It’s Poetry Day, and today’s featured poem is “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” by Rudyard Kipling. I’ve posted this poem at least twice before, most recently just two years ago. However, it’s worth revisiting for two reasons: (1) This is its centennial — it was written in 1919 — and (2) the dénouement outlined in the final two stanzas is that much closer to becoming a grim reality.
It’s a remarkable work. It was written at the dawn of the Socialist Age, after the Bolshevik Revolution but before the height of the Red Terror. The welfare states of the West were in their earliest phase, as were the Culture Wars, as exemplified by the emancipation of women. The poet refers to the confluence of these trends as the “brave new world” — more than a decade before Aldous Huxley borrowed the phrase from Shakespeare (The Tempest, Act V, Scene 1) as the title of his novel.
As we look back on “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” a century later, Mr. Kipling seems to have had an uncanny sense of the shape of things to come (to borrow a title from H.G. Wells, one of the renowned Progressives of his time).
Normally I don’t explain poetry, but a hundred years have passed since it was written, so a little context is in order. The underlying social fabric is that of the Edwardian era, which still ruled the British zeitgeist immediately after the Great War, even though George V was by then on the throne. The great changes that lay ahead in the twenties had already been mapped out by the fashionable intellectual preoccupations of the early 20th century.
A “copybook heading” was an inspirational adage or quote from literature that was written at the top of the page of a schoolboy’s notebook. He would be required to copy it repeatedly in order to improve both his penmanship and his character.
The Gods of the Copybook Headings are here contrasted with the Gods of the Market-Place. Rather than the modern economic meaning of the latter term, think of the agora — the central public space in a city-state where commerce, culture, ideas, and personalities meet and mix. The Gods of the Market-Place were thus the gods of fashions and fads, as opposed to the timeless wisdom and common sense of the Gods of the Copybook Headings.
Three specific fashionable trends are laid out in successive stanzas in the middle of the poem. The first is the disarmament movement, which was just getting up a head of steam after the end of the war. Pacifism became a major political force later on in the twenties and thirties, so much so that it inhibited British rearmament, and thus allowed Adolf Hitler to act out his ambitions more forthrightly than he might otherwise have been able to do.
The second trend was “Free Love”, which was intertwined with the early feminist movement. Sexual freedom was considered a major factor in the liberation of women from the shackles of tradition. The Bloomsbury Group and the Fabians were rife with libertinism, H.G. Wells being a notable example. The fashionable sexual ideas that developed among intellectuals in the Edwardian period spread throughout the culture in the ensuing decades.
The third trend was redistributive socialist governance. Modern socialism was in its infancy in 1919, but the Fabians once again had mapped out the process in advance. As the Labour Party took form in the 1920s, the Fabians and other upper-middle-class socialists looked to the Soviet Union for inspiration.
All of this was just getting started when Mr. Kipling wove it into his poem in 1919. And everything has unfolded as he described in the hundred years since. The same foolishness that was fashionable in 1919 is still fashionable in 2019 — only in a much more deranged and nihilistic form. The burned fool’s bandaged finger just keeps wobbling back to that fire, over and over again.
Rudyard Kipling did not include in his poem what has become the major accelerant of the collapse of Western Civilization: mass immigration from the Third World. But it may be implicit the lines “when we disarmed They sold us / and delivered us bound to our foe”. In this post-modern world we live in a hundred years later, our foe is being delivered to us in our bound and helpless state.
And now for the poem: