Gods Of The Copybook Headings By Rudyard Kipling | Meaning, Background and Detailed Analysis

The Gods Of The Copybook Headings Analysis: The speaker in Rudyard Kipling’s classic poem of social commentary, “The Gods of the Copybook Headings,” is pronouncing in a heavenly voice, similar to the divine voice that has been employed by Langston Hughes in his masterpiece, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”

The speaker in Kipling’s poem demonstrates that fads and fallacies that appear in the “Market Place” and political arena come and go and, at times, wreak havoc. In contrast, the wise sayings that appear in the children’s copybooks remain viable throughout time.

“The Gods of the Copybook Headings”, authored by Rudyard Kipling, characterized by biographer Sir David Gilmore as one of several “ferocious post-war eruptions” of Kipling’s souring sentiment that concerns the state of Anglo-European society.

Students can also check the English Summary to revise with them during exam preparation.

The poem was first published in London’s Sunday Pictorial on October 26, 1919. In the United States, it was published as “The Gods of the Copybook Maxims” in Harper’s Magazine during January of 1920.

‘The Gods of Copybook Headings’ Meaning

“The Gods of the Copybook Headings”, authored by Rudyard Kipling, is a conservative poem. Its message is that most of the “new,” “progressive” plans are things that aren’t new at all; they’ve been tried before and invariably brought disaster. People who have failed to study the past and learn from it consistently repeat these earlier mistakes.

Many people think there is much truth in the poem. However, it leaves out a fairly obvious objection – how did progress occur at all? As a man of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Kipling surely knew that humanity was technically, and at least to a small degree politically, better off than in the past.

He even illustrates this in poems like The Benefactors. Yet, a more standard progressive historian omits even more of the truth than Kipling does. He showcases history as a straightforward progression from worse to better, impeded only by malicious reactionaries. He also leaves out all the dead ends, all the failed experiments, and shows only the ones that succeeded.

The reality is that human progress is evolutionary. In evolution, it depends on organisms creating vastly more offspring than can survive, among which only the fittest reproducing. Similarly, human progress depends on people creating vastly more ideas than can all be adopted, most of them useless or harmful, and only a very few making our condition better. The gods of the copybook headings devour the rest.

Detailed Analysis of ‘The Gods of Copybook Headings’ Text

First Stanza – Rebirth in every period of history

“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.”

Kipling’s speaker begins with a remarkable claim which suggests that he is aware of the reincarnating souls which travel immortally and eternally through time and space.

After this remarkable assertion, he raises his essential subject that the passing silliness that becomes dominant in the casual society cannot stand up to time-tested wisdom—like that present in children’s literature, offered to instruct. Kipling’s speaker is trying to imply that morality does not change, despite the fads of social interaction.

Also, society will always teach its children what it knows deep in its psyche to be the correct modes of behaviour. What blunted adults have accepted as the appropriate form of behaviour often takes on a new light when they consider passing this behaviour on to their next generation.

Second Stanza: The elites lacking vision 

“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 poem, the wise snippets which have come down from such the ancients as the Biblical writers include humankind’s historical roots, which run as far back as the lower primates. Common sense suggested the ancients, as it still implies the moderns, “That Water would certainly wet us, as Fire would certainly burn.”

However, the supposedly sophisticated elites decided that ancient wisdom had grown musty and “lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind.” So these philosophical bits of knowledge were assigned to the copybooks that teach children how to write. They were no longer heeded as necessary for adult guidance.

The elites preferred to take note of the “March of Mankind,” instead of observing the spiritual wisdom from scripture and otherwise sources.

Third Stanza – Morality and Wisdom Intertwine

“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.”

Followed by the modern intellectuals followed the misguided direction, those gods of the copybook remained steady and focused. The “Market Place” gods, however, continued to plight and rob, “caught up with our progress.” However, from time to time, the rootlessness of reckless activity has resulted in “a tribe” being wiped out or Rome falling.

Fourth Stanza – The stink of modern behaviourism

“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.

The sayings and proverbs became fodder for ridicule as relativism rose to justify inappropriate behaviour and thought. As the copybook gods maintained a steady common-sense perspective, the gods of the marketplace continued to offer ludicrous promises of “beautiful things”—concocting notions of the moon is made of cheese, that wishes were, in fact, horses, and that pigs could fly.

The speaker uses these offbeat sayings to emphasize the outrageous claims made by companies who exaggerate their products’ effectiveness.

Fifth Stanza – Politics just as delusional as commerce 

“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 political sphere gods turned out to be as elusive as the gods of the market place. Exaggerated efforts of appeasement for peace have turned nations into enablers of dictatorial power grabbers.

Therefore, when a nation gives up its means of defending itself, it finds itself “sold and delivered” to its “foe.” Again, the copybook provides the appropriate wisdom, “Stick to the Devil you know.”

Sixth Stanza – Modern morality fails at delivering the goods. 

“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 promise of “the Fuller Life” had been made during the time that the first churches and temples were being built. However, that promise morphed from “loving [one’s] neighbour” to “loving his wife.”

Also, the copybook gods delivered the proper guidance again that “The Wages of Sin is Death.” The transformation from wisdom caused men to lose their faith, and women were refusing to bear children.

Seventh Stanza – The failure of statism 

“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.”

