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Rudyard Kipling's "The Gods of the Copybook Headings," "Helen All Alone," and "Tomlinson"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Introduction and Text of "The Gods of the Copybook Headings"

The speaker in Rudyard Kipling's poem of social commentary, "The Gods of the Copybook Headings," declaims in a cosmic voice, similar to the cosmic voice employed by Langston Hughes in his masterpiece, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers."

The speaker in Kipling's poem demonstrates that fads and fallacies that appear in the "Market Place" and political arena come and go and, at times, wreak havoc, while the wise sayings that appear in the children's copybooks remain viable throughout time.

The Gods of the Copybook Headings

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!

Reading of Kipling's "The Gods of the Copybook Headings"


Commentary on "The Gods of the Copybook Headings"

Kipling’s poem is focusing on an important learning tool for students which also provides the best yardstick for measuring wisdom and morality.

First Stanza: Reincarnating in Every Historical Period

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.

The speaker begins with a remarkable claim that suggests he is aware of the reincarnating soul that travels immortally and eternally through space and time.

After this remarkable assertion, he broaches his important subject that the passing frivolities which become dominant in the casual society cannot stand up to time-tested wisdom—like that present in children's literature, offered to instruct.

The speaker is implying that morality does not change, despite the fads of social interaction. And society will always teach its children what it knows deep in its psyche to be the correct modes of behavior.

What jaded adults have accepted as appropriate behavior often takes on a new light when they consider passing that behavior on to the next generation.

Second Stanza: Elites Lacking Vision

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.

The wise snippets that have come down from such ancients as the Biblical writers include humankind's historical roots that run as far back as the lower primates.

Common sense told the ancients as it still tells the moderns, "That Water would certainly wet us, as Fire would certainly burn." But the supposedly sophisticated elites decided that ancient wisdom had grown musty and "lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind."

So these philosophical bits of wisdom were assigned to the copybooks that teach children how to write. They were no longer heeded as important for adult guidance. The elites preferred to heed the "March of Mankind," instead of observing spiritual wisdom from scripture and other wise sources.

Third Stanza: Wisdom and Morality Entwining

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.

As the modern intelligentsia followed its own misguided direction, those gods of the copybook remained focused and steady. The "Market Place" gods, however, continued to plunder and pillage, "caught up with our progress."

But from time to time, the rootlessness of foolhardy activity has resulted in "a tribe" being wiped out or Rome falling.

Fourth Stanza: The Stench of Moral Relativism

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.

The aphorisms and proverbs became fodder for ridicule as relativism rose to justify inappropriate behavior and thought.

As the copybook gods maintained a steady common sense perspective, the gods of the marketplace continued to offer ludicrous promises of "beautiful things"—concocting notions of the moon being made of cheese, that wishes were, in fact, horses, and that pigs could fly.

The speaker uses these outlandish sayings to emphasize the outrageous claims made by companies who exaggerate the efficacy of their products.

Fifth Stanza: Political and Commercial Delusion

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."

The gods of the political sphere turned out to be as delusive as the gods of the market place. Exaggerated efforts at appeasement for peace turned nations into enablers of dictatorial power grabbers.

Thus after a nation gives up its means of self-defense, it finds itself "sold and delivered" to their "foe." Again, the copybook provides the appropriate wisdom, "Stick to the Devil you know."

Sixth Stanza: The Failure of Modern Morality

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."

The promise of "the Fuller Life" was made during the time that the first churches and temples were being built. But that promise morphed from "loving [one's] neighbor" to "loving his wife."

And the copybook gods delivered again the proper guidance that "The Wages of Sin is Death." The transformation from wisdom had caused men to lose faith and women to refuse to continue to bear children.

Seventh Stanza: The Failure of Statism

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."

In the next era, the socialistic statist promised care from cradle to grave by taking from Peter to pay Paul. But the abundance of money did not motivate growth, while again the copybook admonished, "If you don't work you die."

