Critical Essay on “If”

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      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 parallel behaviors are illustrated in the Proverb above, forming the basic structure of the verse, so too does Kipling use parallel structure to make his point in advising the need to be able to both ignore doubt and make allowance for doubt. This trend is continued throughout the poem: for example, Kipling parallels the virtues of righteousness and humility in the first stanza by advising, “being hated, don’t give way to hating, / And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise.”

      Kipling, though he did not espouse the theological doctrines of Protestantism, was still affected by its ethical and moral precepts. One of the most pervasive of Protestant ethics in Western society is the exaltation of work and productivity as godly and as a path toward salvation, along with an equal disdain for idleness. This societal view of work was in fact instrumental in the rise of industrialization and capitalism in Western societies. As Wilson notes in the quote given above, Kipling was not immune to the effect of the Protestant work ethic. This philosophy too is an integral part of the message Kipling puts forth in “If,” which offers instruction in the virtues, actions, and behaviors that, to Kipling, are the hallmark of model leadership and the makeup of an exemplary man. The Protestant work ethic is specifically reflected in the second stanza: “If you can dream—and not make dreams your master; / If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim.” Here, Kipling recognizes the need for idealism and philosophy, but it is truly the ability to act on those thoughts and ideals that is the message of these lines. Warning against idleness is also the aim of lines 29 and 30, which read, “If you can fill the unforgiving minute / With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run.”

      An idealization of work and action is also illustrated in the third stanza, exhorting one even to go so far as to “force your heart and nerve and sinew / To serve your turn long after they are gone.” The bodily imagery here evokes manual labor, but not just labor without purpose: the body of this life should serve to make a lasting effect “long after” it is gone. Labor and work, therefore, should have lasting purpose.

      It is interesting to note, then, that while these lines of the third stanza advise toward labor, progress, and results, the stanza’s first quatrain seems to promote a much different message:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings,

And never breathe a word about your loss:

      The message of these lines is almost in direct opposition to the instruction of the ensuing stanza, whose message seems to be to labor toward a lasting purpose. Here, however, the fruit of labor—both success and failure—is treated as absolutely inconsequential and therefore should be regarded with extreme detachment.

      In fact, the exhortation toward detachment is a constant theme throughout the poem, echoing a very basic Buddhist teaching. Ainslie Embree, in Sources of Indian Tradition, explains the basis of Buddhist philosophy:

The threefold characterization of the nature of the world and all that it contains—sorrowful, transient, and soulless—is frequently repeated in Buddhist literature, and without fully grasping its truth no being has any chance of salvation. For until he thoroughly understands the three characteristics of the world a man will inevitably crave for permanence in one form or another, and as this cannot, by the nature of things, be obtained he will suffer, and probably make others suffer also.

      Buddhism teaches that sorrow is created by desire, and all desire is driven by a craving for permanence. To recognize the impermanence of everything worldly is to rid oneself of desire. In Buddhism, the complete annihilation of desire leads to salvation.

      Just as “If” shows the influence of Christianity on Kipling’s worldview and artistry, so too does it reflect the perhaps more weighty influence of Eastern philosophy, particularly Buddhism. Kipling, who was born in India and spent his early adulthood living and traveling the subcontinent as a journalist, retained a passion for India throughout his life. Many of his most important works take place there, including his best novel, Kim. Kipling was throughout his life intensely interested in Eastern religions and held their philosophies in higher esteem than he did Christianity’s. No doubt this was an influence of his father, John Lockwood Kipling, who was not a practicing Christian. John was a specialist in what was then known as Orientalism—that is, the study of the culture and religions of the Asiatic parts of the British Empire. For over twenty years, John ran a museum in Lahore, India, dedicated to the anthropological study of the Indian subcontinent. According to Wilson in The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling, John, for whom Rudyard had a lifelong admiration, had a great deal of influence over the writings of his son; his knowledge and championing of Eastern culture surely influenced Kipling.

      The Buddhist teaching of the impermanence of the worldly and the rejection of desire is reflected in lines 11 and 12 of “If”: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two imposters just the same.” Triumph and disaster denote the polar opposite pinnacle of success and depth of failure, but here Kipling puts them on a completely even level. By calling them “imposters,” he exhorts the reader to recognize that both success and failure are not guaranteed; they are impermanent and, therefore, an illusion.

      The action Kipling recommends—to treat both success and failure, acquisition and loss, as one and the same—is based on a recognition of the world as impermanent. The poem implicitly advises against attaching any desire to an individual’s actions, as has been shown also in the lines of the third stanza.

