What is the purpose of the poem "If" by Rudyard Kipling?  

The purpose of the poem "If—" by Rudyard Kipling is to impart wisdom about how to live up to the ideals of manhood. The speaker lists a number of conditionals, saying that "if" the listener does these things, they will live a fulfilling existence. Embedded in these conditionals is a variety of values, indirectly telling the listener to maintain a balanced set of virtues.

Expert Answers

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

The purpose of the poem "If—" is to celebrate the values of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century British middle-class men. These values, referred to throughout Kipling's work, are a sort of neo-Stoicism, in which men were expected to bear hardship with courage, and to always strive towards and defend ideals, even in defense of lost causes. This was a worldview common among the middle classes in both Great Britain and the United States, whose president, Theodore Roosevelt, advocated a "strenuous life." Indeed, the poem was first published alongside an admiring account of the life of George Washington.

That these were seen as masculine virtues is underscored by the fact that the narrator in the poem is speaking to his son. To the extent that young man embodies and lives by these values, the narrator says, "you'll be a Man, my son!" Courage, perseverance, honesty, and ambition are all held up by the narrator as model behaviors for the young man, who, it is not difficult to see, represents all of the young men in Great Britain.

These virtues are military in nature, and, while the poem is often quoted today by those who claim it represents timeless ideals, it is difficult to separate "If—" from the context in which it was written. It is a paean to the rugged masculinity associated with British imperialism and a sense of Anglo-Saxon superiority that called for young men to, as Kipling wrote in another of his poems, "take up the white man's burden" by seeking out a life of valor and hardship. Still, like much of Kipling's work, there is an underlying theme of humility in the face of challenges. So "If—" is intended to promote a set of values that embodied masculinity in Anglo-American middle-class society.

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

Everything that is built needs a plan or guide.  Rudyard Kipling provided a blueprint for living a stellar life in his poem “If” written in 1895.  The astounding aspect of the poem comes from the applicability of his rules in today’s society.

The purpose of the poem

Kipling wrote the poem as if it were talking to his son.  He gives advice to help the young man to find his place in the world and to live with integrity and dignity.  The speaker talks to the person in second person.  This encourages the reader to place himself in the place of the son. If a person takes to heart Kipling’s advice, he will find himself in a happier world each day. 

The format

The poem has thirty-two lines with four stanzas.  His first stanza follows the rhyming pattern: AAAABCBC.  The three other verses use the pattern: ABABCDCD. Notice also that the poem is one long sentence with the thoughts separated by semi-colons.

The summary

1st Stanza

If you can keep your head when all about you 
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you; 

Self-control is the purpose of this verse.  Try to keep a clear head and do not become bitter when people speak against you.  Have patience in your daily life. Be honest and avoid dealing in emotions that work against you.  Do not try to look or act better than other people.

2nd Stanza

If you can meet with triumph and disaster 
And treat those two imposters just the same; 

Shakespeare said: “We are the masters of our fate…” This verse reinforces this idea.  Dream and ponder life.  However, always be in control.  Nothing should ever control you. 

There are two opposing poles in life: winning and losing [triumph and disaster]. A person must be just as graceful in losing as he is in winning.  It is playing the game to the best of your ability that is most important.

Life is not always easy.  When you have done something really well and it is broken beyond your control, you must begin again using whatever means that you can find.

3rd Stanza

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew 
To serve your turn long after they are gone, 

Sometimes it is necessary to take chances.  In your risks in life, you may lose. Start over and do not talk about it.  When you are at the end of your life and your body no longer acts as it once did, never give up the will to go on. 

4th Stanza

If you can fill the unforgiving minute 
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run - 

A person should be able to communicate with ordinary people and with kings as well.   Never forget who you are.  Do not allow outside forces to infiltrate your spirit.  Do not give yourself over to man completely.  No one needs to shoulder completely the woes of other men.  Never waste time. Fill every minute of each day with life, love, and work.  If you can do these things, the world is your oyster.  In addition, you will be a man among men.

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

The purpose of If by Rudyard Kipling is to give advice to a boy on how to be a man. He is defining what it means to be a real man, someone who doesn't blame others for mistakes, listens to both sides of an issue, takes risks and accepts losses. He is saying if you can do all these things such as "keep your head," "trust yourself," "meet with triumph and disaster," "hold on when there is nothing in you," and "talk with crowds and keep your virtue," then "you'll be a Man my son!"

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

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