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.
A man is not established by wickedness
But the root of the righteous will never be moved.
This example from Proverbs instructs the reader in righteousness and godliness by providing specific examples of upright behavior and, for each of these examples, the consequences of their parallel corrupt behavior. The structure of “If” is quite similar to this Proverb, not only in its instruction toward righteous behavior, but in its use of parallels throughout the entire poem. In just one example, lines 3 and 4 of “If” read: “If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, / But make allowance for their doubting too.” Just as parallel behaviors are illustrated in the Proverb above, forming the basic structure of the verse, so too does Kipling use parallel structure to make his point in advising the need to be able to both ignore doubt and make allowance for doubt. This trend is continued throughout the poem: for example, Kipling parallels the virtues of righteousness and humility in the first stanza by advising, “being hated, don’t give way to hating, / And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise.”
Kipling, though he did not espouse the theological doctrines of Protestantism, was still affected by its ethical and moral precepts. One of the most pervasive of Protestant ethics in Western society is the exaltation of work and productivity as godly and as a path toward salvation, along with an equal disdain for idleness. This societal view of work was in fact instrumental in the rise of industrialization and capitalism in Western societies. As Wilson notes in the quote given above, Kipling was not immune to the effect of the Protestant work ethic. This philosophy too is an integral part of the message Kipling puts forth in “If,” which offers instruction in the virtues, actions, and behaviors that, to Kipling, are the hallmark of model leadership and the makeup of an exemplary man. The Protestant work ethic is specifically reflected in the second stanza: “If you can dream—and not make dreams your master; / If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim.” Here, Kipling recognizes the need for idealism and philosophy, but it is truly the ability to act on those thoughts and ideals that is the message of these lines. Warning against idleness is also the aim of lines 29 and 30, which read, “If you can fill the...
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