As the copybook adage points out, the socialist mind-set always rears its ugly head because too many folks fail to learn the lesson of history. Instead of thinking through the false claims of power seekers, too many citizens allow themselves to blinded by the shiny objects.

Thinking that a power-hungry politician can help you pay your mortgage and put gas in your car is akin to believing the tooth fairy will leave cash under your pillow.

Eighth Stanza: Returning to Stayed Wisdom

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.

After eons of folly, mankind, even in the market place where "their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew," begins to return to stayed wisdom, to common sense, to values that work.

Even the "hearts of the meanest" begin to believe, "That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four." And yet again the copybook "limped up to explain it once more."

Again the copybook wisdom clearly explains that society has to operate according to basic moral laws or it will cease to operate at all. The existential dilemma of right and wrong do have absolutes attached regardless of the mistaken philosophical psycho drama offered by the relativism of the secular humanists.

Each human being has free will, but there is a limit to that free will, and that limit is the boundary between good will and ill will. If you fail to accept the fact that, like you, your neighbor also has free will, you will commit heinous crimes against your neighbor and against yourself.

Ninth Stanza: The Failure of Social Progressivism

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;

The speaker summarizes the human condition citing four areas where certainty exists that throughout all human history: (1) canines will come back to their "Vomit"; (2) hogs will return to their mud hole; (3) the injured will return to their place of injury. He places number four in the final stanza.

Tenth Stanza: Wisdom, the Only Security

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!

After all, the foolishness of humankind has delivered human beings into their just rewards, and they finally learn that water gets us wet, and fire burns us; thus, (4) the tenets of the copybook adages will hold sway as they return with a vengeance.

The wisdom of the copybook gods provides the permanent security that a foolhardy humankind has spurned.

Boiling itself down to good old common sense, taking life one step at a time, remaining humble and seeking self-understanding, while following the Golden Rule, the wisdom of the Copybook retains a luster that will light the behavior of humankind as long humankind walks upon the earth.

Rudyard Kipling speaking on writing and truth

Introduction and Text of "Helen All Alone"

Rudyard Kipling's "Helen All Alone" consists of four stanzas with eight rimed lines and a final stanza with nine lines. His allusion to Helen of Troy works to personify the concept of temptation.

The speaker in the Kipling's "Helen All Alone" is addressing the issue of temptation, offering a surprising conclusion to his speculation. The poem, "Tomlinson," dramatizes the spiritual concept of Karma, the principle that human beings because of and through their actions reap what they sow.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Helen All Alone

There was darkness under Heaven
For an hour’s space—
Darkness that we knew was given
Us for special grace.
Sun and moon and stars were hid,
God had left His Throne,
When Helen came to me, she did,
Helen all alone!

Side by side (because our fate
Damned us ere our birth)
We stole out of Limbo Gate
Looking for the Earth.
Hand in pulling hand amid
Fear no dreams have known,
Helen ran with me, she did,
Helen all alone!

When the Horror passing speech
Hunted us along,
Each laid hold on each, and each
Found the other strong.
In the teeth of Things forbid
And Reason overthrown,
Helen stood by me, she did,
Helen all alone!

When, at last, we heard those Fires
Dull and die away,
When, at last, our linked desires
Dragged us up to day;
When, at last, our souls were rid
Of what that Night had shown,
Helen passed from me, she did,
Helen all alone!

Let her go and find a mate,
As I will find a bride,
Knowing naught of Limbo Gate
Or Who are penned inside.
There is knowledge God forbid
More than one should own.
So Helen went from me, she did,
Oh my soul, be glad she did!
Helen all alone!

Reading of "Helen All Alone"

Commentary on "Helen All Alone"

After the speaker in the Kipling's "Helen All Alone" examines the issue of temptation, he offers a fascinating conclusion resulting from his thinking on the subject.

First Stanza: A State of Melancholy

There was darkness under Heaven
For an hour’s space—
Darkness that we knew was given
Us for special grace.
Sun and moon and stars were hid,
God had left His Throne,
When Helen came to me, she did,
Helen all alone!

