Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Gods of the Copybook Headings

After writing that Colossus yesterday, I've been thinking about the topic quite a bit. Due in part to the sleep deprivation incurred while writing the thing, I had difficulty concentrating on anything else today.

In particular, I'd been thinking about our tendency, as humans, to decide that the old ways of doing things are outmoded, obsolete, or irrational. Of course, when we toss out the old ways of doing things, sometimes what comes in its place is far, far worse.

The philosopher Edmund Burke made this argument when thinking of the French Revolution: the revolutionaries decided French society needed to be torn down to its roots, and rebuilt from scratch along "Rational" guidelines. Not only did this mean eliminating the monarchy, nobility, and clergy; they went so far as to rename and re-number the days of the week and the months of the year. Nothing in society was left untouched.

And we remember the French Revolution in no small part for how bloody it was, and for how it set back the cause of Democracy in Europe by several decades, as everyone else on the continent saw the bloodbath that was the Revolution and said, "We want absolutely no part of the system that made that mess."

The trouble is that our institutions and customs, which are often passed down from one generation to the next unthinkingly and without reflection on our part, nevertheless were created for what at the time were considered good reasons. We may not remember what those reasons were, but that doesn't mean they don't still fulfill the reasons they were created. And social reformers who chuck these things out the window without understanding what role they really play in society, run the risk of discarding the very things that make our society habitable. In Burke's opinion, this is exactly what happened in France.

I was musing on all this today, and I was reminded of a poem by Rudyard Kipling along exactly these lines, entitled Gods of the Copybook Headings. I thought I'd share it with you, in case you hadn't seen it yet.

For the uninitiated, Copybooks were an educational tool that existed up until the early 20th century, that are no longer widely used (and I suspect this is a real loss). They were intended to help the student practice penmanship. The top of each page would contain a phrase or sentence written in perfect form, and the student was expected to copy that phrase or sentence, exactly as shown, numerous times down the page.

Now, these phrases were often little trite sayings or proverbs, or literary passages that were selected specifically to try to smuggle some moral lesson into the heads of the students as they were engaged in copying the text over, and over, and over again. Copybook headings might include phrases like, "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush," or "Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise," or "I am the way, the truth, and the life."

As one may expect, a "sophisticated" culture would eventually start to look down on these phrases. These are nothing more than trite cliches for the unreasoning masses! They don't require any intellect to learn, and they don't take into account the wonders of Human Progress. We've gone way past all that fortune-cookie wisdom now.

Kipling wasn't so sure; he thought that our human tendency is to toss out the plain, old, boring wisdom of the ages--represented by these copybook headings--when something shinier and more desirable comes along; not recognizing that the plain, old boring wisdom existed for a reason, and the new, shiny philosophies (what he refers to as the Gods of the Marketplace, since they let us have whatever we want) are unproven and illusory.

He especially thought this when he wrote the poem in 1919, just after the wreckage of the First World War (in which he had lost a son).

Anyway, there's a little more on Kipling and the background of the poem, here.

And without further ado, The Gods of the Copybook Headings (by 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 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!


Paige said...

Wow! Great post. I've been reading your blog for awhile and it's become one of my favorites. Thanks.

Timothy Power said...

Thanks for the ego-stroking there; we can always use a little. And I'm very sorry that the day after you let me know I've become one of your favorites, I fail to write anything new....

It's a little intimidating, knowing that I'm responsible for providing people their daily fixes.


treva said...

Hi ! Have been looking for a meaning for this poem for eons- now I think I finally got it(to my satisfaction). Thank you,Timothy. Hope to visit your site again soon.

Timothy Power said...

Treva, glad to be of assistance. Thanks for dropping by.

Anonymous said...

I've been trying to figure out this poem for 17 years - seriously. Thanks for the illumiation.