The Gods of the Copybook Headings

Rudyard Kipling (1865 – 1936)


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 or 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 ice-field, 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 worshiped 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 neighbor and ended by loving his wife)

Till our women had no more children and 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 selective 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 wobbling back to the fire –


And 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!


     Perhaps you are wondering what this early twentieth-century Kipling poem in doing among all things Confederate. Let me explain. Rudyard Kipling was an extraordinary writer with fantastic talents of  imagination and skill. His writing generally contained a current of admiration for the British Empire and its accomplishments. This is only natural to one raised in that environment. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907 and was offered the post of Poet Laureate of the Empire and knighthood, both of which he declined. But his success raised him into higher circles.

     His success enabled him to gain an officers enlistment for his son John, in the Irish Guards, even though he was refused several times because of poor eyesight. After his sons enlistment and subsequent training he and his unit were sent to France. His son was almost immediately killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915. This agonized Kipling.

     In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when children were taught to write, there was a student workbook called a copybook. The copybook was a book of lined blank pages except across the top of each page was written a sentence or phrase that the student was expected to copy on each blank line of that page. When the copybook was turned in by the student all the pages were expected to be filled. The copybook was a useful educational tool but also a clever indoctrination tool.

     I contend that Kipling, after experiencing the loss of his only son and experiencing the high atmosphere of Empire politics, wrote the above poem in 1919 as a statement of the understanding he had come to realize; and that is that the powers who control empire will say and do whatever is necessary to keep the surfs in subjugation.

     Much like the subjugation we experience today after the loss of the Confederacy.