Why does the poet say that triumph and disaster are two imposters in the poem "If" by Rudyard Kipling?

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Over the Wimbledon Tennis court tunnel which takes the players back to the locker room  is this phrase:

If you can meet with Triumph and disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same.

What a wonderful poem! It is one of the most beloved poems in literature, and its message is timeless. In the poem, “If,”  Rudyard Kipling gives advice to his son on how to become a man; yet his advice rings true for everyone.

This poem is labeled a didactic poem because its purpose is to teach.  In each stanza, Kipling provides guidance in some aspect of life.

The first stanza covers building self-confidence, never giving up, not judging other people too harshly, being patient, and loving not hating.

In the second stanza, the poet’s instructions include always dreaming, using his  intelligence, and ignoring fools. 

The two lines above the Wimbledon tunnel are found in stanza 2.What do the these lines mean? Triumph  signifies  winning, victory, success, and achievement.Those words are easy to live with.   However, as the adage states, Winning is not everything.  If a person does win a tennis match, the spelling bee, the beauty pageant--never boast  but show sportsmanship toward the fellow competitors.  Doing the best a person can do is winning no matter what the outcome.

On the other hand, disaster brings a different set of circumstances: tragedy, adversity, loving, misfortune, and defeat.  Not situations that anyone finds comforting.  With this idea comes losing with grace, remembering that he did the best he could do--  then there is no loser.

Kipling does personify these words.  Personification ascribes human qualities to something.  Here these two aspects of life are given the ability to be imposters.  They are pretenders because both situations  are fleeting [They do not last!] Winning is great, but it is only temporary.  Thankfully, disaster is momentary as well. Everyone wants to win,  and nobody wants to lose. It is the grace that one shows in either situation that makes these imposters ludicrous.

Remember that the  tennis players know both triumph when they  win, and disaster when they  lose.  There is only one winner and many losers. Each year, the athletes keep coming back to play the game that they love. These people know that it is not whether you lose or win, it is how you play the game.  Kipling ends his poem with this  assurance:

Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And---which is more---you'll be a Man, my son!

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