|Poem Analysis “If” by Rudyard Kipling|
|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;
[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
[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,
[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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