If Themes

Themes

Manhood and Leadership

“If” was originally written as a companion piece to the children’s story “Brother Square Toes,” a story about George Washington’s presidency during the French Revolution. The story portrays the character of George Washington as a model leader and was meant to illustrate to children the virtues of an exemplary public figure. “If” was placed immediately after this story in order to distill the lessons of the story; the poem also offers a lesson in the characteristics and virtues of a model public figure or leader.

However, as evidenced in the last line of “If,” the poem is not addressed to all children but specifically to boys. The poem therefore creates a mutual inclusiveness between the attainment of true manhood and the abilities and virtues of a true leader. This inclusiveness, by its very nature, excludes women, reflecting the attitude of early twentieth century society toward women. At the time, women were not allowed to vote, hold public office, own property, or have an independent career.

Righteousness versus Self-Righteousness

The first stanza of the poem exhorts the reader to be patient, honest, and forthright, especially when faced with opposition and temptation to act in a less virtuous manner. This call to righteous behavior is qualified by the last line of the stanza, however, which advises an individual, “don’t look too good, nor talk too wise.” In other words, an individual must not appear self-righteous in his effort to emulate righteous behavior.

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(The entire section is 654 words.)