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Critical Essay on “If”

      Rudyard Kipling was the most beloved writer of his time, and his most famous work was the poem “If,” a four-stanza poem that first appeared in his children’s collection Rewards and Fairies. “If” gained instantaneous popularity as an independent piece, a popularity that persists to this day. The poem is a rather inspirational instruction in the achievement of idealized ethical and moral behavior.

      Kipling himself was a confirmed agnostic throughout his life. However, upon careful examination, the poem “If” reveals a deep influence of religious ethics upon the worldview that Kipling puts forth in this poem. In particular, “If” illustrates the influence of both Protestant Christian and of Buddhist philosophies in a quest toward an ideal life.

      Kipling himself was often a vocal critic of Christian institutions, particularly of the doctrines related to salvation and human sinfulness, and especially of Christian missionary work. As a child, Kipling did not grow up in a particularly religious household, and although his parents were not churchgoing Methodists, both his paternal and maternal grandfathers had been Methodist preachers. However, despite the relative lack of traditional Christianity in Kipling’s life, Kipling’s own work nevertheless bears a marked influence from the tenets and the literature of Christianity. Angus Wilson writes in his biography of Kipling, The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling:

The gospel of work (one of [Methodist founder] John Wesley’s ever-reiterated themes), a hatred of frivolity, earnestness about life’s purpose . . . these [Kipling] inherited from his ancestors. And the language of the Bible in which to clothe [his work]; especially the Psalms, Proverbs, . . . didactic poetry, in fact. This is the superficial inheritance of Kipling from his Wesleyan grandfathers.

      Two of the tenets of Protestant Christianity mentioned here—the Protestant work ethic and the influence of Biblical verse—are specifically evident in Kipling’s poem “If.” Indeed, the style of the poem “If” is reminiscent of the Proverbs of the Bible. Take, for example, the first few lines of Proverb 12:

Whoever loves disciplines love knowledge

But he who hates reproof is stupid.

A good man obtains favor from the Lord,

But a man of evil devices he condemns.

A man is not established by wickedness

But the root of the righteous will never be moved.

      This example from Proverbs instructs the reader in righteousness and godliness by providing specific examples of upright behavior and, for each of these examples, the consequences of their parallel corrupt behavior. The structure of “If” is quite similar to this Proverb, not only in its instruction toward righteous behavior, but in its use of parallels throughout the entire poem. In just one example, lines 3 and 4 of “If” read: “If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, / But make allowance for their doubting too.” Just as...

(The entire section is 3,267 words.)