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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Literary Style

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...

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Bibliography and Further Reading


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...

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Compare and Contrast

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...

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Topics for Further Study

Ann Parry writes in The Poetry of Rudyard Kipling that the question of whether Kipling was truly a poet has been “perpetually debated.” She quotes writer T. R. Henn’s answer to this question: “When his technical mastery, variety and craftsmanship have all been recognized, it has to be said that ‘Kipling, nearly, but never wholly achieved greatness . . . the ultimate depth was lacking.’” Look at several of Kipling’s poems of your choosing, and discuss the following in an essay: do you agree that Kipling’s work shows “technical mastery?” Why or why not? Do you agree or disagree with the assessment that Kipling’s work lacks “ultimate depth?” Why or why not? Use examples to support your opinions.

Kipling wrote “If” in 1910. Research other poets who were writing and publishing in England or the United States at the same time as Kipling. Compare and contrast Kipling’s style with the style of another poet of your choosing from the same time period.

“If” was originally published in Kipling’s collection of children’s stories, Rewards and Fairies, as a companion piece to the story “Brother Square-Toes,” which features George Washington as a character. Read “Brother Square Toes.” Write a brief essay showing how “If” serves to complement the short story.

“If” is written in a strict meter. Each stanza consists of eight lines rhyming abab cdcd. The “a” and “c” lines,...

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What Do I Read Next?

Rewards and Fairies (1910) is a collection of children’s stories by Kipling, a sequel to Puck of Pook’s Hill. “If” was first published in this collection as a companion piece to the story “Brother Square Toes.”

Something of Myself (1937) is Kipling’s autobiography, in which he discusses his life, his work, and his political beliefs. It provides a humorous insight into the mind of a man at once popular and notorious for his blunt style and political views.

The Jungle Book (1894) and The Second Jungle Book (1895) are Kipling’s most famous and endearing works. The books contain a collection of stories for children, set in the jungles of India and featuring animals as their main characters. The most popular stories feature the character of Mowgli, a boy raised by wolves in the jungle.

Captains Courageous (1897) is a coming-of-age novel by Kipling that relates the adventures of a rich, spoiled boy who is rescued from a shipwreck by a fishing boat. This novel is typically classified as juvenilia.

Kim (1901) is often argued to be Kipling’s most mature novel. The main character, Kim, also known as Kimball O’Hara, is the orphaned son of an Irish soldier who lives on the streets of India. In search of his destiny, Kim embarks on travels that bring him in contact with such figures as the Tibetan Dalai Lama. Although the novel contains several racial stereotypes,...

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