Critical Essay on “If”
Rudyard Kipling was the most beloved writer of his time, and his most famous work was the poem “If,” a four-stanza poem that first appeared in his children’s collection Rewards and Fairies. “If” gained instantaneous popularity as an independent piece, a popularity that persists to this day. The poem is a rather inspirational instruction in the achievement of idealized ethical and moral behavior.
Kipling himself was a confirmed agnostic throughout his life. However, upon careful examination, the poem “If” reveals a deep influence of religious ethics upon the worldview that Kipling puts forth in this poem. In particular, “If” illustrates the influence of both Protestant Christian and of Buddhist philosophies in a quest toward an ideal life.
Kipling himself was often a vocal critic of Christian institutions, particularly of the doctrines related to salvation and human sinfulness, and especially of Christian missionary work. As a child, Kipling did not grow up in a particularly religious household, and although his parents were not churchgoing Methodists, both his paternal and maternal grandfathers had been Methodist preachers. However, despite the relative lack of traditional Christianity in Kipling’s life, Kipling’s own work nevertheless bears a marked influence from the tenets and the literature of Christianity. Angus Wilson writes in his biography of Kipling, The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling:
The gospel of work (one of [Methodist founder] John Wesley’s ever-reiterated themes), a hatred of frivolity, earnestness about life’s purpose . . . these [Kipling] inherited from his ancestors. And the language of the Bible in which to clothe [his work]; especially the Psalms, Proverbs, . . . didactic poetry, in fact. This is the superficial inheritance of Kipling from his Wesleyan grandfathers.
Two of the tenets of Protestant Christianity mentioned here—the Protestant work ethic and the influence of Biblical verse—are specifically evident in Kipling’s poem “If.” Indeed, the style of the poem “If” is reminiscent of the Proverbs of the Bible. Take, for example, the first few lines of Proverb 12:
Whoever loves disciplines love knowledge
But he who hates reproof is stupid.
A good man obtains favor from the Lord,
But a man of evil devices he condemns.
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Idealistic and Bitter Tone in "If"
Kipling’s “If” has become his most popular and anthologized poem. Since its publication in 1909, many readers have professed the poem’s set of rules to be inspirational and motivational in their focus on personal integrity and moral behavior and consider it to offer excellent advice to younger generations. Lines from the poem appear over the player’s entrance to the center court at Wimbledon, a reflection of its timeless appeal. As James Harrison notes in his study of Kipling’s works, “as a compendium of moral maxims, it may well still be being discovered by new readers as a kind of secular decalogue.” Yet, not all readers have praised the poem. Harrison writes that some will find that it reduces “a minefield of moral complexities to a series of simplistic equations.” He considers the poem’s chief value to be as a “period piece—as a nostalgic sampler, in fact, from an age when a combination of willpower and firm moral direction could be seen as the solution.” The poem is, in fact, an apt reflection of the period in which it was written as well as of the personal attitudes of its author toward that period. As such, it becomes a fascinating juxtaposition of idealism and bitterness.
Kipling included “If” in his collection Rewards and Fairies (1909). He placed it next to his short story “Brother Square-Toes,” which champions George Washington’s courage and leadership strengths. Kipling’s...
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