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If— Themes

(Poetry for Students)

Manhood and Leadership

“If” was originally written as a companion piece to the children’s story “Brother Square Toes,” a story about George Washington’s presidency during the French Revolution. The story portrays the character of George Washington as a model leader and was meant to illustrate to children the virtues of an exemplary public figure. “If” was placed immediately after this story in order to distill the lessons of the story; the poem also offers a lesson in the characteristics and virtues of a model public figure or leader.

However, as evidenced in the last line of “If,” the poem is not addressed to all children but specifically to boys. The poem therefore creates a mutual inclusiveness between the attainment of true manhood and the abilities and virtues of a true leader. This inclusiveness, by its very nature, excludes women, reflecting the attitude of early twentieth century society toward women. At the time, women were not allowed to vote, hold public office, own property, or have an independent career.

Righteousness versus Self-Righteousness

The first stanza of the poem exhorts the reader to be patient, honest, and forthright, especially when faced with opposition and temptation to act in a less virtuous manner. This call to righteous behavior is qualified by the last line of the stanza, however, which advises an individual, “don’t look too good, nor talk too wise.” In other words, an individual must not appear self-righteous in his effort to emulate righteous behavior.

Strong Work Ethic

Praise of a strong work ethic is echoed throughout the poem, as is a warning against idleness, exemplified in lines 29 and 30: “If you can fill the unforgiving minute / With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run.” The third stanza also reflects an idealization of hard work by exhorting the reader to “force your heart and nerve and sinew / To serve your turn long after they are gone.”

The poem also places higher value on the ability to act than on the ability to philosophize , as reflected in lines 9 and 10: “If you can dream—and not make dreams your master; / If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim.” An exemplary life is portrayed as one that is lived as an act of continuous hard work, during which time an individual should be prepared to constantly “stoop” to rebuild “with worn-out tools” the work to which an individual’s life has been devoted. This recommendation of a strong work ethic reflects a markedly Western, Protestant idealization of hard work and its progress as ennobling and godly, a view of work and progress that eventually contributed to the rise of industrialization...

(The entire section is 654 words.)