Historical Context

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Children’s Literature of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

“If” was first published as part of a collection of stories for children, Rewards and Fairies. Literature written specifically for children is a relatively new phenomenon, having evolved as recently as the early nineteenth century. Kipling was well-known for his children’s works, many of which featured fantasy worlds and talking animals designed to appeal especially to a child’s imagination, as many other contemporary children’s works did. However, the main aim of literature for children was not simply entertainment but also education in the morals and manners of society. Rewards and Fairies is interspersed with poems that distill lessons from its various stories. “If,” in its didactic format, is one such poem, offering instruction on the virtues and characteristics of a model public figure.

Women in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

As evidenced in its last line, “If” is specifically addressed to a boy who would become “a Man.” The poem creates an interconnectedness between the attainment of true manhood and the abilities and virtues of a true leader—a mutual inclusiveness that by its nature excludes girls and women.

This exclusion of women from the attainment of roles of public leadership directly reflects the political landscape at the time of the poem’s publication. In the late nineteenth century, American and British society regarded a woman’s place as strictly private. While a husband’s role was to provide for his family and, therefore, maintain a public life by nature of having a paying job, a wife’s role—particularly that of a middle-class wife—was strictly within the home. A woman was responsible for all household affairs and for the moral upbringing of her children. This relegation of women to the home excluded them from any role in public life, including the rights to vote, to hold public office, to own property, or to attain a higher education. Women were treated as second-class citizens.

By the year 1910, the year “If” was published, women had slowly been awarded a number of rights—thanks to the work of middle-class feminists—including the rights in some cases to own property and to attain higher education. By 1910, however, women still had not been granted the right to vote. In Great Britain, a militant suffragist movement was built up, led by Emmeline Pankhurst, which resorted to violent means to campaign for women’s voting rights, from hunger strikes to smashing department store windows.

World War I (1914–1918) brought a sudden change for the better as far as women’s rights were concerned. During the war, the social dynamics of gender shifted when women became a powerful workforce, filling spots made vacant by men serving in the military. The onslaught of the war and the role that women played, which was instrumental in overturning the boundary between women and public life, figured greatly in the right to vote finally being awarded to women. In 1918, the United Kingdom granted full voting rights to women age thirty and older.

Literary Style

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Iambic Pentameter and Rhyme

“If” is written in iambic pentameter, a form readers of Shakespeare will be familiar with, as the bard most often wrote in this style. Iambic pentameter consists of lines of five “feet” (two-syllable units) formed from an initial unstressed syllable and a second stressed syllable, as in the word “because.” The eleven-syllable lines each end with an extra, unstressed syllable.

The poem is also written in four stanzas of eight rhyming lines, according to the pattern abab cdcd. “If” takes its name from the repetition of the word “if” at the start of the “a” and “c” lines, each of which comprise eleven syllables. The “b” and “d” lines each contain ten syllables.


The main aim of “If” is to instruct a young man in what Kipling considers the virtues of model leadership and exemplary manhood. To serve an instructive end, the poem has been written in what is known as a “didactic” tone, reminiscent of a sermon. The poem is structured as a list of several short pieces of advice of varying lengths, a structure reminiscent of a familiar piece of didactic literature in the Western canon, the Book of Proverbs in the Bible. This resonance with the Book of Proverbs serves to underscore the poem’s similar message of righteousness.


A paradox is a statement that is contradictory but that, in its contrariness, makes a point. “If” is filled with paradox, typically advising the reader toward two extremes of behavior. For example, the fourth stanza advises the ability to “walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch” and to allow “all men count with you, but none too much.” Perhaps the most extreme paradox appears in the third stanza, demanding the ability to part with all acquisitions and successes without attachment but simultaneously to have the “Will” to “Hold on!” Kipling uses pairings of extremes to illustrate the complexity that virtuous behavior and model leadership entail. The seeming impossibility of simultaneously emulating two extremes illustrates the true difficulty in becoming what Kipling terms “a Man”—in other words, an exemplary human being.


