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A Short Analysis of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If—’

A summary of a much-loved poem

Since Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If—’ was first published in Kipling’s volume of short stories and poems, Rewards and Fairies, in 1910, it has become one of Kipling’s best-known poems, and was even voted the UK’s favourite poem of all time in a poll of 1995. Why is ‘If—’ so highly regarded? And what is the curious story behind the poem? Closer analysis of the poem reveals an intriguing back-story and some surprising stylistic effects.

If—

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!

According to Kipling in his autobiography, Something of Myself (1937), the origins of ‘If—’ lie in the failed Jameson raid of 1895-6, when the British colonial statesman Leander Starr Jameson led a raid against the South African (Boer) Republic over the New Year weekend. Jameson intended to rouse the British expatriates living in the Transvaal to rise up against the Boer government, but his fellow Brits showed no inclination to revolt. Instead, Jameson’s bungled military action helped to create the climate that would lead to the Second Boer War a few years later. Kipling knew Jameson, and recorded in Something of Myself: ‘Among the verses in Rewards was one set called “If” … They were drawn from Jameson’s character, and contained counsels of perfection most easy to give.’ However, it would be easy to overstate the role that the Jameson raid had on ‘If—’, and it would appear that Kipling’s (posthumously published) memoir is the first time that this link is mentioned. The poem’s final words, ‘you’ll be a man, my son’, suggest that the poem is addressed to Kipling’s actual son, and ‘If—’ should first and foremost be interpreted as a poem addressed to a younger man, listing the necessary characteristics a man should acquire or cultivate in order to be a paragon of manly virtue.

And what are those virtues? Stoicism looms large in Kipling’s poem – that is, the acknowledgment that, whilst you cannot always prevent bad things from happening to you, you can deal with them in a good way. This is summed up well in the referencing to meeting with triumph and disaster and ‘treat[ing] those two impostors just the same’ – in other words, be magnanimous in victory and success (don’t gloat or crow about it) and be dignified and noble in defeat or times of trouble (don’t moan or throw your toys out of the pram). A phrase that is often used in discussion or analysis of ‘If—’ is ‘stiff upper lip’, that shorthand for the typically English quality of reserve and stoicism in the face of disaster.

‘If—’ is a classic example of anaphora in English poetry: that is, the repetition of the same word or words at the beginning of successive clauses – in this case, of course, ‘If’. But the syntactical balance in the poem is also noteworthy: one idea is introduced in the ‘if’ clause, and then a further clause turns that idea or trope on its head. For instance, consider these two lines from the second stanza, where dreams and thoughts/thinking are discussed:

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

This structure is found throughout ‘If—’, and gives the poem an almost chant-like quality. (The accusation may be made that there is something too regular about such a form, and this may have been one reason why T. S. Eliot, otherwise a fan of Kipling’s poetry, called ‘If—’ good verse but not good poetry.) In short, the power of ‘If—’ lies not solely in its ‘ifs …’ but its ‘ifs … but withouts …’. This rhythmical structure to Kipling’s poem reinforces the stoical attitude to living which it advocates: it’s okay to dream, to think big, but don’t expect your dreams always to come true, and be realistic in your goals. It’s like a self-help book in verse, offering practical common-sense advice.

This iconic poem is expressed plainly enough so that close textual analysis is by no means necessary to understand it – but the syntactical and rhetorical rhythms and patterns Kipling sets up are worthy of commentary. But the poem appeals even to those not in the business of literary criticism or analysis. It’s almost a code to live by, a mantra – or, as one poet suggested, a distillation of the Bhagavad Gita into English. An extract from ‘If—’ is inscribed above the tennis players’ entrance at Wimbledon.

Image: Rudyard Kipling in 1899 by Philip Burne-Jones; Wikimedia Commons.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on April 20, 2017, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. One of my very favourites.

  2. A wonderful analysis of a noble poem.

  3. Interesting. One of my favorites and still relevant today. :)

  4. I have a poor ear for poetry, but this has always been one that’s struck me to my core.

  5. I love this poem and this is a wonderful post about it.

  6. Nice little essay. I have a particular fondness for “If,” which kept my mother warm (metaphorically speaking) during three years of Nazi prison. She was taught the poem in English by her father, a Frenchman.

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