If Poem Summary

What is a summary of the poem "If" by Rudyard Kipling?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

"If" is written as if a father is talking to his son, giving his son advice on the way to behave to obtain the reputation of being an outstanding citizen of the community and the world.

The pattern used to deliver this advice, followed consistently throughout the poem, is to contrast an action or way of relating to others that would be positive with one that would lead to negative consequences. The father is providing examples of actions that are desirable, as opposed to attitudes that would not serve the son well in building constructive relationships with others.

In all cases, the father urges his son to be generous and considerate in his attitude toward others, striving to do the best he can personally without demanding the same standard of others. "If" the son can succeed in following this advice, he will attain the goal of becoming "a Man" in possession of "the Earth and everything that's in it."

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The poem "If" by Rudyard Kipling can best be seen as a celebration of late 1800s - early 1900s British masculinity and stoicism -- the idea of the "stiff upper lip."

Kipling was a passionate defender of the British Empire and the values that, to him, made it strong and morally right.  In the poem, he celebrates those values.

The values he celebrates include keeping one's head in times of trouble, winning and losing with equal grace, and being able to deal with unfair criticism from one's inferiors.

This celebration of old-time British values has made this poem one of Britain's favorites.

You can see some other answers about the theme of this poem by following the longer of the two links I've provided.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The poem is a father defining for his son the qualities of a good man.  he is setting the parameters or boundaries for his son and giving him a goal to achieve.  The poem deals with life's challenges and how to deal with them.

Stanza one deals with being confident about the decisions you make and taking responsibility for those decisions.  If others, who cannot take that responsibility for themselves react negatively, you will be patient with them and not reduce yourself to their level by telling lies or dealing in hate.  However, don't ever believe you are above anyone else.

Stanza two states that it is good to dream, but don't let the dreams control your life.  It is good to think, but don't just think and not put those thoughts into action.  You will experience success and failure in your life, but don't take either one too seriously because they are not the substance of life, they are the extremes.  If you hear things you said misused or misrepresented or things you have done destroyed, you need to be able to pick yourself up and rebuild them with everything you have left in you.

Stanza three counsels don't be afraid to take risks and possibly lose everything.  If you do lose everything, don't talk about it, just start all  over again at the beginning.  When you are tired and exhausted and your body just feels like it can't continue on, use your mind and your will to tell yourself to "Hold on" and persevere.  Push through it.

Stanza four deals with a person's reaction to others.  You need to be able to talk to large groups of people and yet not let them influence your belief in what is right, wrong, moral, or immoral. You need to be able to walk with men of power and influence and yet not forget the common man and his needs.  You need to know yourself and your beliefs so well that neither your friends nor your enemies can hurt you because you know who you are and what you stand for.  People can depend on you, but don't let others become too dependent on you.  You need to live every single minute of your life to the fullest.  If you do these things, then the world is yours, and  you will be a good man.

Posted on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In "If" by Rudyard Kipling, the poet gives directions for growing into manhood to one he calls "my son". In the first stanza calm equilibrium, trust in one's self, response to lies, hating, waiting are addressed, and he adds that looking too good and being too wise are not desirable. In the second, he talks about dreaming, thinking, meeting with good fortune and meeting with bad fortune, distortions of you words by others and the need to "stoop and build" again when all in life is broken around you.

In the third stanza, he talks about taking risks and starting again without complaining if the risk doesn't pay off and about forcing yourself to not give up and go on despite all odds by the power of your will to say "Hold on".  In the fourth, he talks about maintaining virtue and humility; about loving without being devastated by what friends or foes do; and about valuing all people but none so much that some count more than others.

The last lines of the fourth stanza are the most famous. Dustin Hoffman delivered a version of the idea in Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium (2007). The last lines admonish "my son," and all who read or hear the lines, to fill the "unforgiving" relentless march of time with "sixty seconds" worth of forward movement--of no specified sort, so walking, talking, not complaining, stooping to rebuild, thinking can all suffice to fill the sixty-seconds--with the result being unhampered fulfillment of your humanity ("Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it").

Reflecting the gender division between the public accomplishment of men and the private accomplishment consigned to women, the poet concludes that following the advice he has laid out will constitute a rite of passage into manhood. Today, of course, when the gender division between public accomplishment and private accomplishment has been subverted, we would prefrer to mentally revise the last phrase "you'll be a Man my son!"  to read "you'll be Humankind, my child."

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Rudyard Kipling's popular poem, "If," details specific traits necessary to become a good leader, a good man, and a wise person. The first stanza is concerned with the dealing of conceit and righteousness, suggesting that men "don't look too good, nor talk too wise." The second stanza warns about the realities of life, to "... not make dreams your master; / ... and not make thoughts your aim." The third stanza advises the reader about the complex decisions a man must make during his life. In the fourth stanza, Kipling discusses the importance of not losing "the common touch" with fellow man, and to fill each minute of every day with "sixty seconds' worth of distance run."

These guidelines, if followed, according to Kipling, will make you "a Man, my son!" 

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The poem seeks to identify the qualities that make a stronger human being.  While the poem speaks to all readers, it makes sense that in the closing lines, it seems like a father is speaking to a son.  If we were to take this to another application, the son has asked the father a question of what determines success or how does one shoulder the burden of responsibility.  The father answers in providing his son (and, by extension) the reader with several situations which demonstrate maturity, strength, and the ability to rise above challenges.  The situations in the poem speak for themselves:  "Keeping your head when others lose theirs,"  or "trusting yourself when all else doubt" or "meeting triumph and disaster and treating them just the same" or "fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds of distance run."  The poem uses the conditional term "if" to indicate that only when one fulfills the conditions listed can success be grasped.  The motivations featured in the poem have been used in business and other endeavors to inspire strength, intestinal fortitude, and grace under pressure; thematic elements present throughout the poem.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial