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Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1,654 words.)