Probably many of you watch GB semi regularly, and may have seen the teaser for his new book, The Overton Window. I was watching last night and saw it for the first time and nearly fell out of my chair. I am a big Rudyard Kipling fan, I have “IF” memorized. About a year ago when I got the iPhone and at first could not figure out how to open MS-Office documents with an apple product I was recreating my poem library from my old Windows based phone. In the course of doing that, I found this poem from Kipling, it seems not much had changed since 1919, or at least his words still held relevance. Then last night I see that GB has incorporated the last stanzas into the teaser for his book. A “copybook” was a teaching aid. It was a notebook with a different well-known proverb, verse, or aphorism at the top of each page (a copybook heading). Schoolchildren practiced their handwriting by copying this heading over and over again until the page was full. Kipling wrote this poem after his son was killed in World War I, a war that many Britons blamed on the greed of the bigwig industrialists whose factories profited from the war effort while in high-flown patriotic prose they promised a glorious victory and a paradisiacal future to the men who went off to be slaughtered in the trenches. In this poem Kipling criticizes those who suspended their judgment and common sense and followed suit with idiotic policy because of such rosy promises of prosperity
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“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!”
Some of the terms are a bit obscure, I know. I offer my understanding of the poem as explanation with the disclaimer that this is only my understanding:
The reference to water wetting and fire burning in the second stanza is, I assume, examples of common sense knowledge of the type used in the copybook headings, but as he says this sort of common knowledge was not uplifting and lacking vision (they were stodgy and boring) and so we abandoned common knowledge.
“We moved as the spirit listed”, To ‘List’ is a nautical term meaning to tilt or tip. He is saying we followed emotions, as if on a sailing ship driven by the wind. But he says the Copybook Headings stayed true, meaning real truth and knowledge is eternal and the next stanza continues this theme which says that common sense always catches up to our “progress” and then informs us of such things as the Fall of Rome (due to vice and corruption)
The Copybook Headings were out of touch with the hopes and dreams of society. “They (common sense) denied that the moon was Stilton (Stilton is a type of cheese), they denied she (the moon) was even Dutch (the Dutch are famous for their cheeses)”
“Feminien Sandstones”, I believe is a reference to the beginnings of the feminist movement, alternately I have heard this may be a reference to a certain type of stone used to build churches. At any rate this stanza deals with moral decay, lower birth rates and loss of reason.
…And the Gods of the Copybook headings limped up to explain it once more – meaning basically facts and history are stubborn things and we are forgetful creatures.
A dog returns to his vomit – is a reference to Proverbs 26:11 “as a dog returns to his vomit (to eat it), so a fool returns to his folly. The sow returns to her mire is a reference to 2Peter 2:22 and means much the same thing, “ a sow after being washed, will return to wallow in filth”. Kipling is saying we make the same mistakes over and over again and as we stray from the path of what is known (which is ultimately human nature). He says “The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!” Meaning that common sense only returns to us in violent revolution or war. Again, this was written in 1919 directly after WWI. I sincerely hope he was wrong.