In “If—,” Rudyard Kipling provides instructions for how to live a good and honorable life.
- The poem is addressed to a young boy, and the speaker urges the boy to be confident but not cocky, to be honest and to have fortitude.
- The speaker also advises the boy to be patient, to find a balance between private ideals and public action, and to be inclusive.
- The poem concludes with the advice that, if the boy follows these instructions, he will achieve “manhood.”
The first stanza of “If” illustrates the practice of self-confidence and expresses that, in being confident, the reader must have the courage to face unpopularity and disagreement. This stanza also, however, advises against a self-confidence that does not allow for the consideration of opposing ideas. In exhorting the reader to both ignore doubt and make allowance for doubt (lines 3 and 4), Kipling creates a paradox (the combination of mutually exclusive ideas that, while seemingly contradictory, serve to make a point in their contradiction) that is characteristic of the tone of the entire poem.
Line 5 advises patience, line 6 advises honesty, and line 7 advises fortitude of character. These three lines, along with the first four lines of the poem, share a common thread: they provide instruction in the maintenance of righteous behavior in the face of unrighteousness. However, in line 8, Kipling is quick to qualify his advice, telling the reader “yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise.” That is, in behaving righteously, a person must avoid self-righteousness.
The meter of the first stanza moves along at a set and predictable pace. If it were to be read aloud, the smooth pace of the regular meter would reflect a quietness of tone—a tone that reflects the humility Kipling seems to be advocating in the last two lines of stanza 1.
The second stanza employs variations in the meter. C. E. Carrington, in an essay on the poem for the Kipling Journal, writes of line 12 in particular: “The reader finds his voice rising with a sort of indignation to a climax at the words those two imposters. (Read this line as an iambic pentameter and you kill it dead.)” As Carrington notes, the consecutive stressed syllables here are jarring in their phrasing, serving to add heated emotion. Such a minor climax is appropriate for this stanza, which warns the reader of the impermanence of both success and failure and the potential for an individual’s thoughts and dreams, once made public, to be put to ill use by others.
The first two lines (9 and 10) of stanza 2 exhort the reader to find a balance between private ideals and public action, warning against making the machinations of the mind an end in itself. In other words, to be a leader an individual must be able to put private dreams and philosophies to public action. However, as in the first stanza, Kipling creates a contradiction by warning what can happen when ideals and philosophies are brought into the public arena. As noted in line 1, private thoughts, once made public, can be “twisted” away from their original meaning. The central focus of this second stanza is to instruct the reader to act on his ideals and to warn the reader at the same time that action does not guarantee permanent success. The nature of ideals in action is concretely illustrated in lines 15 and 16 as hard, continuous labor.
The third stanza is characterized by hyperbole, or the use of exaggeration as a literary device. After establishing in the second stanza that both “Triumph” and “Disaster” are impermanent by nature, the first quatrain (four lines) of stanza 3 advises detachment from both. Kipling makes a recommendation to “make one heap of all your winnings / And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss” in order to illustrate the complete detachment with which an individual should regard both profit and loss, neither of which is permanent.
At the same time, a very sharp contrast is made to this illustration of...
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detachment in the ensuing four lines, which offer the equally strong exhortation to “Hold on!” As with earlier contradictions, this contradiction is done purposefully, a literary technique known as “paradox.” It is Kipling’s point not that fine leadership asks the impossible—that is, to simultaneously espouse contradictory behaviors and traits—but that model leadership requires action that is based on a worldview that is complex, multifaceted, and ultimately inclusive.
The recommendation to the reader toward inclusiveness is further reflected in the last stanza, which advises, in the first two lines, to “talk with crowds” and not “lose the common touch” even when aspiring toward transcendence of commonality. The third and fourth lines go further, recommending against favoritism and toward regarding men with equality.
The entire poem, as evidenced by the title, is an extended “if/then” statement; and the last line serves as the answer to every “if” presented in the poem: by emulating the characteristics of a model leader, an individual can achieve “manhood.” The reader learns at this point that the poem is meant as a specific address to a boy or young man. That the achievement of “manhood” is directly associated with the characteristics and actions of a model leader reveals a societal attitude toward gender that excludes women from the realm of public leadership.
In the Kipling Journal, Carrington writes of the poem’s last line: “Hostile critics have made light of the final couplet, when the poet seems to descend from high consideration of ethics, and to drop to a final slangy compliment.” Carrington is quick to point out that the poem must be considered in light of the circumstances of its original publication, which reveals its purpose. The poem is part of the children’s story collection Rewards and Fairies, and thus the final line can be seen as an appropriately affectionate address from an older mentor to a young boy.