Rudyard Kipling was a particularly fascinating figure in the literary world. A product of one of the greatest empires in history—he was born in India, the "jewel in the Crown" of the British Empire—Kipling traveled widely throughout his country's colonial holdings in Asia and Africa, and his observations informed his writings. He authored many short stories and poems during his life, and many involved the politics and geographies he witnessed during his travels.
As a child of Empire, Kipling brought to his prose a perspective seldom seen today. He experienced many of life's travails as well as its victories. The travails he experienced included the trauma of family separation when, as a child, he and his sister were sent back to England for schooling, during which time he was bullied and abused. As an adult, he experienced the loss of a beloved child, his daughter Josephine, to illness and his son John to wounds sustained in combat during the Great War. As an adult, however, Kipling walked with some of the giants of the contemporary British Establishment, including industrialist Cecil Rhodes (of Rhodes Scholar and imperialistic fame). The totality of his learned existence was perhaps best reflected in his poem "If." A manual of sorts on how to grow and mature as a male in the often emotionless world of Victorian British society, "If" was inspired by another of Kipling's friends, Dr. Leander Starr Jameson, a prominent colonial administrator. To Kipling, Jameson exhibited those uniquely virtuous British characteristics, including the proverbial "stiff upper lip," a euphemism for remaining stoic in the face of adversity.
It is in this context that one reads "If":
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
Kipling's poem is a paean to those virtues he relates in his poem, ending with the famous lines:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
"If" is about growing into manhood. It is about facing adversity and persevering. It is about enduring the inevitable obstacles one will face in life without surrendering to the worst angels of one's nature.