Saturday, February 24, 2007

Terror and Slaughter Return

After a week of 24/7 Jamaat ul-Fuqra coverage, it’s time for a change of pace.

Rudyard KiplingI’d like to say that Rudyard Kipling is currently enjoying a revival, but that may only be true here, in the virtual pages of Gates of Vienna. We’ve covered some of his poetry before, including the most politically incorrect verse in modern history, “The White Man’s Burden”.

The following poem is uncannily apropos to the mess the Western world finds itself in today. It’s as if Kipling had a Future-o-Scope in his study that let him peer ahead into the peculiar landscape of the early 21st century.

The great poet had a deep understanding of human nature; of what was possible for mankind to achieve, and what was folly for it even to attempt.

A note on the title phrase: a “copybook” was a notebook used by English schoolchildren, and a “heading” was a theme that they were instructed to write at the top of a page by their master. The pupil would then be required to write an essay below the heading on the given topic. In this case, the heading might have been “Zeus”, or “Thoth”, or “Kali”. Or maybe even “Jehovah”.

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 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 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!

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

This poem was written in 1919, before Socialism had its great and bloody heyday, before Aldous Huxley borrowed “brave new world” from Shakespeare (The Tempest, Act V, Scene 1) as the title of his novel. But the shape of things to come was already apparent, and Kipling’s skeptical eye looked at all the airy nothing that was laid out ahead as the Course of Progress, and found it wanting.

Our women had no more children and the men lost reason and faith.

Robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul.

When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins.

Plus ça change…


Panday said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Panday said...

Looking at the way the West is dealing with Iran and North Korea, another Kipling poem comes to mind:
The Danegeld

Mr. Spog said...

Meanwhile, out in ethnonationalist territory is The Stranger Within My Gate.

Clovis Sangrail said...

It is indeed a great and prescient poem.
At the risk of being cheeky I'm appending a link to a version with its own links to suitable readings of some of the key words and phrases:

james said...

He didn't always get it right. Remember The Peace of Dives from 1903. He lost his son in WWI.

Ominous Cowherd said...

About your note on the title phrase: I believe that the copybook headings Kipling was referring to were the truisms in the poem, such as “Stick to the Devil you know,” “The Wages of Sin is Death” and “If you don’t work you die.” These are the eternal truths the universe enforces. They don't sound very deep or progressive, you can't found a new philosophy on them, but you can't long ignore them.

Baron Bodissey said...

Flawed Skull,

Your position is a fair one, and understandable. Some Jewish people have indeed said similar things about Martin Luther.

What Kipling said in this poem was wise and true, but that does not speak for his entire character, nor can the British be exonerated for things they did in India.

People of the past are not always what we would wish them to be, but we must take what they have to offer us when it seems to be appropriate.