      Another doctrine of Buddhism closely related to the philosophy regarding impermanence and desire, is the teaching of the Middle Way. Embree quotes the Buddhist writing, the Samyutta Mikaya: “There are two ends not to be served by a wanderer . . . the pursuit of desires and the pleasure which springs from desire . . . and the pursuit of pain and hardship . . . the Middle Way of the Tathagata avoids both these ends. It is enlightened.”

      The Middle Way, the Samyutta Mikaya goes on to explain, is what is known as the Noble Eightfold Path, which is a set of eight main precepts guiding the actions of the follower toward a correct behavior that ultimately leads to enlightenment. While the Buddhist teaching of the Middle Way is meant to lead the follower eventually to spiritual enlightenment, Kipling applies a sort of generalization of the ideal of a middle path to his own precepts set forth in “If.” Indeed, the quest for a middle path in behavior, thought, and virtue is a running theme throughout the poem. In the first stanza, Kipling advises the reader toward righteous behavior—to be patient (line 5), honest (line 6), and to avoid hatred (line 7)—and, at the same time, to avoid self-righteousness (line 10). Other paradoxes are constructed throughout the poem—between thought and action in the second stanza, and even between the detachment advocated by the first quatrain of stanza 3, and the second quatrain which exhorts the reader to “hold on when there is nothing in you / Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’” These pairings of contradictory extremes serve to illustrate both the need and the means toward finding a balanced approach to life.

      According to C. E. Carrington’s essay “If You Can Bring Fresh Eyes to Read These Verses,” in the Kipling Journal, Winston Churchill once commented that the last line of “If” should have read, “You’ll be a god, my man!” Churchill’s point, made tongue-in-cheek, was surely the impossibility of the idealist precepts set forth in “If” for a normal human being to accomplish. Indeed, the ideals that shape the poem, drawn from two different spiritual traditions, are meant by these religions to transcend the human state and achieve a divine status, be it the eternal salvation of the soul, or Nirvana. But the aspirations of the poem are not toward divinity, but clearly toward manhood—with a capital M. The ending that Kipling chose makes manhood—humanity—the pinnacle to be reached.

      In The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling, Wilson writes of Kipling that his “lifelong agnosticism includes always towards a reverence for the transcendental”; and indeed, “If” does call for a transcendence. But this transcendence, the poem seems to imply, does not exclude the earthly, the worldly, or the human, even though the spiritual traditions from which Kipling draws his ethics and morals would maintain quite the opposite. Rather, the last lines offer a reward of worldliness—“Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,” and for sublimity reached not in the spirit, but in the flesh of humanity—“you’ll be a Man, my son!”

Source: Tamara Fernando, Critical Essay on “If,” in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

Idealistic and Bitter Tone in "If"

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      Kipling’s “If” has become his most popular and anthologized poem. Since its publication in 1909, many readers have professed the poem’s set of rules to be inspirational and motivational in their focus on personal integrity and moral behavior and consider it to offer excellent advice to younger generations. Lines from the poem appear over the player’s entrance to the center court at Wimbledon, a reflection of its timeless appeal. As James Harrison notes in his study of Kipling’s works, “as a compendium of moral maxims, it may well still be being discovered by new readers as a kind of secular decalogue.” Yet, not all readers have praised the poem. Harrison writes that some will find that it reduces “a minefield of moral complexities to a series of simplistic equations.” He considers the poem’s chief value to be as a “period piece—as a nostalgic sampler, in fact, from an age when a combination of willpower and firm moral direction could be seen as the solution.” The poem is, in fact, an apt reflection of the period in which it was written as well as of the personal attitudes of its author toward that period. As such, it becomes a fascinating juxtaposition of idealism and bitterness.

      Kipling included “If” in his collection Rewards and Fairies (1909). He placed it next to his short story “Brother Square-Toes,” which champions George Washington’s courage and leadership strengths. Kipling’s depiction of Washington echoes not only the American hero but also Dr. Leander Starr Jameson, who in 1895 led several hundred Englishmen in a battle with the Boers in southern Africa. The Jameson Raid, as it came to be known, was one of the major contributing factors to England’s engagement in the Boer War from 1899 to 1902. Jameson became a popular hero in England as a result. Kipling saw similar qualities in Jameson and Washington, regarding them as ideal leaders. Kipling expresses his romantic ideas about virtuous men of action by listing qualities he most admires in the poem. The “Man” the speaker envisions as a model to his son illustrates the author’s idealist view of Washington and Jameson and could be an apt description of the traditional hero of popular adventure novels.

