Historical Context

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...

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