Copybooks were for handwriting practice, back in the days when handwriting mattered. A timeless gem of old wisdom was written at the top of the page in a beautiful hand, and the user of the book would copy it all the way down the page.
By 1919, when he wrote this poem, Kipling had lost his son in World War I. He had lost his faith, though he yearned for faith in something. As is clear from the language of the poem, mentioning "Social Progress," the "brave new world," "robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul," the dangers of disarmament and immorality, and with the overall structure following the evolutionary narrative, the subject is the progressive movement that attempts to reduce human life to scientific, animalistic principles. The poem reminds the reader constantly that old wisdom is still wise and true even if we have lost faith in it, and the last line echoes the toll of the first two years of the Russian Revolution. For the reader in 2007, it echoes the 100 million death toll from Communism, the ultimate progressive movement for the scientific reformation of society and humanity. And it echoes in the toll of 40 million abortions in the United States since Roe vs. Wade. And finally, it echoes the threat of an even greater death toll from the Global Jihad, which in the worst case could end up with multiple American, European, and Muslim cities being attacked by nuclear weapons and a death toll better than half a billion souls.
To all of this, the God who inspired the copybook headings is the answer. Believe if you can believe. Keep trying if you can't. Chin up old bean. Never give up. Never give in.The Gods of the Copybook Headings1919
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 Heading 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!
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