teeth;
At Picus brave Horatius
  Darted one fiery thrust;
And the proud Umbrian’s gilded arms
  Clashed in the bloody dust.


Then Ocnus of Falerii
  Rushed on the Roman Three;
And Lausulus of Urgo,
  The rover of the sea;
And Aruns of Volsinium,
  Who slew the great wild boar,
The great wild boar that had his den
Amidst the reeds of Cosa’s fen,
And wasted fields, and slaughtered men,
  Along Albinia’s shore.


Herminius smote down Aruns:
  Lartius laid Ocnus low:
Right to the heart of Lausulus
  Horatius sent a blow.
‘Lie there,’ he cried, ‘fell pirate!
  No more, aghast and pale,
From Ostia’s walls the crowd shall mark
The track of thy destroying bark.
No more Campania’s hinds shall fly
To woods and caverns when they spy
  Thy thrice accursed sail.’


But now no sound of laughter
  Was heard among the foes.
A wild and wrathful clamour
  From all the vanguard rose.
Six spears’ lengths from the entrance
  Halted that deep array,
And for a space no man came forth
  To win the narrow way.


But hark! the cry is Astur:
  And lo! the ranks divide;
And the great Lord of Luna
  Comes with his stately stride.
Upon his ample shoulders
  Clangs loud the four-fold shield,
And in his hand he shakes the brand
  Which none but he can wield.


He smiled on those bold Romans
  A smile serene and high;
He eyed the flinching Tuscans,
  And scorn was in his eye.
Quoth he, ‘The she-wolf’s litter
  Stand savagely at bay:
But will ye dare to follow,
  If Astur clears the way?’


Then, whirling up his broadsword
  With both hands to the heights
He rushed against Horatius,
  And smote with all his might,
With shield and blade Horatius
  Right deftly turned the blow.
The blow, though turned, came yet too nigh;
It missed his helm, but gashed his thigh:
The Tuscans raised a joyful cry
  To see the red blood flow.


He reeled, and on Herminius
  He leaned one breathing-space;
Then, like a wild cat mad with wounds
  Sprang right at Astur’s face.
Through teeth, and skull, and helmet
  So fierce a thrust he sped,
The good sword stood a hand-breadth out
  Behind the Tuscan’s head.


And the great Lord of Luna
  Fell at that deadly stroke,
As falls on Mount Alvernus
  A thunder smitten oak.
Far o’er the crashing forest
  The giant’s arms lie spread;
And the pale augurs, muttering low,
  Gaze on the blasted head.


On Astur’s throat Horatius
  Right firmly pressed his heel,
And thrice and four times tugged amain,
  Ere he wrenched out the steel.
‘And see,’ he cried, ‘the welcome,
  Fair guests, that waits you here!
What noble Lucumo comes next
  To taste our Roman cheer?’


But at his haughty challenge
  A sullen murmur ran,
Mingled of wrath, and shame, and dread,
  Along that glittering van.
There lacked not men of prowess,
  Nor men of lordly race;
For all Etruria’s noblest
  Were round the fatal place.


But all Etruria’s noblest
  Felt their hearts sink to see
On the earth the bloody corpses,
  In the path the dauntless Three:
And, from the ghastly entrance
  Where those bold Romans stood,
All shrank, like boys who unaware,
Ranging the woods to start a hare,
Come to the mouth of the dark lair
Where, growling low, a fierce old bear
  Lies amidst bones and blood.


Was none who would be foremost
  To lead such dire attack:
But those behind cried ‘Forward!’
  And those before cried ‘Back!’
And backward now and forward
  Wavers the deep array;
And on the tossing sea of steel,
To and fro the standards reel;
And the victorious trumpet-peal
  Dies fitfully away.


Yet one man for one moment
  Strode out before the crowd;
Well known was he to all the Three,
  And they gave gim greeting loud.
‘Now welcome, welcome, Sextus!
  Now welcome to thy home!
Why dost thou stay, and turn away?
  Here lies the road to Rome.’


