“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...
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