The first stanza finds the speaker describing his state of the melancholy, a mental condition that causes the human mind to become stressed and then urges the person to behave against his own best interest.

The speaker names his particular temptation, "Helen," alluding to the beautiful mythological character, who is reputed to have brought on the Trojan War, after she fled from her husband Menelaus with the handsome warrior Paris.

The speaker paints a scene of darkness with "Sun and moon and stars" hidden and claims that "God has left His Throne." In darkness without the presence of God, the human heart becomes open to unwholesome desires.

In this state of mind, he is overcome by "Helen" or temptation. Each stanza's last line, which becomes a refrain, sums up Helen's relationship to the speaker, both spatially and emotionally, "Helen all alone!"

Second Stanza: Escaping Nihilism

Side by side (because our fate
Damned us ere our birth)
We stole out of Limbo Gate
Looking for the Earth.
Hand in pulling hand amid
Fear no dreams have known,
Helen ran with me, she did,
Helen all alone!

After Helen appears, the two hand in hand try to escape that forgotten land between heaven and earth. They run toward earth furiously seeking to escape their nihilistic state of existence.

They run "Hand in pulling hand amid / Fear no dreams have known." Their fate had "damned" them to be placed in Limbo even before their birth. But together they try to pull ahead of their fears "Looking for Earth" or a place where they can inhabit bodies in order to experience a sensuous existence.

Third Stanza: Determining Behavior

When the Horror passing speech
Hunted us along,
Each laid hold on each, and each
Found the other strong.
In the teeth of Things forbid
And Reason overthrown,
Helen stood by me, she did,
Helen all alone!

The two encounter "Horror passing speech" which motivates them to hold to each other. This out-of-body experience seems quite similar to in-body experience: "In the teeth of Things forbid / And Reason overthrown."

They are aware that there are some things they should not do. They also perceive that they cannot always reason or understand exactly what those things are.

Fourth Stanza: The Return of Clear Thought

When, at last, we heard those Fires
Dull and die away,
When, at last, our linked desires
Dragged us up to day;
When, at last, our souls were rid
Of what that Night had shown,
Helen passed from me, she did,
Helen all alone!

In the fourth stanza, the speaker and Helen "hear those Fires / Dull and die away." And now it is becoming daylight or clear thought is returning. And they are "rid / Of what that Night had shown." They had passed through the turbulence of temptation.

Fifth Stanza: Overcoming Temptation

Let her go and find a mate,
As I will find a bride,
Knowing naught of Limbo Gate
Or Who are penned inside.
There is knowledge God forbid
More than one should own.
So Helen went from me, she did,
Oh my soul, be glad she did!
Helen all alone!

The speaker realizes that Helen would not have been a fit mate for him nor he for her. His temptation brought on by melancholy of night has lifted as Helen has passed out of his sight. He can leave the notion of Limbo behind him and not be concerned with those remaining there, nor the temptations with which man is tormented.

The speaker avers that God had forbidden mankind certain kinds of knowledge. And he knows now that the illusion in the form of the Hellenic temptation is "More than one should own." He is lucky that he was able to overcome, for he knows that many who remain behind "Limbo Gate" have not been so lucky.

So as Helen goes from him, the speaker does not despair but instead celebrates: "So Helen went from me, she did, / Oh, my soul, be glad she did!" He realizes that he has dodged the bullet, and he breathes his well-earned sigh of relief.

Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling

Introduction and Excerpt from "Tomlinson"

Rudyard Kipling's poem, "Tomlinson," dramatizes the spiritual concept of Karma, the principle that human beings because of and through their actions reap what they sow.

This narrative poem consists of 60 rimed couplets, divided into two parts: the Tomlinson character before the gates of Heaven and then before the gates of Hell. It is noteworthy that his time spent before the gate of Heaven is much shorter (18 couplets) than before the gates of Hell (32 couplets.)

