If

The ninth in my ongoing series examining the poetry of Rudyard Kipling.   The other posts in the series may be read here, here , here , herehere , here ,here and here.  By far If is the most famous poem of Kipling’s, written in 1909 in the form of advice to his only son, John (Jack) Kipling, who would die fighting bravely at Loos shortly after his eighteenth birthday in 1915.  The poem was inspired by the Jameson raid,  undertaken in 1895 by Doctor Leander Starr Jameson.  Jameson, who became a close friend of Kipling, became a British national hero by his leadership of the unsuccessful raid which attempted to start a revolt of British settlers, who outnumbered the native Boers two to one, against the Boer government of the Transvaal.  Jameson, who rose to be Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, throughout his life embodied many of the virtues praised in the poem.

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 imposters 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 breath 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!

The poem starts out by warning against panic and the inevitable finger-pointing that is a common reaction of group panic:

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;

Kipling throughout the poem intends that his son will not give in to the temptation to be no better than those around him.

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

Throughout the poem we see the advice swing to and fro:  do this, but not too excess.  Be self-confident but do not ignore well-founded doubts of others about your actions.

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

I am afraid that I fail badly on that score.  I have never been a patient waiter, at least inwardly.

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

The temptation to fight fire with fire.  Very sound advice.  Lying quickly becomes a soul-destroying habit, and hate becomes a pathetic way to live.

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

Certainly not in our own eyes.  Pride is always the deadliest of sins as Lucifer’s example demonstrates.

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;

If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;

Dreams and thoughts are essential to life, but torn away from action and purpose they lead to so many wasted lives.

If you can meet with triumph and disaster

And treat those two imposters just the same;

Indeed.  In eternity and in the judgment of history it is how we comport ourselves rather than whether we prevailed bravely or failed bravely that truly matters.  In a speech about Robert E. Lee, Benjamin Harvey Hill in 1874 justly summed up the defeated general: He was a Caesar, without his ambition; Frederick, without his tyranny; Napoleon, without his selfishness, and Washington, without his reward.

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Decent of Kipling to remind us that we are in an election year.

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build ‘em up with worn-out tools;

We are truly defeated only when we stop trying to work for and fight for what we truly believe in.

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

Now who in their right mind would be foolish enough to do that?  I suspect that here Kipling is referring to the fact that in life sometimes we must take a stand on principle and that often involves a threat to our material well-being and sometimes even more than that.

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

And never breath a word about your loss;

I would hope that I would have the courage after some great defeat to start over.  I know unfortunately that it would be far beyond me however to “never breath a word about my 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”;

As I read those lines I recall these lines about the Army of Northern Virginia by poet Stephen Vincent Benet:

Starving army,

Who, after your best was spent and your Spring lay dead,

Yet held the intolerable lines of Petersburg

With deadly courage.

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Kipling had a well founded disdain of most politicians.

Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch;

Kipling was a friend and confidant of Kings, but he refused all honors.

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;

Our own personal Judases and Peters.

If all men count with you, but none too much;

Allow neither friendship nor hatred to cause you to depart from the path of justice.  The text might also be a warning against people relying upon you to such an extent that they lose the will to accomplish tasks on their own.

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

It is often not for us to know whether our efforts at some great task will ultimately succeed or fail, but we can always make sure we have tried our very best.

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And—which is more—you’ll be a Man my son!

It is trite but still true, that even as vice, ultimately,  is its own punishment, virtue, ultimately, is its own reward.  Go here to a website dedicated to the poem.

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Published in: on February 27, 2012 at 5:30 am  Comments (4)  
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4 Comments

  1. What a great post! A group of fellow “If” enthusiasts have started a literary journal devoted to the ideals of the poem at http://www.allthingsif.org. Would you be so kind as to consider placing a link at the bottom of this post back to our site so that others who enjoy the poem may connect with us?
    Thanks for your consideration!
    Susan
    susan.bertram@allthingsif.org

  2. Done Susan!

  3. Don

    To give advice is one thing – live it in your life is another.

    may I suggest reading “IF” with My Boy Jack

    A great author yes, but more important a truly Great Man.

    Hank’s Eclectic Meanderings

  4. After the death of his son in the Irish Guards Hank, Kipling wrote a two volume history of the regiment during the Great War. His son’s name is mentioned only in an appendix along with the other fallen of the regiment. I am sure Jack would have heartily approved.


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