by Rudyard Kipling
“If—” is a poem by English Nobel laureate Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936), written circa 1895 as a tribute to Leander Starr Jameson. It is a literary example of Victorian-erastoicism. The poem, first published in Rewards and Fairies (1910), ch. ‘Brother Square-Toes,’ is written in the form of paternal advice to the poet’s son, John.
If— is a poem written throughout in iambic pentameter, comprised of four stanzas, each with eight lines. The rhyme scheme for the first stanza is aaaabcbc, whereas the rhyme scheme for stanzas two, three, and four is ababcdcd. The entire poem is one long sentence.
Thematically, the poem tackles the topics of success and adversity in various scenarios in life. It does so in a dramatic “if/then” form. Most of the poem presents various “if” scenarios. Kipling’s “Ifs” are not far-fetched scenarios. They are a list of potential trials that all people face at one point or another in their lives. We do not reach the “then” until line 31 – wherein Kipling does not actually use “then” directly but he does present the Reader with the result of his ifs.
If you can:
- Stay level-headed – even when others do not – even when they blame you for turmoil
- Trust yourself without losing the ability to hear the opinions of others who disagree
- Be patient – without tiring of if being patient
- Be lied about without becoming a liar in return
- Be hated without becoming one who hates
- Do all of the above without thinking too much of yourself
If you can:
- Dream but do not become a daydreamer
- Think but not get lost in thought
- Recognize that neither Triumph nor Disaster are end points and always be prepared to move on from both
- Deal with those who twist your words for their own ends
- Watch your work be broken and be prepared to start over
If you can:
- Take big chances, lose, and start again without complaining
- Endure trials even when they feel impossible
If you can:
- Talk with common people without lowering your morals to meet the crowd
- Talk with Kings without losing the ability to talk with common people
- Not be hurt by anyone
- Care about humanity, but not too much
- Avoid wasting time
- You will have everything.
- You will be a man.
I suspect that this poem means that by Kipling’s measure there are very few men in the world. Perhaps he is correct.
In Kipling’s book, Something of Myself, he writes that If— was inspired by Leander Starr Jameson.
Who is Rudyard Kipling?
Joseph Rudyard Kipling (/ˈrʌdjərd/ RUD-yərd; 30 December 1865 – 18 January 1936) was an English journalist, short-story writer, poet, and novelist. He was born in India, which inspired much of his work.
Kipling’s works of fiction include The Jungle Book (1894), Kim (1901), and many short stories, including “The Man Who Would Be King” (1888). His poems include “Mandalay” (1890), “Gunga Din” (1890), “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” (1919), “The White Man’s Burden” (1899), and “If—” (1910). He is seen as an innovator in the art of the short story. His children’s books are classics; one critic noted “a versatile and luminous narrative gift.”
Kipling in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was among the United Kingdom’s most popular writers. Henry James said “Kipling strikes me personally as the most complete man of genius, as distinct from fine intelligence, that I have ever known.” In 1907, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, as the first English-language writer to receive the prize, and at 41, its youngest recipient to date. He was also sounded out for the British Poet Laureateship and several times for a knighthood, but declined both. Following his death in 1936, his ashes were interred at Poets’ Corner, part of the South Transept of Westminster Abbey.
Kipling’s subsequent reputation has changed with the political and social climate of the age. The contrasting views of him continued for much of the 20th century. Literary critic Douglas Kerr wrote: “[Kipling] is still an author who can inspire passionate disagreement and his place in literary and cultural history is far from settled. But as the age of the European empires recedes, he is recognised as an incomparable, if controversial, interpreter of how empire was experienced. That, and an increasing recognition of his extraordinary narrative gifts, make him a force to be reckoned with.”
This is one of my favorite poems to hear read aloud.