Musty old books filled the back shelves in a dark hallway by my little brother’s room in the little house I grew up in, books treasured by my parents from their college years and childhoods. I read through them. My mom treasured books on history and philosophy so I was introduced into Plato’s Republic, Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit, and a vast collection of Ayn Rand before my mind could really sort them out. These tomes gave me a healthy respect for liberty and Hell. 

My father kept his favorite books of childhood which was a great relief to me.  These books allowed me to move off this world and dream among the stars of the galaxy and the wild seas of days long past. I found alien lands by way of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. As a young child, I especially loved Kipling and his stories of the jungle and animals. 

In an earlier post, Unfinished, I wrote of one of the first stories I wrote of a lynx that wished to be an African lion. No doubt this story was influenced by Kipling and his jungle of frightening and wonderful beasts, living free and wild.

Mowgli giving his freedom to join the world of man broke my heart because I knew instinctively that something about the world of humanity was not quite right. I recognized that the monkey, King Louis, only wanted the world of man for power as humans seemed to rule over everything. And that this want of power was an ugly thing which disrupted the beauty of the natural world.  As a child, I longed for the free world of nature and the jungle. As an adult, I fear that world of wild beasts, having become too comfortable in my cushioned cage.

As the years of my youth dwindled, I found myself revisiting that dark back shelf of tomes in search of information to wield against my teachers in the torment of adolescence and high school. A common assignment in my secondary education was to pick a poem and analyze it for this or that literature class. I had been trounced on by my teacher and given poor marks when I put forth Bruce Springsteen’s Jungle Land as a great example of contemporary poetry. 

Some months after that travesty, I ventured back to that trove of worn books and pulled a book of poetry from the shelf so that I could be sure that my teacher would not dismiss me out of hand for the new assignment. I thumbed through this book of Modern Poetry (late 1800s – early 1900s) I found among my mother’s college texts. I found the usual poems of renowned, the safe verses of Tennyson and T.S. Eliot and dismissed them as entirely too common, too accepted, and having nothing to say to me at all in the world of the 1980s. We were all taught those verses.  

I wanted to present Bob Dylan’s Positively 4th Street as poetry (who knew he would win the Nobel Prize for literature years later? Not my English teacher. That’s who. Yes, it is decades later and I am still mad about that one grade on my brilliant analysis of Springsteen’s great song). 

Dylan and Springsteen had way more to say to me and my experience of the world, one of alienation and non-conformity, than Tennyson or Eliot ever could despite the great popularity of the musical, Cats at the time. I felt despair. I did not hate Tennyson or Eliot. Their verse was pretty and sometimes quite sing-able as Andrew Lloyd Weber proved. My mother suggested The Charge of the Light Brigade, but I disqualified that as having been gone over in grotesque detail in class. I needed something different, that was not discussed in every reputable literature class in the English-speaking world.  

I put the classic volume of poetry back on the shelf and found hiding, squished behind Plato’s Republic and Homer’s The Odyssey, a brown-leafed book of poems and essays that included a poem by Rudyard Kipling, the beloved author from my early childhood. I seized upon this and took it to my room so that I could write a paper that my English teacher would approve.

The Gods of the Copybook Headings by Rudyard Kipling

I did not need Google or Wikipedia to help me which was probably good because if they had existed in that time, they would have simply censored me or misled me. That is a whole other blog post. Anyhow, I had no computer reference. I had to figure things out for myself. 

 I understood what a Copybook was from the poem’s text. I had done my share of lines over the years. For those who might not be familiar with copybooks or doing lines, a copybook would be a notepad in which a student would be made to write the same sentence over and over again so that they might learn a lesson. It was a punishment for some transgression. 

In third grade, I was compelled to write the following one hundred times. There were no computers. No copy and paste. Just a pencil and notebook paper provided by my tormenter (nun/teacher).

I will not punch Garvin Ackock in the nose no matter how much of a jerk he might be.”

All right, I was supposed to write “A lady does not use violence to express her anger”. Well, that was total bullshit so I wrote the first thing. Garvin was a 5th grader who liked stealing my bus money and pulling up my uniform skirt from behind in hopes of seeing my underwear. (I always wore gym shorts under my uniform for just this reason). He needed punching. I stand by that to this day.  I found those precious lines in the same trunk with my first story from the above-mentioned blog post. 

I spent a week of detentions at lunch in the principal’s office for a week for that transgression, writing other lines which I did not keep. I never did defy Sister Mary Margaret. The principal of my Catholic school, stern of face, and constant in her temper, was way too scary. The other nuns were less, petty, and mean. Sister Mary Margaret was that perfect blend of authority and compassion that demands respect, even from hapless rebels like me. So, yes, I knew what Kipling meant by “Copybook” and what those gods might have to say about such lines. 

Only, in Kipling’s poem, the lessons were the obvious ones, the ones only the very stupid forget and disobey. These gods told us that water wets and fire burns. They implored us to “stick to the devil you know”, warned us that the “wages of sin is death” and that “if you don’t work, you die”. 

I was awarded with a decent mark, but my teacher disagreed with me on my interpretation. I did not care. My interpretation was mine, not hers. The poem became an echo in my soul, a dread that something dire was turning and these Copybook Gods would return. The poem warned us

“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! “

Here we are. Vile crimes committed by the powerful and politically connected are excused or ignored, and we demand to be paid for simply existing. We have been delivered bound into the hands of our enemies.  And my, how Gods of the Copybook Headings have returned to us, leaving us nowhere to hide. If we are to avoid the total collapse of our society, we must yield to these ancient gods of natural law as I once yielded my rebellion to Sister Mary Margaret in her uncomfortable duty of keeping peace in a jungle of wild children.

The Gods of the Copy Book 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 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! 

2 thoughts

  1. I haven’t heard of that poem before, but I can understand why you grabbed it when you found it. And I think we’ve all had a teaacher like that (my senior English teacher failed me BEFORE ever oral presentation I gave because she said I spoke too fast).

    Like

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