Student Question

In the poem "If—", does the speaker caution readers about ideals? Provide two examples.

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I think the speaker does warn the reader to be careful concerning ideals in the poem's second stanza, yes. He describes the value of being someone who "can dream—and not make dreams your master." In other words, he does not want to see people become slaves to their dreams: dreams and ideals are wonderful, but it is also important for us to be flexible, and if we will not settle for anything less than our ideal, we can actually miss out on lots of good things.

There's a saying: don't let the perfect become the enemy of good. It means that when we keep striving for perfection, we aren't happy unless we reach it, even if what we do have is pretty great. This line seems to endorse that same sentiment. The next line extols the virtue of being the type of person who "can think—and not make thoughts your aim." Again, the ideal is not the point; the point is experiences and living. We must be careful not to make the ideal, either in hypothetical or in terms of our goals, our master or else we could lose out on a lot of other great (if not ideal) things.

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Does the speaker warn readers to be careful in spite of his ideals? Give two example to explain.

In this poem, an apparently older speaker offers advice to a younger boy, perhaps even his son (as the speaker refers to him this way in the poem's final line). The older speaker does, in fact, warn his audience, this younger boy, against placing too much stock in his ideals.

An ideal can refer to a standard of perfection or excellence, or it can refer to a goal or one's ultimate aim. In the poem, the speaker tells his listener to "dream—and not make dreams your master," and to "think—and not make thoughts your aim," and in this way, the younger boy will eventually become a man some day. It seems that the speaker does warn the younger boy not to become a slave to his dreams (the effect of making them his "master"); if he only lives for one particular dream, then he might never achieve satisfaction or contentment with any other accomplishment. Likewise, he does not want the boy's reflections to become his ideal; he must live in the real world of action. If one lives for one's ideals only, then one will likely never be satisfied. Thus, the speaker does warn the younger boy, perhaps his own son, as well as readers, by extension, of the danger placing too much emphasis on ideals.

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