If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
Rudyard Kipling’s If is a much beloved poem even today, more than a hundred years after its publication in 1910. It is a didactic poem, a flow of advice from a father to his young son – an instruction manual almost – on how to live life. Throughout the poem, Kipling, in true British fashion, preaches moderation in all things big and small. The repetition of pronouns such as ‘you’ and ‘your’ give an enhanced personal feeling to us as the readers, as if the poet is talking directly to us. It is only in the last line do we realize that it is his son whom the poet is addressing throughout the poem.
In the first stanza the poet warns of external situations which can throw off a person’s inner self confidence. He tells his son there will come a time when he will be faced with confusing and hostile situations in his life when everyone is in a panic and blame has fallen on his shoulders. At such a time the poet urges him to remain steadfast and calm. Detachment from criticism is important, so that it doesn’t hinder his mental health, but he cannot afford to disregard criticism completely. Kipling instructs his son to always make room for the unfavourable ideas of his critics as it is only by being aware of his weaknesses can he truly be strong. Going on to line 5, the poet stresses how despite being surrounded by incompetence and dishonesty, he must always remain patient and true, with the strength of character to be able to distance himself from partaking in petty feelings of hatred and resentment. But it is the last line of the first stanza which preaches the core virtue that the poet carries forward in the poem: that of humility. Despite being morally superior to those around him, he must take care never to let pride take over.
The next stanza focuses on internalized conflicts. Again we see a strict adherence to the mean in the poet’s advices: He instructs his son to dream without letting his dreams control him, to plan ahead without making his plans his only goals in life. He should possess the sense of mind to not let failure get him down or triumph lull him into a false sense of security. Both these things are ‘imposters’ and mean little in the grand scheme of things. No matter what he faces, either success or loss, his attitude should remain unchanged. This is where the poem takes a slightly darker tone as the poet describes how there will come a time where his son would have to stand by and watch all that he has worked for fall into undeserving hands, and hear the words that he himself had spoken used for nefarious purposes. The poet urges him to remain firm when such situations arise. These are things which would then be out of his control, and there would be no use fighting the inevitable corruption of all the good that he had done. Instead he should persevere and rebuild everything that he loses using worn out tools of labour.
The third stanza emphasizes the classic idea of hard work taking precedence over everything else. The poet tells his son that he should be bold enough to gamble everything he has for something he believes in, and to have the strength of character to start again from scratch in case it doesn’t work out and he loses it all, all the while maintaining his dignity and not bemoaning his loss. He must toil and work hard if he wants to make a difference even when there’s nothing left in him to give except his unbroken will which urges him to carry on.
In the last stanza the poet first describes the kind of attitude his son should have towards all the kinds of people he would meet in life: he should not forget his honesty when faced with large convincing masses of people or lose his humility when amidst important and dignified members of society. He should be a friend to all, but not let anyone get so close that they could hurt him. In all things, Kipling advises his son to be moderate; but when it comes to showing compassion when faced by a redeemed foe, the poet’s counsel to his son is to seize the time that he has and be the better man by forgiving those who have wronged him.
In the last two lines, the tension which had been building up throughout the poem is finally released. Every man’s time is limited on this world and the poet wants his son to use every single minute to its full potential and achieve as much as he can in the time that he has been granted.
The poet states that when his son has done all that he has outlined, then he would have gained everything that the world has to offer. Moreover, he would have finally grown up, and matured enough to be a Man.
The poem makes use of several literary devices, the most evident of which is repetition. The word ‘If’ is repeated throughout the poem as one by one Kipling outlines the complex actions that his son must take when faced with various situations. It creates a sort of hypnotic tension throughout the poem, like as if it was one long sentence, and thus the last line has such an impact on the reader. Other than that, there are paradoxical ideas throughout the poem: ‘trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too;’ ‘if all men count with you but none too much.’ These paradoxes serve to highlight Kipling’s message of balancing out all kinds of emotions for a rounded out moral character. Moreover, in the second stanza, we see examples of personification: Dreams are masters which can make one their slave, Triumph and Disaster are both imposters. Both are fleeting and ephemeral things; Triumph lulling the supposed victor in a false sense of security, and Disaster, threatening to uproot one’s belief in one’s own abilities and destroying self-confidence. Meanwhile ‘Will’ is the encouragement that one needs to hold on and not let go. We also see instances of words which symbolize ideas: ‘crowds’ are common people, ‘Kings’ are important people and the ‘common touch’ is the humble attitude that the poet wants his son to adopt when he encounters all these people. The last line uses the metaphorical concept of time waiting for no man as the poet instructs his son to make the most of every single ‘unforgiving minute.’