      The poem also contains a darker side that reflects Kipling’s attitude toward the failure of British imperialism. George Orwell, in his essay on Kipling, insists that the author “belongs very definitely to the period 1885–1902.” Orwell writes that Kipling was “the prophet of British Imperialism in its expansionist phase.” Toward the end of this period, public attitudes toward the British Empire began to change. Even though England had been victorious in World War I, her power began to wane. Orwell writes that the English became “anti-militarist, bored by the Empire. . . . [T]he desire to paint the map red had evaporated.” Kipling recognized that “the virtue had gone out of the classes he idealized [and] the young were hedonistic or disaffected.” World War I “and its aftermath embittered him.” Orwell concludes that Kipling “spent the later part of his life in sulking, and no doubt it was political disappointment rather than literary vanity that account for this.” This bitterness emerges in “If” as the bleak assessment of the world and its inhabitants, which provide grueling obstacles that one must conquer to become a virtuous, ideal man.

      Kipling writes the lines of the poem as one long sentence running for four stanzas, which lists all of the qualities the speaker insists are necessary if one strives to become “a Man.” The sheer number of obstacles that the speaker suggests his son will have to face attests to the poem’s harsh vision of human nature and destiny. The son must meet the challenges proffered by this hostile world with courage and stoicism if he is to live with dignity.

      Kipling’s bitter vision of the world begins in the first stanza with a catalogue of betrayals and attacks. The speaker calls on his son to find patience and the courage to ignore those who will blame him for misfortunes, doubt him, lie about his abilities, and hate him. In the final line, he calls on his son to strive to achieve, “yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise,” suggesting that he will be attacked for these qualities as well.

      Kipling’s focus is on stoicism in the second stanza as he warns of the dangers of losing control of one’s self to dreams or thoughts or being affected too much by “Triumph and Disaster,” which he cynically claims are both “impostors.” In this world, “the things you give your life to” are “broken.” In the fifth and sixth lines, Kipling returns to his assessment of human nature, which can prompt the twisting of truths and the trapping of fools.

      In the third stanza, Kipling concentrates on the idealistic hero’s battles with destiny rather than with others. The qualities that are required here are romantic daring, which will cause him to risk his fortune “on one turn of pitch-and-toss” and resilience if he loses and must start again. He will need the traditional British resilience if he does lose and strength of will when he begins to physically decline.

      Kipling returns to his dark vision of human nature in the last stanza with its non-virtuous crowds and hurtful friends. The speaker stresses a note of humility here when he warns of the dangers of success and presents a more troubling suggestion to his son about maintaining an emotional detachment from the world, letting “all men count with you, but none too much.” This warning appears appropriate in the poem’s bleak world of lies and betrayals. The speaker’s final maxim is to fill each moment with worthwhile activity.

      By the time the poem’s final lines describe the successful outcome of overcoming all of the twenty-six obstacles listed above, becoming a man appears to be an insurmountable task. The repetition of the word “if” suggests an uncertainty of accomplishment. Kipling’s ideal hero could combine a stoic perseverance with self-reliant individualism to accomplish these goals. But, the effort seems as if it would require herculean skills and self-control.

      Perhaps the uncertainty of overcoming such obstacles reflects Kipling’s attitude toward the decline of British imperialism. David Perkins, in his History of Modern Poetry, writes that Kipling “maintained an ideal of the British Empire (conservative, protective, uplifting, and firmly legal); he became one of its most popular spokesman.” When public opinion began to turn against this enterprise, Kipling’s reputation suffered. Perkins suggests, “he was too vividly associated in the public mind with British imperialism.”

      The dark vision of human nature that permeates “If” could be a reflection of Kipling’s attitude toward those who failed to support England’s imperialism and his own alliance with this enterprise. When the speaker suggests that he has experience with others blaming, doubting, and lying about him, he could be revealing Kipling’s response to his detractors. Kipling’s attitude toward the waning support for imperialism is reflected in the speaker’s advise to his son not to “make dreams your master” and to protect himself from failure since he has seen the things he “gave [his] life to, broken.”

      Kipling saw his dreams of empire wane and suffered the criticism of many of his readers, yet he refused to give up his artistic endeavors. When the speaker of “If” calls his son to face the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that lay before him, this could be an extension of Kipling’s own advice to himself so that he, too, could gain “the Earth and everything that’s in it.”

Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on “If,” in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

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Critical Overview