‘The Gods of Copybook Headings’ by Rudyard Kipling was published in 1919. It is a ten stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, or quatrains. Each of these quatrains follows a consistent rhyme scheme, conforming to the pattern of AABB CCDD, and so on, alternating as the poet saw fit. With an initial glance at this text it is clear that Kipling chose to utilize a longer form of line. The stanzas appear more like short paragraphs than they do verse. The longer lines allow the poet to include great detail, change the pace at which one reads the text, and in this case, they reference the poem’s own context.
The speaker of this piece is interested in “copybook headings.” Now mostly unknown, copybook headings were short phrases written by teachers at the top of a piece of papers. These sentences were then copied by students, over and over, in order to improve their handwriting. Generally these phrases were expressions of traditional wisdom about life. Things that teacher could easily convey to students and ideally, might inspire them to work harder or be better.
Summary of The Gods of Copybook Headings
‘The Gods of Copybook Headings’ by Rudyard Kipling speaks on the malevolent nature of progress and humanity’s eventual return to basic principles of a good life.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that originally humankind was directed by a few tenants of common sense and goodness. At some point though these tenants, embodied as “copybook headings” fell to the side. They were replaced with new gods, those of “the Market Place,” or progress, growth and wealth. Under the influence of these new gods humanity went downhill fast. People forgot how to live their lives and the parts that make humanity human were lost.
All throughout this dark period the previous way of life, as seen at the dawn of man, still existed. The rules of the copybook headings are lingering close to the human mind, ready for when they are needed. The speaker also explains why people threw off their original gods. They did not provide a magical, externally fulfilling life, something promised by the new gods.
As the speaker predicted, the “Marketplace” gods do fail. Humanity is again lost without direction. This is when the “copybook headings” step in and refresh the combined consciousness of the world. Everything reverts back to how it used to be but inevitably, the cycle will start again.
Analysis of The Gods of Copybook Headings
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.
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by describing himself as metaphorically passing through various incarnations. The different forms he’s taken have allowed him to observe “every age and race.” In each form, no matter when or where he is, he has been at the mercy of the “Gods of the Market Place.” He references the push and pull of want and need, met and controlled by (seemingly) god-like beings. They are the overwhelming forces of the day and he makes sure to bow/submit to them.
Although at points the “Gods of the Market Place” seem omniscient and unstoppable, they do eventually “fall.” In their wake the speaker looks around and sees that the only thing that truly does seem to last are a different set of Gods or controlling principles. Those to be found in “copybook headings.” As mentioned above, these were short, ideally inspiring or morally stimulating phrases used by teachers as examples of proper handwriting. A student would copy these lines, any number of times, beneath the original heading written in the teacher’s hand.
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.
In the next two lines the speaker describes the impact of copybook headings have had on mankind. It is not just the phrases in this one context though. He is more interested in the base tenants of a good society and a good life. The underlying structure of the one’s moral compass has been in existence since “We were living in trees.” The “they” the speaker refers to are in fact the headings themselves. The phrases taught humankind basics about life. Passed down from generation to generation, early humans maintained important pieces of information this way.
Everyone knew that “Water would certainly wet us” and “Fire would certainly burn.” After extolling the benefits of these basic rules of life, the speaker describes how the world left them behind. At some point, humanity thought they did not need these tenants any longer. They were left to simpler lifeforms, “Gorillas,” while “we” went forward with the world.
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.
He goes on to say that while humanity attempted to move on, the copybook headings stayed exactly as they were. They were not moved, like the “Gods of the Market Place” are. Instead, they stuck to their principles and lingered nearby, ready when they were needed again.
The speaker, and he thinks the rest of humanity, only recalls the copybook headings when something terrible happens. The negative side of progress shows its face through the destruction of a city or group of people and then everyone tries to remember what the point of life is. In an hour of need, humanity desires something strong and unchanging to lean on.
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.
In the fourth stanza the speaker explains another reason why humanity turned against the basic principles of life. They did not provide the magic that the “Gods of the Market” promised. The copybook headings are extremely rational. According to their rules the moon is not made of “Stilton,” or a particular type of cheese. There are no pigs with wings nor are “Wishes…Horses.” Humankind was looking for something else, something more beautiful than rules and rationality. This is where the marketplace gods found their niche. They were able to promise “beautiful things” because they aren’t held to any set of rules or guidelines.
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.”
The fifth stanza shows the reader, and the world, what has happened as a result of an allegiance to these untrue gods. Humanity was told that if it gave up all weapons then there would be ‘perpetual peace.” But when this happened “we” were “sold…and delivered…bound to our foe.”
The copybook headings could’ve warned humanity about this turn of events if humankind had been listening, but they weren’t. It would’ve been better to stick to the devil they already knew, meaning, everyone would have been safer and happier worshiping the “Gods of the Copybook Headings” rather than the “Gods of the Marketplace” and progress.
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.”
The speaker opens the sixth stanza with a reference to “Feminian Sandstones.” This is another connection to the past, a deeper physical layer, further back in geological time. Back then, when humanity first decided o progress, they were “promised the Fuller Life.” There was always something better on the horizon. But it soon turned bad.
Eventually the love one felt for their “neighbour” became love for “his wife.” The world declined until women stopped having children and “men lost reason and faith.” The refrain is repeated here once more, with the “Copybook Heading” gods weighing in and reminding humanity that sin results in death. Humankind went against what was right, and there are consequences for that.
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 same structure is utilized in this stanza with the speaker looking back to the “Carboniferous Epoch” during which humanity was “promised abundance for all.” Just like all the previous promises it did not come true. In fact, the opposite occurred. Man started robbing man, even though there was “plenty of money” to be acquired. The problem was that there was nothing to buy worth having.
The “Gods of the Copybook Headings” provide another phrase to remember, that if you “don’t work you die.” When humankind was given everything on a plate, thats when the world went wrong. Everyone needs an occupation to remain human, and more importantly, good.
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.
The eighth stanza depicts the fall of the “Gods of the Market.” When humanity reaches its breaking point, progress will be thrown out. The parts that were previously appealing are going to withdraw and all dark magic will lift off of humankind.
Even those who have the hardest and darkest hearts will see that “All is not Gold that Glitters and Two and Two make Four” (two more copybook heading-esque phrases). As stated in the first couple stanzas, the “Gods of the Copybook Headings” have never left humanity. They are there, at the end of the reign of progress, to explain the rules of life once again.
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;
The ninth stanza begins a return to the way things were in the past. In the future, things are going to change again. Everything is going to go back to how it was “at the birth of Man.” He goes on to state that since humanity began its dreadful path of progress that four things have always remained true. Kipling’s speaker states how humanity will always make the same mistakes, and base instincts hold a great deal of sway over one’s actions. The fourth “thing” is in the last stanza.
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!
In the final stanza everything comes full circle and the fourth “thing” is described. Eventually, when all this (what was mentioned in the previous stanza) “is accomplished,” then the rightful gods will return. Their words will force humanity back onto the correct path, with morality and goodness, and basic worldly rules and laws at the forefront.
Kipling repeats the phrase he utilized in the first stanza, stating that “surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,” everything will go back to the way it was. To him, it is inevitable that humankind will reach rockbottom and be lead back to where they began.