The tone of “If” is characterized by its use of everyday phrases and slang, which lends it a colloquial (conversational, informal) tone. The opening lines use the common figure of speech “keep your head”; “‘em” is purposefully used in line 16 rather than “them”; and most especially, the poem culminates in an almost crudely common phrase, “You’ll be a Man.” The diction, however, seems appropriate as an address to a boy or a young man, to whom the poem is specifically addressed in the last line, and for whom the poem was originally published in a collection of children’s stories. However, perhaps more importantly, this choice of diction seems to reflect the counsel of line 26 to not “lose the common touch.”

Compare and Contrast

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1910: Women are granted few rights and are treated like second-class citizens in both the United States and Europe. In particular, women are not allowed to work outside the home, may not own property, are denied a higher education, and are not allowed to hold public office nor to vote. The feminist movement, which is supported primarily by middle- and upper-class women, works toward more equality for women. Feminists such as Emmeline Pankhurst even resort to violent means to gain attention for the feminist cause, engaging in property damage and notorious hunger strikes.

Today: Women in the Western world have much greater freedoms than they did at the turn of the twentieth century. They can live a life independent of men, with the ability to own property and maintain a career. Women also figure greatly in public life and politics. Although the United States has yet to vote in a female president, Great Britain has had a female prime minister, the United States has had several female governors, and some states are represented in the Senate by all-female delegations.

1910: The British Empire is the largest and most powerful empire in world history. The saying “The sun never sets on the British Empire” reflects the global reach of the English. Its massive empire makes Britain the most powerful country of the pre–World War I era.

Today: The twentieth century sees the demise of the British Empire, brought about by two catastrophic world wars and the empire’s eventual inability to keep a firm grasp on its colonies. India, its most lucrative colony, wins independence in 1947. Britain today remains an important player in world politics but has ceded its place of dominance to the United States.

1910: In the decades prior to World War II, most poetry, such as the work of Rudyard Kipling, is written according to strict meter and/or rhyme. This observance is prevalent among the works of Kipling’s contemporaries as well as his recent predecessors.

Today: The post–World War II literary world has seen drastic evolution in poetic form as an artistic retaliation to the horrors of modern warfare and as an echo of other artistic movements, such as the development of jazz as a musical style. Poets abandon strict meter and experiment with free verse, as reflected in the Beat movement. Computers and technology enable poets to experiment further with language through hypertext.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Carrington, C. E., “If You Can Bring Fresh Eyes to Read These Verses,” in the Kipling Journal, December 1982, pp. 20–27.

Eliot, T. S., “Introduction,” in A Choice of Kipling's Verse, edited by T. S. Eliot, Faber and Faber, 1941.

Embree, Ainslie T., Sources of Indian Tradition, Vol. 1, Columbia University Press, 1988.

Harrison, James, Rudyard Kipling, Twayne, 1982.

Orwell, George, “Rudyard Kipling,” in A Collection of Essays, 1946, reprint, Harcourt Brace, 1981, pp. 116–31.

Parry, Ann, The Poetry of Rudyard Kipling: Rousing the Nation, Open University Press, 1992.

Perkins, David, A History of Modern Poetry: From the 1890s to the High Modernist Mode, Harvard University Press, 1976.

Wilson, Angus, The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling: His Life and Works, Viking Press, 1977.


Forster, E. M., A Passage to India, reprint, Harvest Books, 1965.

Originally published in 1924, this novel follows the lives of three English newcomers to India. It was written at a time when India was still under British control and explores the clash of Eastern and Western cultures there. Forster (1879–1970), like Kipling, was fascinated with India.

Gilmour, David, The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling, Farrar Straus Giroux, 2003.

Kipling’s legacy has endured a long history of vilification, but this biography offers a fresh, early-twenty-first-century perspective on his life and ideologies.

Mallett, Phillip, Rudyard Kipling: A Literary Life, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Mallett concentrates on Kipling’s writing life and family life.

Yeats, William Butler, The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats, Vol. 1, The Poems, rev. 2d ed., Scribner, 1996.

Yeats, who received the Nobel Prize in 1923, was a contemporary of Kipling, though a markedly different poet. Although Kipling was more popular than Yeats during their lifetimes, Yeats’s work is today regarded as far superior.

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