The poem is a didactic monologue set in four eight line stanzas with all of them having some internal rhythm. As is usual with such monologues though, it does not follow a definite rhyming scheme. The tone throughout the poem is that which a benevolent mentor would adopt for his protégé. The poet is experienced and learned in the ways of life and his only aim is to instruct his son in the same.
To say that If is a poem which everyone can relate to is a gross understatement which does not do the eternal and universal message that the poem preaches any justice whatsoever. All his life, Kipling wrote numerous texts, both poetry and prose, intending to inspire the minds of the youth. On reading If, one can safely say that he succeeded in doing exactly that. The poet wants to impart several virtues to his son: that of patience, honesty, fortitude of character, dignity, humility and compassion to name a few, but he does not use any of these empty words with loaded meanings. Instead he outlines scenarios and situations which his son would face in life and instructs him on how to behave when each arises. Thus his message holds more meaning than any string of words could have for it seems like it is coming from someone who has been through what he is talking about, who has practiced what he is now preaching. It is empowering, enlightening and enchanting all at once.
The poem also serves as a comment on society, a morally corrupt and degenerate one at that, from which Kipling wants his son to remain untarnished. He automatically assumes that all the world around him is a treacherous and vapid void; something which requires heavy guidance and discipline to traverse through. His son would be surrounded by those who falsely accuse him, doubt his integrity, twist his words, cheat and lie to him and decimate everything that he stands for; and it is up to his son to follow the advice of his father and wade through the decadence of such a society. This might be a touch pessimistic on Kipling’s part, especially since he wants to teach his son to not lose hope when faced with adversity. Such a negative view about the world in general can only stem from quite a hopeless place.
Aptly titled “If”, the poem basically outlines all the conditions that the son has to fulfill in order to gain the status of a ‘Man’. One might argue that Kipling’s expectations, from the viewpoint of a father, are too unrealistic and demanding. One cannot possibly fulfill everything the poem outlines, and unless his son does so he will not have become a man in his father’s eyes: quite a harsh predicament for any child. It seems that his son is destined to disappoint him no matter how hard he tries.
Several paradoxical ideas can be found throughout the poem. For instance in the first two stanzas, Kipling talks about the moral and practical way of living life. In the third stanza he contradicts his own devotion to achieving balance and insists that his son should be impetuous enough to gamble away everything he has on a throw of the dice. It might be teaching self-reliance, flexibility and adaptability in that the son believes in himself enough to take a stand; but it is also impulsive and rash, in complete contradiction to what Kipling has been preaching so far.
Coming to the virtue of humility that Kipling wants to instil in his son, another contradiction arises. The son is told to ‘talk with crowds but keep his virtue,’ to be compassionate enough to empathise with every man, but to remain aloof and detached enough to not allow anyone to cause hurt him emotionally. How can someone who should ‘not look too good nor talk too wise’ remain at the same time distinct from the ‘common man’ he is supposed to empathise with. On closer inspection one finds that for a poem which puts so much emphasis on bland humility, there is an undertone of haughtiness throughout: Kipling assumes that his son would be better than everyone around him, reflecting what he thinks of himself. He is dishing out advice from a high pedestal which he has put himself on, assuming the role of the final, definitive, totalitarian authority on how his son should live his life.
This brings to mind another contradiction: Kipling assures his son that only once he has followed the set of instructions that he has outlined, would he be mature enough to be considered a Man in his own right. But shouldn’t the basic requirement of being a man be that he should be able to make decisions for himself, to learn from his own experiences and mistakes, to stand on his own feet and evolve. The poem does not allow any space for that. By providing his son with instructions of what to do in every situation that he has ever faced with in life on a platter, Kipling is crippling his ability to think for himself and is intent on dictating his son’s life and moulding him into the perfect image of the upper-class, stiff, English, stereotypical Man.
Thus the poem’s existence itself contradicts its message.