Critical Overview

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“If” is perhaps Kipling’s most famous poem. Originally published as a part of the children’s book Rewards and Fairies, it gained immediate popularity as an independent piece, becoming a sort of inspirational anthem whose popularity endures into the twenty-first century, almost to the point of becoming a cliché.

The poem itself is not the specific subject of significant literary criticism; however, Kipling himself has been the subject of scores of criticism since he began publishing in his early twenties. His receipt of the Nobel Prize in 1907, while met with wide approval from the general readership with which he was immensely popular, was met with dismay by the literary world: he was perceived by the literary establishment of his time as a writer of verse, rather than of poetry; the simple style of much of his prose was considered little more than entertaining; and many found the blunt, straightforward political messages of his work unrefined and vulgar.

Toward the end of his life, Kipling’s once prolific output had ebbed, just as the optimism of the British Empire had changed to disillusion after the horrors of World War I. Kipling’s work, once the most popular in Britain, became dated through its belief in the superiority and the romance of imperialism that was an integral part of Victorian-era philosophy.

It was the work of the poet T. S. Eliot that almost single-handedly brought Kipling’s reputation back to serious literary consideration in the years following Kipling’s death. Eliot found enough value in Kipling’s verse to publish a newly edited collection in 1941; in his introductory essay he defends Kipling’s abilities, despite his unpopular and dated political messages, as a poet. Eliot writes in the introduction to the collection, “Poetry is condemned as ‘political’ when we disagree with the politics; and the majority of readers do not want imperialism or socialism in verse. But the question is not what is ephemeral, but what is permanent . . . we therefore have to try to find the permanent in Kipling’s verse.”

Still, the question of Kipling’s ability as a poet is one that writer Ann Parry, in The Poetry of Rudyard Kipling, calls “perpetually debated.” Parry quotes T. R. Henn, who wrote in 1967, “‘Kipling, nearly, but never wholly achieved greatness . . . the ultimate depth was lacking’ because there was ‘an absence of that high-breeding which is the essence of all style.’” Parry further notes in her book that one of the abiding tests of the quality of literature is its survival beyond contemporary popularity:

Kipling’s poetry is seen as a failure to be something else, it is lacking in the range of qualities and characteristics for which high literature is valued. This definition of literature depends greatly on the ephemerality of popular texts: they must be lacking in aesthetic complexity because they disappear so quickly. It is at this point that Kipling becomes an enigma, because his popularity has never receded. . . . Continuing demand for a writer’s work long after his death is one of the criteria that suggests literary greatness and value, and this perhaps explains why there are a group of critics who have sought to admit Kipling to the first rank of literature, having duly chastised him for harmful attitudes, or having qualified his moral undesirability.

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