Thrice looked he at the city;
  Thrice looked he at the dead;
And thrice came on in fury,
  And thrice turned back in dread:
And, white with fear and hatred,
  Scowled at the narrow way
Where, wallowing in a pool of blood,
  The bravest Tuscans lay.


But meanwhile axe and lever
  Have manfully been plied;
And now the bridge hangs tottering
  Above the boiling tide.
‘Come back, come back, Horatius!’
  Loud cried the Fathers all.
‘Back, Lartius! back, Herminius!
  Back, ere the ruin fall!’


Back darted Spurius Lartius;
  Herminius darted back:
And, as they passed, beneath their feet
  They felt the timbers crack.
But when they turned their faces,
  And on the farther shore
Saw brave Horatius stand alone,
  They would have crossed once more.


But with a crash like thunder
  Fell every loosened beam,
And, like a dam, the mighty wreck
  Lay right athwart the stream:
And a long shout of triumph
  Rose from the walls of Rome,
As to the highest turret-tops
  Was splashed the yellow foam.


And, like a horse unbroken
  When first he feels the rein,
The furious river struggled hard,
  And tossed his tawny mane,
And burst the curb and bounded,
  Rejoicing to be free, *
*And whirling down, in fierce career,

Battlement, and plank, and pier,
  Rushed headlong to the sea.


Alone stood brave Horatius,
  But constant still in mind;
Thrice thirty thousand foes before,
  And the broad flood behind.
‘Down with him!’ cried false Sextus,
  With a smile on his pale face.
‘Now yield thee,’ cried Lars Porsena,
  ‘Now yield thee to our grace!’


Round turned he, as not deigning
  Those craven ranks to see;
Nought spake he to Lars Porsena,
  To Sextus nought spake he;
But he saw on Palatins
  The white porch of his home;
And he spake to the noble river
  That rolls by the towers of Rome.


‘Oh, Tiber! father Tiber!
  To whom the Romans pray,
A Roman’s life, a Roman’s arms,
  Take thou in charge this day!’
So he spake, and speaking sheathed
  The good sword by his side,
And with his harness on his back,
  Plunged headlong in the tide.


No sound of joy or sorrow
  Was heard from either bank;
But friends and foes in dumb surprise,
With parted lips and straining eyes,
  Stood gazing where he sank;
And when above the surges
  They saw his crest appear,
All Rome sent forth a rapturous cry,
And even the ranks of Tuscany
  Could scarce forbear to cheer.


But fiercely ran the current,
  Swollen high by months of rain:
And fast his blood was flowing;
  And he was sore in pain,
And heavy with his armour,
  And spent with changing blows:
And oft they thought him sinking,
  But still again he rose.


Never, I ween, did swimmer,
  In such an evil case,
Struggle through such a raging flood
  Safe to the landing place.
But his limbs were borne up bravely
  By the brave heart within,
And our good father Tiber
  Bare bravely up his chin.


‘Curse on him!’ quoth false Sextus;
  ‘Will not the villain drown?
But for this stay, ere close of day
  We should have sacked the town!’
‘Heaven help him!’ quoth Lars Porsena,
  ‘And bring him safe to shore;
For such a gallant feat of arms
  Was never seen before.’


And now he feels the bottom;
  Now on dry earth he stands;
Now round him throng the Fathers;
  To press his gory hands;
And now, with shouts and clapping,
  And noise of weeping loud,
He enters through the River-Gate,
  Borne by the joyous crowd.


They gave him of the corn-land,
  That was of public right,
As much as two strong oxen
  Could plough from morn till night;
And they made a molten image,
  And set it up on high,
And there it stands unto this day
  To witness if I lie.


It stands in the Comitium,
  Plain for all folk to see;
Horatius in his harness,
  halting upon one knee:
And underneath is written, *
In letters all of gold,*
How valiantly he kept the bridge
  In the brave days of old.


And still his name sounds stirring
  Unto the men of Rome,
As the trumpet-blast that cries to them
  To charge the Volscian home;
And wives still pray to Juno *
For boys with hearts as bold*
As his who kept the bridge so well
  In the brave days of old.


