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Kipling’s Lament for a Dying Culture

Rudyard Kiping’s poem, “The Gods of the Copybook Headings,” is a powerful and poignant challenge for our cultural situation today. Kipling wrote the poem in 1919 in response to the cultural despair after World War I when so many began rejecting the moral and religious truths which had undergirded European civilization. We need to hear this poem again in our setting.

Since the poem is almost a hundred years old, we may need some background to properly understand it. Copybooks were books used in schools for handwriting. At the top of the page was a common proverb which the student would copy numerous times. Thus, the “copybook headings” were well known sayings which embodied traditional moral truths. Kipling is saying that people in his day were abandoning these truths in pursuit of materialism and notions of “progress.” However, ignoring truth does not make it go away, and the violation of the laws of natureTurn-of-the-century copybook and basic realities
will lead to destruction.

This is not an explicitly Christian poem, and, of course, morals alone are not sufficient. However, we must assess the poem for what it aims to do. It is useful and important to be reminded that the cultural rejection of morality (sexual purity, honesty, hard work, etc.) will lead to cultural destruction. The fact that the gospel produces such character is one of the many ways it contributes to human flourishing.

 

The Gods of the 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.

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!

 

-          Rudyard Kipling

[Here is a helpful discussion of this poem with more explanation of some of its references]

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