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February 06, 2011

A sober Sunday morning poem [Fritzworth]

Reading this article by the wise and insightful Victor Davis Hanson over dinner last night left me somewhat depressed, as most honest assessments of our current situation do. It's not just that the national economic situation is so bad -- it's that the mindset that led us here, as VDH points out, still pervades most of government and much of society.

And that leads us to Rudyard Kipling. Kipling is often portrayed as an unabashed imperialist, even though "Recessional" -- a poem written for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee -- is as sober a slap in the face to the Queen and the British Empire as you could hope to find. But that's not the poem for this morning. The Kipling poem for this morning is "The Gods of the Copybook Headings", written in 1919.


The poem itself is a touch obscure, though the general sense is easy to pick up. First, the title: "copybooks" were student workbooks in which 19th and early 20th century schoolchildren would practice handwriting or copy passages. Many such books had quotes of wisdom at the top of each page from philosophers, scriptures, or other notable historical sources -- these are the "copybook headings".

Kipling throughout the poem contrasts the warnings of the "gods of the copybook headings" -- that is, the hard-won wisdom that humanity has acquired over the millennia -- with the enticements and promises of "the gods of the market place". At a few points, the poem requires some careful reading and thought to realize which group is the "they" he is talking about (most of the "theys" in the first four stanzas are the gods of the copybook headings, while those in the next three are the gods of the market place). But the message is pretty clear and remarkable relevant to our current continuing crisis.

Herewith the poem.


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!

And a happy Sunday morning to all of you, too. ..fritz..

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posted by Open Blogger at 06:06 AM

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