In the didactic poem "If—," the speaker gives counsel to his son about the traits of a good leader. But, rather than simply listing the traits of a good leader, the speaker provides concrete illustrations of these. To do this, the speaker presents a series of hypothetical situations and the appropriate reactions to be taken. The conjunction "if," meaning "in the event that," is used to introduce each one. An example of one of these is the following:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you
Since each of the various scenarios and appropriate reactions to them is initiated by the word "if," it is appropriate that the poem itself is titled "If—." In fact, it will be observed that the whole poem is actually one long sentence that lists "ifferisms," or aphorisms in the form of "if" statements.
Furthermore, the repeated use of "if" is an example of anaphora, a rhetorical device in which a word or group of words is repeated at the beginning of successive clauses or sentences. This technique adds not only emphasis but also unity to the various clauses. In the case of this poem, the anaphora of repeating "if" serves to unify all the parts of the poem. Since "if" repeats to unify all the parts, the title "If—" reflects the whole.