And in the nights of winter,
  When the cold north winds blow,
And the long howling of the wolves
  Is heard amidst the snow;
When round the lonely cottage
  Roars loud the tempest’s din,
And the good logs of Algidus
  Roar louder yet within;


When the oldest cask is opened,
  And the largest lamp is lit;
When the chestnuts glow in the embers,
  And the kid turns on the spit;
When young and old in circle
  Around the firebrands close;
When the girls are weaving baskets,
  And the lads are shaping bows;


When the goodman mends his armour,
  And trims his helmet’s plume;
When the goodwife’s shuttle merrily
  Goes flashing through the loom;
With weeping and with laughter
  Still is the story told,
How well Horatius kept the bridge
  In the brave days of old.

Prelude (to Departmental Ditties)

Even the introductions to his collections of poetry are works of art. 

Prelude (To “The Departmental Ditties”)

by Rudyard Kipling

I have eaten your bread and salt.
I have drunk your water and wine.
The deaths ye died I have watched beside,
And the lives ye led were mine.

Was there aught that I did not share
In vigil or toil or ease, –
One joy or woe that I did not know,
Dear hearts across the seas?

I have written the tale of our life
For a sheltered people’s mirth,
In jesting guise – but ye are wise,
And ye shall know what the jest is worth.

Telegraph Road

Poetry also exists, of course, in music. Mark Knopfler, of Dire Straights, is one of the most poetic musicians in word and melody I’ve ever heard.

From “Love Over Gold” (one of my favorite albums):

A Divine Image

The second of this pair of often-confused poems. 

A Divine Image

William Blake

Cruelty has a human heart,
And Jealousy a human face;
Terror the human form divine,
And Secresy the human dress.

The human dress is forged iron,
The human form a fiery forge,
The human face a furnace sealed,
The human heart its hungry gorge.

The Divine Image

William Blake has two poems with very similar names, covering very similar subjects (two sides of the same coin), in a very similar structure and rhyme. “The Divine Image” can be construed as the poem that sees the beauty in mankind.

The Divine Image


To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
All pray in their distress;
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.

For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is God, our father dear,
And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is Man, his child and care.

For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.

Then every man, of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine,
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.

And all must love the human form,
In heathen, Turk, or Jew;
Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.

Dedication from “Barrack-Room Ballads”

This touches on religious themes, as many poems from the past do. Nevertheless, the imagery, to me, owes almost as much to Valhalla and astronomy. A fitting introduction to the stories of those who served, and often died.

Dedication from “Barrack-Room Ballads”

by Rudyard Kipling

BEYOND the path of the outmost sun through utter darkness hurled-
Farther than ever comet flared or vagrant star-dust swirled-
Live such as fought and sailed and ruled and loved and made our world.

They are purged of pride because they died; they know the worth of their bays;
They sit at wine with the Maidens Nine and the Gods of the Elder Days-
It is their will to serve or be still as fitteth Our Father’s praise.

‘Tis theirs to sweep through the ringing deep where Azrael’s outposts are,
Or buffet a path through the Pit’s red wrath when God goes out to war,
Or hang with the reckless Seraphim on the rein of a red-maned star.

They take their mirth in the joy of the Earth-they dare not grieve for her pain;
They know of toil and the end of toil; they know God’s Law is plain;
So they whistle the Devil to make them sport who know that Sin is vain.

And oft-times cometh our wise Lord God, master of every trade,
And tells them tales of His daily toil, of Edens newly made;
And they rise to their feet as He passes by, gentlemen unafraid.

To these who are cleansed of base Desire, Sorrow and Lust and Shame-
Gods for they knew the hearts of men, men for they stooped to Fame-
Borne on the breath that men call Death, my brother’s spirit came.

He scarce had need to doff his pride or slough the dross of Earth –
E’en as he trod that day to God so walked he from his birth,
In simpleness and gentleness and honour and clean mirth.

So cup to lip in fellowship they gave him welcome high
And made him place at the banquet board-the Strong Men ranged thereby,
Who had done his work and held his peace and had no fear to die

Beyond the loom of the last lone star, through open darkness hurled,
Further than rebel comet dared or hiving star-swarm swirled,
Sits he with those that praise our God for that they served His world.

