Poem Analysis “If” Rudyard Kipling

Poem Analysis “If” by Rudyard Kipling
IF…..

IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

[Let’s play “what if.” Instead of imagining a better home, a better job, or a better car, let’s imagine better selves. This is the thought experiment that Rudyard Kipling initiates in his poem, “If.”

He describes a situation where people are going crazy and using blame as a way out. The phrase “all about you” here means “all around you.” Imagine having the serenity to see this crisis for what it is and to stay calm through the end of it. Imagine having faith in yourself in the face of doubt. Imagine being a true follower of the prophets so that no matter do to you, you respond with acts of virtue.

Stop and notice what Kipling is doing grammatically here. The natural pattern for English is to state a condition thus, “If A, then B.” But Kipling is stating, “If A, if B, if C.” He’s piling on the conditions while delaying the consequence. He creates tension like a child stretching a Slinky.]

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ‘em up with worn-out tools:

[Notice the rhyme scheme. It’s ABAB CDCD. Compare the final syllable or syllables of each verse. A= aster, B= aim/ame, C= oken, D = ools. I do not know if this was Kipling’s intention, but many readers have committed this poem to memory. The rhyme facilitates memorization. I think it also gives the poem a veneer of classicism like the plays of Shakespeare or a rhyme from Mother Goose.

To me, the really clever bit here is the couplet on Triumph and Disaster. Notice that Kipling capitalized both words. Then he referred to them as “impostors” in lower case. It is as if he inflates the two words then pops them. Life has taught me that triumphs fade and disasters abate far more quickly than I usually expect.

The imagery here is wonderfully vivid. Truth is twisted like a wire in a trap. Values are like a table, they are broken, they collapse and then are reassembled with old-fashioned tools.]

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

[Honestly, I have a bit of an aversion to this stanza because I feel it glorifies gambling, something I consider sinful. But just as wine can be a metaphor for the mystery of God, gambling might be a metaphor for taking risks.

But the latter half of the stanza really shines. Kipling could have just said, “If you can force your body,” but that would be bland. Instead, he says, “your heart and nerve and sinew.” Everyone knows the body has a heart, nerves, and muscles but by listing each one, it creates an image of all the systems of the body striving as one for a common goal. I get the impression that Kipling was an athlete, from both this stanza and the next one. Persevering through sheer will, despite the body shutting down, suggests running to me, although I suppose it could apply to a broad range of athletic contests.]

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
‘ Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

[Here is the exciting conclusion. Each verse in this stanza is like a nugget of gold. To be able to be part of a large community and still retain honest virtues is a great ability. Not many people can sit comfortably with both kings and paupers, but those who can are justly admired. And “neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you” underlines the lesson that the people who can hurt us the most are often the ones we love the most. We may not be there yet, but this poem is about imagination. We can imagine ourselves being so strong that no human can hurt us. Then just before finishing, Kipling says, “If you can fill the unforgiving minute/ With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,” suggesting that there is something profound about running, so much so that even one minute of it can make a world of difference. If you imagine a scale, with some of the other abilities mentioned in the poem, such as forgiving enemies, risking it all, walking with kings on one side, running for a minute on the other side seems pretty light. Yet if you notice, it’s also the one thing listed here that just about anyone can do, perhaps even right now, or at least before today is done.

The result of all this effort, all this personal development is the consequence at the end of “If.” The result is nothing short of “the Earth and everything that’s in it.”  With this big reveal, Kipling shows that this is no idle game of “what-if.” In fact, all along this has been a guide to success, to achieving any dream imaginable. Kipling suggests that a person with the right virtues is capable of achieving anything he dreams. And it is just as applicable to women, even though Kipling concludes with his somewhat chauvinistic claim that “being a Man” is more valuable than the entire wealth of the Earth. But even if we disagree with how he chose to phrase it, the point is still valid, that being that person whom you ideally want to be, is more valuable than anything you could ever own. Note that he is not advocating settling for less. He is not saying that if you are satisfied with yourself nothing else matters. He is saying that the most important goal in life is to develop virtues – characteristics that stand out in this poem like honesty, strength, temperance, and courage. Nothing you could make or buy is worth more than that.


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11 Responses to Poem Analysis “If” Rudyard Kipling

  1. Rasha says:

    Masha’Allah.

    I’m impressed by your analysis. The way you dissected the poem, but let the words speak for themselves. :)

    May Allah grant us the wisdom to understand our own selves, the means to build our character, and the courage to live in accordance with our integrity.

  2. jackie says:

    i really liked this annalysis. it, like, really helped me, like, know what this poem, like, meant.
    thx!

  3. Rodenburger says:

    I Love You.

  4. Benny says:

    This was… brilliant. Good job! :D

  5. Ann Jacobs says:

    This is excellent! We were ask in our lecture to answer 3 questions (1) how does the language usage of the poet achieve his communicative objectives? (2) How do you understand the poem? (3) What kind of genre do you assigned to it? Most of the students tried to identify what the peot meant when he wrote it . most was not far off track and some good feedback was shared amongst the students, which I thought was good , but this is mind blowing an exccelent analysis. Was this person a reincarnation of Kipling? Iwould not be surprised!

  6. Ann Jacobs says:

    This is excellent! We were ask in our lecture to answer 3 questions (1) how does the language usage of the poet achieve his communicative objectives? (2) How do you understand the poem? (3) What kind of genre do you assigned to it? Most of the students tried to identify what the peot meant when he wrote it . most was not far off track and some good feedback was shared amongst the students, which I thought was good , but this is mind blowing an exccelent analysis. Was this person a reincarnation of Kipling? I would not be surprised!

  7. charishma says:

    This is just mind blowing and an excellent analysis. It really helped me understand the poem and as i;m doing a project.. you are my hero :D

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  9. yuti patel says:

    The way you have disintegrated every tiny detail, and provided it with a significant explanation in the poem Is quite amazing. I adore the way you have managed to give your own creative touches to the poem as well. The analysis is appreciable and marvelous and was of a great help.Thank you

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