Rudyard Kipling’s “If” is perhaps his most famous poem. Kipling composed the poem in 1909 while living in Great Britain. It was first published in 1910 in Kipling’s collection of children’s stories, Rewards and Fairies, as a companion piece to the story “Brother Square Toes,” which is an account of George Washington and his presidency during the French Revolution. The placement of the didactic poem after “Brother Square Toes” in the collection serves to distill a specific lesson from the story for its young readers.
“If” attracted immediate nationwide attention in Britain, and it was quickly adopted as a popular anthem. In the Kipling Journal, C. E. Carrington relates Kipling’s own words of subtle displeasure regarding the unexpected rampant popularity of the poem:
Among the verses in Rewards . . . was one set called “If,” which escaped from the book, and for a while ran about the world . . . Once started, the mechanization of the age made them snowball themselves in a way that startled me . . . Twenty-seven of the Nations of the Earth translated them into their seven-and-twenty tongues, and printed them on every sort of fabric.
“If” is a didactic poem, a work meant to give instruction. In this case, “If” serves as an instruction in several specific traits of a good leader. Kipling offers this instruction not through listing specific characteristics, but by providing concrete illustrations of the complex actions a man should or should not take which would reflect these characteristics.
In modern times, “If” remains widely anthologized and is regarded as a popular classic of English literature, not necessarily for a display of artistry but for its familiarity and inspiration.