What is the tone and mood of the poem "If—" by Rudyard Kipling?

Expert Answers

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

The famous poem "If—" by Rudyard Kipling was ostensibly written by the poet to his son John, but the tone of the poem is that of an authority figure in general instructing a person or persons under him on how to live a virtuous and honorable life.

Kipling received his inspiration for the poem from the life and actions of Leander Starr Jameson, who led a private army on a raid of Johannesburg in South Africa, then held by the Boers. The British government at first supported the raid but later, out of political expediency, condemned it. The raid failed miserably and Jameson received a prison sentence for his part in it. However, he refused to be broken by the experience and later returned to South Africa and became Prime Minster of the British Cape Colony.

The mood of the poem is inspirational. Drawing on the example of Jameson's courage, Kipling provides advice on how to overcome adversity in the face of doubts, delays, lies, losses, and exhaustion. The poet advises his son (and the other readers to whom the poem is addressed) to "keep your head," "trust yourself," wait patiently, speak the truth, begin again when you lose everything, keep striving even if your physical body wants to give up, and treat all people generously.

In conclusion, the tone of the poem is that of someone giving advice to someone younger on how to live morally. The mood of the poem is meant to inspire the reader to live life with honor and keep trying no matter what happens.

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

The tone and mood of the poem are both very serious. They reflect how Kipling felt about the British Empire and the special characteristics necessary to run it. As such, the narrator tells the young boy to whom he's addressing his remarks just how difficult life will be as an upholder of the Empire and the values on which it was built.

He's not going to pull any punches; it'll be a hard task keeping a cool head on your shoulders while so many around him are losing theirs. But in the end, it'll be worth it. Not only will the young boy have played his full part in defending the British Empire from its enemies within and without, he'll also have achieved manhood.

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

The tone of the poem is didactic. This means that it sets out to teach, to instruct. The speaker is a father advising his son how to live his life, but the lesson can apply to any reader, and indeed the poem continues to find much favour with audiences; undoubtedly it is Kipling’s best known and best loved poem.

The tone of the poem might also be called hortatory, meaning that it urges and encourages the addressee towards following a certain path, as the father aims to inculcate a whole set of morals and values in his son. Kipling employs a colloquial style for the work, and this use of everyday, conversational, easy-to-understand language has contributed to the poem's widespread and lasting appeal.

The mood of the poem is solemn and sober, calling for restraint, balance and fortitude through every aspect of life, even the greatest hardships. If the young man is able to achieve this, then, the father declares emphatically in the closing two lines:

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it;

And - which is more - you’ll be a Man, my son!

The poem, then, ends on a positive note, with a picture of ideal manhood, fully attained, and in command of life and the world. However, it is easy to miss the overall conditional tone of the poem; the young man will achieve such success only if he follows the exacting commands laid down in the poem. The ‘if’ of the title looms large; the individual state of resilience, balance and strength envisioned in this poem is by no means easy to achieve. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team