The first stanza of “If” illustrates the practice of self-confidence and expresses that, in being confident, the reader must have the courage to face unpopularity and disagreement. This stanza also, however, advises against a self-confidence that does not allow for the consideration of opposing ideas. In exhorting the reader to both ignore doubt and make allowance for doubt (lines 3 and 4), Kipling creates a paradox (the combination of mutually exclusive ideas that, while seemingly contradictory, serve to make a point in their contradiction) that is characteristic of the tone of the entire poem.
Line 5 advises patience, line 6 advises honesty, and line 7 advises fortitude of character. These three lines, along with the first four lines of the poem, share a common thread: they provide instruction in the maintenance of righteous behavior in the face of unrighteousness. However, in line 8, Kipling is quick to qualify his advice, telling the reader “yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise.” That is, in behaving righteously, a person must avoid self-righteousness.
The meter of the first stanza moves along at a set and predictable pace. If it were to be read aloud, the smooth pace of the regular meter would reflect a quietness of tone—a tone that reflects the humility Kipling seems to be advocating in the last two lines of stanza 1.
The second stanza employs variations in the meter. C. E. Carrington, in an essay on the poem for the Kipling Journal, writes of line 12 in particular: “The reader finds his voice rising with a sort of indignation to a climax at the words those two imposters. (Read this line as an iambic pentameter and you kill it dead.)” As Carrington notes, the consecutive stressed syllables here are jarring in their phrasing, serving to add heated emotion. Such a minor climax is appropriate for this stanza, which warns the reader of the impermanence of both success and failure and the potential for an individual’s thoughts and dreams, once made public, to be put to ill use by others.
The first two lines (9 and 10) of stanza 2 exhort the reader to...
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