Amongst the most famous poems written in the English language is Rudyard Kipling's ever popular piece "if." It seems to have entered into the public's general consciousness in ways that other poems have not come close to. The timeless appeal of the passing down of knowledge and wisdom from father to son is immediately recognised and appreciated by an audience all too familiar with the joys and pitfalls of parenthood. The poem is touching in its sincerity and is full of humility and warmth which has been appreciated by millions since it was first written in 1895.
The power of self-confidence within the first four lines of the poem takes on an air equivalent to that of Socrates it his detachment from criticism:
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,
Here is the real measure of individuality and self-worth the power to reject bitterness in the face of other people's wrath. The overwhelming reference to "you" or "your" which is used seven times within these four lines really has the affect of breaking out of the poem and speaking to the reader directly. There is a Jesus-like forgiveness within the last line of forgiving your foes, it is a higher understanding of how the world works, it grasps at the truth of human nature and makes "allowance" at the folly of others, not for their sake, but for your own.
Patience as a virtue and the correct way to speak and feel is of interest in the next four lines:
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:
Here patience is both taken as patience with others and with the world at large. True understanding is patience, and with dealing with others in the correct manner. The negativity of "hate" and "lying" are rejected absolutely by those who would seek to view the ways of the world from an open philosophic way of thinking. At the close of the poem the narrator warns though against the error of arrogance with such self-confidence and wisdom.
It is hard to ignore the conservative message that is evident within the whole of the next stanza:
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:
Once again the words are noble enough, at the start the narrator praises dreams and longings but warns against becoming blinded with those wants. Interestingly, the knowledge of the god-like narrator warns against the personified (note the capitalisation) "Triumph and Disaster" realising both of them as "impostors," or of little importance in the grand scheme of things. The last two lines could be read somewhat as a conservative message (knowing the authors politics) with the idea of continuation and hard work in adversity, of course it is always dangerous to attach the author with the poem in such a way, though it remains positive and uplifting.
This idea is also continued within the next lines:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
The attitude of never giving up and working hard certainly could be read
as an element of the conservative methodology, however the determination
and message of striving is there for all to adhere to regardless of
political vision. It is also much more than the method of a continuation
in the face of adversity, it is about the way this is done and never
breathing "a word about your loss" shows the utmost element of
Of course the message of the poem throughout is also holding the tension
that will be finally released within the last line. The poem is
essentially and extended sentence with the object only released at the
end. Before this however there is more tension and dignity to be
wound-up within the message of the poem in the next stanza:
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;
Of importance in this section is the message of not becoming corrupted by the machinations of status, the individual not placing importance above anyone else, but showing ultimate humility. Obviously "Kings" is contrasted with "common" in order to cover all the strata of society in the same way as "foes" and "friends" is within the next line. The argument of treating a foe with the same humility as a friend and not allowing them to hurt you falls back to the self-confidence factor at the start of the poem.
In the last section of the poem the tension built-up throughout is finally released:
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!
The last line is also the realisation of the passing down of knowledge and wisdom from father to son, and it is the first time that we as readers realise that the poem is not directly addressed to them, but to a younger figure. This gives the poem an extra element of humility, and as readers we unconsciously care for this younger child and hope he prospers under such guidance, as we do ourselves.
Overall in the poem there is much truth and wisdom within these motivational words that seems tap into a core within the reader, expanding virtue and knowledge. True
words are often softly spoken and the gentleness and confidence which
meet the reader in the lines of the poem come across both reverent and
admirable. The obvious humanity which Kipling breached within the whole
poem stirs within the reader thoughts of a higher nature than the pettiness that surrounds daily life, it is just a shame that most people don't act upon the meaning carried within the Kipling's verse, for then we could truly ask "what if?"