No matter how compelling your articles of faith may be, or your advertisements, or your campaign platform, or your morals or principles or beliefs — Reality will always continue to do as she damn well pleases. The hard sciences are exceptional in that they are interesting because and only if they provide a more and more precise model of reality, not because they are comforting or comfortable (they are generally neither). The Gods of the Market-Place (or of any other field which revolves around telling people that which they want to hear) are inevitably constrained by the irritating consistency of Reality — or as Kipling puts it, by the Gods of the Copybook Headings. The question is never whether slick idealism of any stripe will triumph over reality: the question is only how many people will die before we (re)discover that, as usual, Reality Is Always Right.

“The Gods of the Copybook Headings”
Rudyard Kipling

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 Heading 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 Heading 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 God 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 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!

7 Responses to “The Gods of the Copybook Headings”

  1. 1 Timmeeee
    April 2, 2009 at 12:47

    If you are going to quote Kipling, and of all the poems he wrote “The Gods of the Copybook Headings”, at least learn how to spell BREADTH! The word is breadth NOT breath.

  2. April 2, 2009 at 12:53

    Dammit! That’s what I get for copy-pasting the whole thing. Thanks for the correction!

  3. 3 dlr
    March 4, 2010 at 23:56

    Another typo – “That All is not God that Glitters” s/b Gold not God

    Thanks for the post. A chilling reminder that the is no GUARANTEE that the idiots in Washington will wake before it is too late.

  4. 4 Wendy Peckham
    May 27, 2010 at 19:42

    Another website said that this poem expressed how Kipling was clinging to old-fashioned values at a time when he desperately needed something to cling to. I thought that that was a liberal way of being nonjudgmental and patronizing. The whole point of the poem is that fashion is irrelevant and that natural law will always catch up with our progress. Still, what else can we expect from the smooth-tongued wizards?

  5. 5 Andrew House
    January 5, 2011 at 23:36

    Wendy may be right; OTOH Kipling, a strong supporter of the British Empire all his life wrote this poem in 1919. The Great War had just ended, a war that cost him his son at the age of 18 (at Loos in 1915) after Kipling himself had used his considerable influence to obtain a commission for him despite his woeful vision. Kipling worked with the British government in the public information area, being privy to the “real” state of affairs on the Western Front (lack of war materials, dismal conditions, lack of strategy and leadership, horrendous casualties weighed against trivial or insignificant gains, etc., etc.). And at the end of that War, while promises and grandiose visions blossomed on the Allied side the Bolshevik evolution established Marxist Communism in Russia with the overthrow and subsequent murder, of the (related to the British Royal Family) Russian Czar. Perhaps, given all these factors, the poem is more a cynical, or jaundiced, commentary on the seductive psalms of the marketplace (the contemporary social and political discourse), their inevitable failure due to the baser aspects of human nature, and the resulting terror and slaughter of war. Viewed in this light the poem is no more to be cited as anti-socialist, anti-liberal, or anti-progressive than it is to be cited as a condemnation of the rather utopian, unproven and irrational promises of the high priests (and low demagogues, such as Glen Beck) of unfettered free trade and the right.

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