The Road Not Taken

I first stumbled into the Robert Frost poem because it formed the basis for one of my favorite short Science Fiction stories. The story had posited “what if” faster-than-light travel was actually something most races stumbled into at roughly medieval levels of technology, and we simply never figured it out?

Most cultures went a-hunting across the starry seas, while we developed electronics, missiles, and fighter jets. And then one day, they landed.

Much to their surprise.

A later story in the series posits that we too sat on our laurels of superior technology, and are caught nearly totally unprepared when another race repeats our performance.

One other thing this poem echoes for me: Every decision is final. Consequences, intended or not, are final. You can take the effort to undo, to trace back your steps, but this requires even more work. In the meantime, “way leads on to way”, and there are many, many  more choices to make each day.

The Road Not Taken

by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference

Hymn of Breaking Strain

This poem is about engineering, but so much more. it speaks to all of our projects that we aspire to.

After laying out how we can look up tables of the properties of materials, and design things to take the strength and properties into account, he points out a fundamental truth: People are not all the same, they are not fungible. And so – there is no possible table of what we can  do that says “insert four guys here to get the drawings done, ten there to install the girders.” There is no way to look up ahead of time the temperament and skills of a person, their personality, and how much stress they can take.

I believe it was Terry Pratchett, author of the Discworld fantasy novels, who observed that “Evil begins when you begin to treat people as things.” Things that you can order, sort, categorize, bin, dump as defective, and treat as interchangable cogs.

Political systems that have done that, that have treated people as interchangeable parts described by a label such as “labor”, theocratic or otherwise, have been responsible for deaths in job lots, by the literal tens of millions, in the last century.

Too wonder-stale to wonder
At each new miracle;
Till, in the mid-illusion
Of Godhead ‘neath our hand,
Falls multiple confusion
On all we did or planned-
The mighty works we planned.

 While he may have been speaking to the belief in a predictable universe in his time, I think this also speaks to us as well. We’ve gone to the moon. Now what? We carry around supercomputers in our pockets (by 1990’s standards), and the Star Trek communicator and tricorder? Been there, done that.

We’ve become so used to our miracles that we forget all the things we can’t control or predict. Combine that with the closing of the first verse – if we begin to treat people problems as thing problems, fixable by universal tables, we get results even worse than those we get from predictable materials and an unpredictable universe.

Yet, we are offered hope. Despite being broken and unpredictable, despite having failure thrust upon us by an uncaring universe, have the chance to rise up, and build anew.

It’s our choice.

Hymn of Breaking Strain

by Rudyard Kipling

THE careful text-books measure
(Let all who build beware!)
The load, the shock, the pressure
Material can bear.
So, when the buckled girder
Lets down the grinding span,
‘The blame of loss, or murder,
Is laid upon the man.
Not on the Stuff – the Man!
But in our daily dealing
With stone and steel, we find
The Gods have no such feeling
Of justice toward mankind.
To no set gauge they make us-
For no laid course prepare-
And presently o’ertake us
With loads we cannot bear:
Too merciless to bear.

The prudent text-books give it
In tables at the end
‘The stress that shears a rivet
Or makes a tie-bar bend-
‘What traffic wrecks macadam-
What concrete should endure-
but we, poor Sons of Adam
Have no such literature,
To warn us or make sure!

We hold all Earth to plunder –
All Time and Space as well-
Too wonder-stale to wonder
At each new miracle;
Till, in the mid-illusion
Of Godhead ‘neath our hand,
Falls multiple confusion
On all we did or planned-
The mighty works we planned.

We only of Creation
(Oh, luckier bridge and rail)
Abide the twin damnation-
To fail and know we fail.
Yet we – by which sole token
We know we once were Gods-
Take shame in being broken
However great the odds-
The burden of the Odds.

Oh, veiled and secret Power
Whose paths we seek in vain,
Be with us in our hour
Of overthrow and pain;
That we – by which sure token
We know Thy ways are true –
In spite of being broken,
Because of being broken
May rise and build anew
Stand up and build anew.