In the next era, the socialistic state promised care to the people from the cradle to their grave by taking Peter to pay Paul. However, the abundance of money did not motivate growth, while again, the copybook rebuked, “If you don’t work you die.”

The socialist mindset always rears its ugly head because too many folks fail to learn the lesson of history. Instead of thinking through the false claims made by the power-seekers, too many citizens allow themselves to blinded by shiny objects.

Thinking that a power-hungry politician might help one pay their mortgage and put gas in your car is corresponding to believing that tooth fairy will leave cash under their pillow.

Eight Stanza – Return to the stayed wisdom 

“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.”

After aeons of folly, humanity, even inside the market places where “their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew,” starts to returning to stayed wisdom, to values that work, to common sense. Even the “hearts of the meanest” started to believe, “That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four.” And so far, again, the copybook stated that “limped up to explain it once more.”

Society has to operate in accordance with the basic moral laws, or it will stop operating at all. The existential dilemma between right and wrong has absolutes attached to them regardless of the mistaken philosophical psychodrama offered by the relativism of the secular and earthly humanists.

Each human has free will. However, there is a limit to that free will, and that limit is the boundary between goodwill and ill will. If you fail to accept that, like you, your neighbour also has free will, you will commit heinous crimes against your neighbour and yourself.

Ninth Stanza: The failure of social liberalism 

“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 speaker summarizes the condition of humans, saying that throughout all the history of humans, “There are only four things certain since Social Progress began”:

  1. “The Dog returns to his Vomit”.
  2. “The Sow returns to her Mire”.
  3. “The burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire.”

The poet had placed the fourth point in his final stanza.

Tenth Stanza – Wisdom is the only strength and security

“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!”

After all humankind’s foolishness has delivered them into his rewards of just, he finally gets to learn that “Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,”

The fourth point states, – “The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!” Therefore, the wisdom of the copybook gods provides the permanent security that reckless humankind has declined.

Boiling itself down to the good old common sense, by taking life one step at a time, remaining humble and seeking self-understanding while following the Golden Rule, the Copybook’s wisdom retains a lustre that will light the behaviour of humankind as long humankind walks upon the earth.

Background of ‘The Gods of Copybook Headings’

Published in October 1919 when Rudyard Kipling was 53 years old, “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” has proved enduringly popular, even though copybooks had disappeared from classrooms in America and Britain during, or shortly after, the second World War.

A copybook was an exercise book that was used for practising one’s handwriting. The pages were blank except for horizontal ruled lines and a printed specimen for perfect handwriting at the top. One was supposed to copy this specimen all down the page of the exercise book.

The samples were proverbs or quotations or little commonplace moralistic or warning sayings — the ones in the poem illustrate this kind of thing. These were the headings of the copybook.

Kipling had lost his fondly loved son during the first World War and a precious daughter a few years earlier. He was a drained man in 1919, and England, through which he identified intensely, was a worn-out nation. Though he was not an atheist, he was a Christian of a strange sort. The poet seems to have found little comfort in religion.

From the Biography of Andrew Lycett’s

For spiritual values, Rudyard Kipling was still looking for accommodation in Christianity, his instinctive religion. He explained to Haggard (his friend and novelist Rider Haggard) in May 1918 that occasionally he felt God’s love but “that the difficulty was to ‘hold’ the mystic sense of this communion — that it passes.”

True to form, Kipling told his friend that God meant this phenomenon of the soul so that — “that He doesn’t mean that we should get too near to Him — that a glimpse is all that is allowed.” In recording this in his diary, Rider Haggard noted: “I think R. added because otherwise, we should become unfitted for our work in the world.”

When he wrote the poem, Kipling had commenced on his two-volume history of the Irish Guards — his son’s regiment — in the First World War. The project took him three years, and he remarked it was “done with agony and bloody sweat.”

With all the stated background, it is hard to disagree with the general opinion that “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” is a clinging to old-fashioned common sense by a man sincerely in need of something to cling on to.

About The Author – Joseph Rudyard Kipling

Joseph Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) was a very well-known English poet, novelist, and short-story writer chiefly remembered for his celebration of British imperialism, tales and poems of British soldiers in India tales for children.

He wrote classic poems and stories that include (among many others) “The Jungle book” – A book of short stories that consisted of the famous story “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi”. he also wrote the poems “Gunga Din” and “Mandalay”, the novels “The Man Who Would Be King” and “Captains Courageous”, and his two most well-known poems, “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” and “IF__”.

He was born in India, spent his earliest years there, and then moved with his parents to England. He lived in the United States for four years between 1892 and 1896 in Brattleboro, Vermont, before he moved back to Britain.

Several people admire Kipling for many of the same qualities that so many inhabitants of our modern civilization dislike him. He stood up for unabashed masculinity, the British Empire, and pride in British inspired civilizations such as America, the nation which was eventually to supplant Britain in world dominance.

He also stood for qualities that are rapidly vanishing in modern society – such as self-reliance, patriotism, faith in your fellow man, the virtues and values of Judeo-Christian morality, the ability to tell right from wrong and good from evil, and self-confidence to stand up to those who’s self-indulgence and narcism.

Similar Poetry 

Individuals who enjoyed reading this poem might also find the poems listed below by Rudyard Kipling interesting.

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  • Song of the Galley-Slaves by Rudyard Kipling
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  • A Pilgrim’s Way by Rudyard Kipling