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What is a detailed meaning of the poem "If"?

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aditya89 | Student, Grade 9 | eNoter

Posted August 29, 2012 at 4:22 PM via web

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What is a detailed meaning of the poem "If"?

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stolperia | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted August 29, 2012 at 5:05 PM (Answer #1)

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"If" is a statement of advice, given to a son by his father. The father, who is also the narrator of the poem, is delivering instructions to his son about how he hopes the son will live his life and conduct himself in his relationships with others. The advice is given in the form of contrasts, with the father describing a poor choice of action and then explaining the better way to act or react.

The first stanza of the poem suggests that the boy needs to be confident, patient, and honest, even if those around him are not acting the same. Even if others blame problems on him unjustly, the son is being asked to rise above those accusations he knows to be untrue. At the same time, however, the son needs to guard against acting conceited or condescending toward others.

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;

The second stanza encourages the son to develop lofty goals of his own, to share them with the world, and to not become discouraged or disillusioned if others reject his ideas. If he knows "the truth you've spoken" is valid and worthwhile, he should continue striving to bring it to reality, even if others twist or reject it.

The third stanza presents the advice as seen on the larger stage of life. The father is exaggerating the extent to which the son should carry his efforts and the potential risks in order to emphasize that "winnings" and "loss" are both temporary in the course of a lifetime. The important thing is to remain true to personal values, regardless of the actions or inactions of others.

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!"

The final stanza is the father's summary. "If" the son is able to follow this advice; if he is able to relate to all those he encounters fairly, respectfully, and equally; if he can succeed in living his life to the fullest while not taking advantage of or harming others, then the father declares the son will have achieved true fulfillment and the moral riches that follow. Not only will the son be able to have the reward of "the Earth and everything that's in it" but, most important of all in the father's opinion, "you'll be a Man, my son!"

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