The Gods of the Copybook Headings: Revisiting Rudyard Kipling

Sitting on my desk is a 776-page volume of poetry that will in 2021 become a hoary centenarian. Embossed in gold on the cover is a swastika, a Hindu symbol of the sun, prosperity, and good luck, once a popular icon even in the West until it was stolen and corrupted by the Nazis.

In 1907, the man who composed these verses won the Noble Prize for Literature at the remarkably young age of 41. He also wrote hundreds of short stories and several novels. Many of these were made into films in the 20th century, among which were “The Jungle Book,” “Kim,” “Gunga Din,” “Wee Willie Winkie,” “Captains Courageous,” “Soldiers Three,” and “The Man Who Would Be King.” (Reader, if you haven’t seen this last film, starring Sean Connery, Michael Caine, and Christopher Plummer, treat yourself to a great movie this winter.)

Sean Connery (L) and Michael Caine in “The Man Who Would Be King.” (Columbia Pictures)

Meanwhile, this same man has all but disappeared from some textbooks and classrooms. Turn to the index of the sixth edition of “Literature” by X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia, and in these 1,859 pages you’ll find no mention of this English writer. Examine the teacher’s text for “Prentice Hall Literature: The English Tradition” (second edition) with its 1,461 pages of poems, plays, and stories from England, and you’ll find just one of his poems.

Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936) fails to meet our standards of political correctness.

A photographic portrait of Rudyard Kipling as a postcard, by Bourne & Shepherd. Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University. (Public Domain)

Orwell and Kipling

George Orwell, circa 1940. (Cassowary Colorizations/CC-by-2.0)

Critics long ago attacked Kipling for his belief in the British Empire, his jingoism, and some of his works like the poem “The White Man’s Burden.” In a review of Kipling’s poetry, George Orwell says of Kipling: “During five literary generations every enlightened person has despised him” and “Kipling is imperialist, he is morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting.”

In this same essay, and unlike many who condemned Kipling then and continue to do so now, Orwell conducts a long investigation into why Kipling’s poetry was so popular. Unlike those who sneered at Kipling, Orwell writes a passage about him that deserves quoting at length:

He does possess one thing which ‘enlightened’ people seldom or never possess, and that is a sense of responsibility. The middle-class Left hate him for this quite as much as for his cruelty and vulgarity. All left-wing parties in the highly industrialized countries are at bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy. They have internationalist aims, and at the same time they struggle to keep up a standard of life with which those aims are incompatible. We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and those of us who are ‘enlightened’ all maintain that those coolies ought to be set free; but our standard of living, and hence our ‘enlightenment,’ demands that the robbery shall continue. A humanitarian is always a hypocrite, and Kipling’s understanding of this is perhaps the central secret of his power to create telling phrases. It would be difficult to hit off the one-eyed pacifism of the English in fewer words than in the phrase, ‘making mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep.’

Storm Warnings

If we approach Kipling in this same nuanced manner, we too may discover lessons worth learning from him.

His story “The Man Who Would Be King,” in which two ex-soldiers try to found a kingdom in Kafiristan, today a province in Afghanistan, leaves one of the “kings” dead and the other blind and broken in health. Here is a warning we might heed regarding intervention: It’s dangerous to meddle in cultures and lands unfamiliar to us.

Kipling repeats this admonition in other poems and stories. In “The Naulahka,” for instance, he writes of India:

Now it is not good for the Christian’s health to hustle the Aryan
For the Christian riles, and the Aryan smiles and he weareth the
Christian down;
And the end of the fight is a tombstone white with the name of
the late deceased,
And the epitaph drear: “A Fool lies here who tried to hustle the

Holding Up a Mirror to Us

Kipling attended Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee festivities and then wrote a poem about it. “Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee Service, 22 June 1897” by Andrew Carrick Gow. Guildhall Art Gallery. (Public Domain)

Despite his patriotism, Kipling was quick to criticize the English for what he deemed their faults and failures. In 1897, for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, Kipling observed the celebrations and parades, and then wrote “Recessional” as an afterword and a warning. Here, the accused imperialist warns against boasting and jingoism, reminding his audience that misplaced faith in might and power will bring ruin:

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word—
Thy Mercy on thy People, Lord.

Just as pertinent to our own time is “The Gods of the Copybook Headings.” Copybook headings were maxims at the top of a page, which schoolchildren then copied out below to practice their handwriting.

A page from a 19th-century copybook, in which the printed headings have been copied. The homily is paraphrased from a 17th-century sermon of Isaac Barrow, “Against Detraction.” (Public Domain)

Here, Kipling contrasts the Gods of the Copybook Headings with the Gods of the Market Place. The former represent wisdom and ancient truths, and the latter are “smooth-tongued wizards” who promise such things as “abundance for all” and “perpetual peace.” Here are the last two stanzas:

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!

Things as They Are

There are other reasons to explore Rudyard Kipling’s work: his rollicking verse, creativity in language, and brilliantly drawn characters. As James Mustich says in “1,000 Books to Read Before You Die,” “It is impossible to read a page of Kipling without being startled by a phrase or sentence that is animated with the spring of speech rhythms but starched with a unique confidence and poetic poise.”

At the end of his poem “When Earth’s Last Picture Is Painted,” Kipling writes that after death, each of us “Shall draw the Thing as he sees It for the God of Things as They are.”

We live in an age in which all too many of us worship the Gods of the Market Place and The God of Things as We Wish Them to Be. Rudyard Kipling reminds us that there are antidotes to these poisons.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See to follow his blog.

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