The Gods of the Copybook Headings


(notes by Philip Holberton)


First published in the Sunday Pictorial (London) October 26th 1919, and – as “The Gods of the Copybook Margins” – in Harper’s Magazine in January 1920. Has also been called “Maxims of the Market Place”. Collected in:

  • Inclusive Verse (1927)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • The Sussex Edition, Volume 35, page 241
  • The Burwash Edition, Volume 28

‘Copybook headings’ were proverbs or maxims printed at the top of 19th century British schoolboys’ copybook pages. The students had to write them by hand repeatedly down the page. The poem is built around a series of sayings that would have been familiar to his British and American readers in 1919.

Some critical comments

J M S Tompkins (p. 197) defines “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” as ‘the unescapable (sic) conditions inherent in human nature, witnessed by history, ignored at our peril.’

Andrew Lycett (p.641) calls the poem Kipling’s: ‘…paean to old-fashioned common sense … Essentially, this was Rudyard’s latest battle-tested gloss on long-held beliefs such as the nobility of repetitive work … a stubborn instinctive plea for traditional nous’. (p.661) He also notes that Kipling uses the phrase elsewhere: As the Lodge doctor in “In the Interests of the Brethren” chirpily declares: “Marvellous how these old copybook headings persist.”

Peter Keating (p. 220) discusses the poem at length:

That Kipling was not consciously abandoning the more public side of his poetry in the years immediately following the war, is demonstrated most strikingly by the publication of “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” in the Sunday Pictorial , 26 October 1919.

The style of the poem was similar to that used before by Kipling in “The Conundrum of the Workshops” and “In the Neolithic Age”. It combined a bouncy, striding rhythm; an apparent jumble of cliches, arcane geological terms, and Biblical allusions; some flashes of surrealistic nonsense; and a clear moral.

Against the fundamental, unchanging values of life – the “Copybook Headings” which a child was expected to imbibe while learning to write – Kipling sets the transient, fashionable “Gods of the Market-Place”, which can be taken to refer to both trendy attitudes and the public figures associated with them.

Kipling argues that throughout the ages mankind has always been jostled between wisdom and foolishness. The references to past periods of time appear to reinforce the air of an historical survey, but the geological terms are fake, and Kipling’s concern is not with the past, but with post-war Britain. In the final two stanzas of the poem, the knockabout satire is replaced by a sterner prophetic tone:

As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!

There is no sign of an exhausted imagination in “The Gods of the Copybook Headings”. For the moment Kipling was clearly back on form, his moral and political indignation sharply alert and given lastingly memorable expression.

Since we srarted logging the numbers of readers viewing individual poems, in 2021, this has been xonsistently among the most popular. [J.r.]

See also Wikipedia on the poem.

Notes on the text

[Verse 1]

my incarnations: Kipling’s poem “In the Neolithic Age” features personal reincarnation – in ‘whiter, weaker flesh and bone more frail.’ In “The Finest Story in the World” from Many Inventions, the protagonist remembers two previous lives.

[Verse 2]

living in trees: Kipling starts his story with the first human ancestors.

Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind: The capitals emphasize the trendy empty terms used by the Gods of the Market-Place

[Verse 3]

listed: archaic word for ‘wished’ or ‘desired’.

word would come That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield: When the Gods of the Copybook Headings are ignored, retribution follows, whether among savage tribes or in the heart of civilisation

[Verse 4]

Stilton … Dutch: There’s an old saying that the Moon is made of green cheese. Stilton is a high-class English cheese, and there are many Dutch cheeses.

Wishes were Horses: ‘If wishes were horses, beggars would ride’.

a Pig had Wings: ‘If a pig had wings it would fly’. Both these traditional sayings pour scorn on wishful thinking.

[Verse 5]

Cambrian: a real geological period. Here, as Keating points out, it stands for the Welshman Lloyd George, who was Prime Minister for much of the Great War. (Cambria is the Latin name for Wales). Lloyd George was the chief British negotiator for the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 which officially ended the War. This disarmed Germany but pledged all the Great Powers to disarm themselves progressively. Kipling strongly disapproved of Lloyd George, the Liberals, and the Treaty.

Daniel Hadas adds: that bthe Worsworth Edition notes that the poem groups of kinds of rocks lying below the Silurian, the oldest palaeozoic rocks”. This sense of “measures” is confirmed by OED, ‘measure, n.’, 13: In his reference to Lloyd George   Kipling is then giving “measures” a double meaning, both geological and in reference to the disarmament measures set out in the Treaty of Versailles. ]D.H.]

‘Stick to the Devil you know.’:  The usual form of this saying is ‘better the Devil you know than the one you don’t.’ Here it means that being prepared for war is better than being disarmed and defenceless.

[Verse 6]

Feminian: a made-up term that sounds suitably geological. It refers to the emancipation of women, a lively issue at the time.

‘The Wages of Sin is Death.’: see Paul’s Epistle to the Romans 6,23.

[Verse 7]

Carboniferous: another genuine geological period, in which coal measures were formed. Here it stands for the increasing power of trade unions, particularly the coal-miners.

“robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul”: ‘Robbing Peter to pay Paul’ is a traditional phrase, usually meaning borrowing money to pay off debt. Here it means taxing the productive part of the population to support the idle.

“If you don’t work you die.”: St. Paul wrote ‘If any would not work, neither should he eat.’ (See Paul’s Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, 3,10) The harsher version seems to be Kipling’s own. He used it earlier in “Sestina of the Tramp-Royal” (verse 4 line 4) ‘For ‘im that doth not work must surely die.’

[Verse 8]

“All is not Gold that Glitters”: a common misquotation. ‘All that glisters is not gold.’ Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice Act II Sc 6

[Verse 9]

“the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,”: See 2 Peter 2.22: ‘But it happened unto them according to the true proverb, the dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed, to her own wallowing in the mire.’

“the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire.”: There is a proverb ‘The burnt child fears the fire.’ Only a Fool gets burnt and does not learn by the experience.

wabbling: more usually spelt ‘wobbling’.

[Verse 9]

brave new world: See Shakespeare’s The Tempest [Act V. scene 1 line 183] ‘O brave new world, that has such creatures in’t.’

all men are paid for existing: referring back to verse 7.

no man must pay for his sins: referring back to verse 6


© Philip Holberton 2014 All rights reserved