Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Lesser-known Rudyard

Most Englishmen have no problem in meeting with with Triumph and Disaster, and are fully aware not only that the female of the species is more deadly than the male, but also that East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet. Few realise, though, that some of Kipling's seemingly high-flown pronouncements are actually ironic or even sarcastic.

A poem he wrote in 1919 is called The Gods of the Copybook Headings. Hardly anyone nowadays has any idea what the title means; you will have to look here if you want to find out what a copybook is, and even then it is not easy to understand exactly what the sly old devil is saying. It could be that he is making a plea for common sense, but perhaps he is pouring scorn on traditional values.

One verse has given us a colourful image in its third line:

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

But there is a reason why I have been reminded of these fusty old verses. Let us, holding our noses, turn to the paranoid commentator Glenn Beck, conspiracy theorist, rabble-rouser and darling of Fox News and the loony right. He used the last two verses of the poem in a video trailer and read the entire poem except the final lines on air in his broadcast on October 7, 2010, making an attempt to explain it in terms of today's politics and his own beliefs.

If, on November 6th, one of the possibilities facing the US is realised, he will have a powerful friend: Glenn Beck is a Mormon.



Froog said...

What is the image you particularly like here, Tony - the dog and its vomit or the sow and her mire?

The latter, I confess, rang no bells with me, but the former is surely one of the better known Biblical proverbs.

I know you're not much of a one for the God stuff (me neither), but I got most of my Biblical education from Wodehouse. I'd hazard a small wager that he used that one a few times here and there.

Tony said...

It was The Dog & Vomit which caught my eye, bringing back many a happy memory of Saturday nights out with the lads.

But your biblical familiarity is deficient: all those metaphors, not just the D&V, feature in 26:11 and elsewhere in Proverbs. Bertie Wooster would very likely have been able to quote the passage in full, as I often do.

Froog said...

I never claimed any biblical familiarity; it was yours I was querying. It had seemed you were suggesting this metaphor was Kipling's own coinage.

That dog vomit line was a private code phrase between myself and my principal drinking companion in my university days, a dour Scotsman who later became known as 'The Bookseller' because he omitted to retire from a summer job in a secondhand book shop, and stayed there until it closed down twenty years later. We would compare each other's behaviour to the unsavoury canine habit as a way of counselling against attempting to rekindle a failed romance, or against repeating notorious past errors by seeking to pursue obviously unsuitable women.

John said...

Thank you for your blog which I enjoy reading.

I think that Glenn Beck reads the last lines of the poem starting around 7.24 in the youtube link that you give, or are there further lines to this poem of which I am unfamiliar?

Tony said...

Yes, John, Beck read the last two stanzas, but he read the whole poem on air later.
The complete text is at

dandd said...

Unfortunately, Romney is by far the best of that lot. Although I don't think it's what Beck intended, the line -- the dog and its vomit or the sow and her mire -- seems to reflect the radical right falling in love again with Gingrich.