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Excerpt from "Tomlinson"

Now Tomlinson gave up the ghost at his house in Berkeley Square,
And a Spirit came to his bedside and gripped him by the hair—
A Spirit gripped him by the hair and carried him far away,
Till he heard as the roar of a rain-fed ford the roar of the Milky Way:
Till he heard the roar of the Milky Way die down and drone and cease,
And they came to the Gate within the Wall where Peter holds the keys.

To read the entire poem, please visit "Tomlinson" at the American Academy of Poets.

Reading of "Tomlinson"

Commentary on "Tomlinson"

First Movement: Accounting for His Lifetime Acts

As the character Tomlinson lay dying, the angel of death come to carry him away, and the angel is gripping the hapless dying man by his hair. Tomlinson can hear himself being swished through the Milky Way, until they arrive at the gate guarded by Peter.

Saint Peter asks Tomlinson to give account of himself as he behaved on Earth, specifically, what good he accomplished while alive.

At this command, Tomlinson "grew white as the rain-washed bone," and answers that he had a friend who was his priest and guide, who could testify to his good deeds. He is admonished that what he "strove" to do would be duly noted, but he is not still conducting his life in his own neighborhood of Berkeley Square, he is standing at "Heaven's Gate."

He is no longer under the sway of earthly life, where he can procrastinate and obfuscate. He must face his behavior and actions squarely and completely; he cannot rely on others to vouch for his behavior.

Now at his time of final judgement, Tomlinson must account for his own activities. Each individual must account for his own behavior because each individual is judged alone, not in groups or pairs. Each soul accrues its own karma.

While group karma may hover in earthly society on groups and individuals may engage in endeavors with others, each soul standing before its Original Source and Maker must take individual responsibility for its actions, thoughts, and behavior and become accountable for his own part in the activity.

This concept becomes the refrain of this drama.

Second Movement: But What Did You Do?

So Tomlinson then begins to make the effort to speak for his good activities. He sets forth by reporting that he "read in a book" and then thought about what was said about "a Prince in Muscovy."

And Saint Peter mockingly accosts him for continuing to state what he has read and what he has thought, but the saint wants to know what he has done.

Peter wants to know what Tomlinson has actually accomplished; the saint continues to admonish Tomlinson that he is not interested in what the man has read, what he has thought, or what he thinks about what others have thought or done. So Tomlinson then reports on what he has felt, what he has guessed, and what he has heard other men say.

Again, Peter bitterly mocks this lame response and adds that the ticket through the gates of Heaven cannot be the mere mouthing of words others have spoken, even if they are of the priestly class.

The deeds of others cannot propel one through that gate. Thus Saint Peter sends Tomlinson to "the Lord of Wrong" because he can find no reason to admit Tomlinson through the gates of Heaven.

Third Movement: Only You Can Do Your Own Duty

As he did before at the gates of Heaven, Tomlinson blurts out that his former love interest would be able to swear to his cruel nature while in body. Once again, Tomlinson is met with the same response he received from Saint Peter: You have to answer for your own sins, you cannot palm them off on others to answer for you.

Just as the individual will be held accountable for his good deeds, he will also have to answer for his bad deeds. The Devil's success at retrieving a full account from Tomlinson ends as unsuccessfully as Saint Peter's had.

Thus the Devil sends Tomlinson back to Earth: If the soul is not fit for Heaven, it must return to Earth to gain more strength of character. The same concept works for entry into Hell.

If the soul has not shed all of its evil tendencies and remains smeared, it also must return to the place where working out of Karma—sowing and reaping—is possible. As Tomlinson must journey back to the Earth, both Saint Peter and the Devil wish him well.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on October 22, 2019:

Thank you for your comment, lbfjrmd.

The speaker is not some vague "entity"; he is the speaker of the poem. Now, whether he is "posing" or not does not even come into play. The statement merely avers that the speaker is making a claim that suggests certain awareness.

lbfjrmd on October 22, 2019:

'The speaker begins with a remarkable claim that suggests he is aware of the reincarnating soul that travels immortally and eternally through space and time.' No he poses as such an entity.