Remember when reading poetry slow down! Way down. Poetry is meant to be read slowly, carefully. Remember too that a poet is not saying things plainly, directly. They are making their ideas sound a little more beautiful than ordinary writing (prose-sentences, paragraphs.)
“If” presents one person speaking to a boy. Picture in your mind an older person, woman, man, speaking to a younger person, maybe somebody your age, maybe somebody feeling a little down, rejected by his peers. Maybe they are sitting at a kitchen table, in front of a fireplace. They are having a ‘heart to heart’, a really sincere talk, one that the listener (the young boy and you!) will always remember, one that will comfort and give wise counsel. See that picture?
The speaker,the older person, is trying to encourage the listener to be a good person, to be brave in all kinds of situations. The speaker is offering some ideas on how to treat others and stay true to what is right and true to your convictions (beliefs).
The speaker gives many examples of tough situations that might confuse or feel threatening: “If you can keep your head when all about you( – if you can stay on track, focused, balanced. ) "When all about you /Are losing theirs" (going nuts, crazy,(don’t say this in an essay) not thinking, making poor decisions) and blaming it on you (and blaming you for their poor judgement, poor problem solving)
“If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you “– (If you can have faith in your ideas, trust what you believe to be right when being pressured to do something wrong, you will be a good man - person)
“But make allowance for their doubting too” (if you can understand where they are coming from, why they are doubting you and your ideas, beliefs, if you can empathize with them, this will make you a good man - person)
"If you can wait and not be tired by waiting" – (if you can be patient, understanding and not grow bored with being patient and understanding and tolerant, just waiting for others to maybe mature or see your point of view, you will be a good man - (person)
"Or being lied about, don't deal in lies," (when people lie about you don’t accept those lies, and don’t begin telling lies yourself as a way of defending yourself… if you can do this you will prove yourself the better person)
"Or being hated, don't give way to hating,"( don’t hate others because you believe they hate you. "Giving way" to hating is easy and wrong.)
"And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise\" (try to remain humble about what you have, not just material things, but also your intellect, your dignity, your self-esteem. Try not to show off before people who are afraid of or angry with you. Be modest so pride doesn’t get in the way of understanding.
Seeing the poem a little more clearly? Kipling establishes his pattern in Stanza One –giving a situation then giving some advice on how to respond or handle that situation: when others lie about you, don’t you lie.When others get angry – lose their heads, don’t resort to hatred. When you lose money (stanza 3) when you meet powerful people (stanza 4 “walk with kings”) and so on. He gives advice on how to handle different situations that are hard and confusing and that tempt us to be mean and immoral.
Some believe Kipling wrote this poem to his son. Regardless, it applies to any human. You could easily replace “you’ll be a Man, my son” with "You’ll be a good person.”