For Whom is The Poem “If” By Rudyard Kipling Intended For and Why?
If is undoubtedly one of the most beloved poems written by Rudyard Kipling. It was first published in the “Brother Square-Toes” chapter of the book Rewards and Fairies, a 1910 collection of poetry and short stories set in historical times with a linking contemporary narrative. For more than a century, If has inspired millions of people all over the world, and has quite often been voted as Britain’s most favorite poem.
The poem is straightforward and written in simple language. It consists of four eight-line stanzas that reads like a continuous thought. The word “If” is repeatedly used to emphasize the contrasting circumstances one may face in a lifetime, along with advice on how to handle those situations with virtue and dignity. In his poem, Kipling not only lists specific virtuous characteristics, but also provides concrete illustrations and practical steps which a man should or should not take to achieve a strong personality.
Rudyard Kipling wrote If in 1895 as a tribute to the Scots-born adventurer Dr. Leander S. Jameson (1853-1917) who in 1896, led a raid against the Boers in Tsansvaal, South Africa. Kipling wrote about Jameson in his autobiography Something of Myself. “Among the verses in Rewards (and Fairies) was one set called `If–‘, which escaped from the book, and for a while ran about the world. They were drawn from Jameson’s character, and contained counsels of perfection most easy to give” (p. 111).
Superficially, it appears that Kipling is addressing his son John in his poem; bestowing him with the most precious advice and pearls of wisdom. However, anyone and everyone can gather the fruitful bounties quoted in this poem to glimpse at the magnificent insight into what an ideal personality should be like. If renders into many of humankind’s greatest virtues —staying tranquil under stress, remaining humble when triumphant, never giving up hope when defeated, and maintaining honor and genuineness at all times.
Kipling weaves detailed illustrations to offer his advice and emphasize the intricate actions a man should or should not take, rather than just listing the characteristics of an ideal, honorable man. His motivational words full of humility tap right into the core of its readers; forcing them to ponder along issues much higher than the pettiness that encompasses daily life.
Kipling uses several literary devices to convey the message in the poem. The most prevalent literary devices used by Kipling is irony. For instance, the line: “if you could think”, is contradicted by the author by saying: “and not make thoughts your aim.” Similarly, in urging the reader to both ignore doubt and make allowance for doubt, Kipling constructs a paradox. Irony and paradox is characteristic of the tone of the entire poem.
Another literary device used by Kipling to make an impact on the reader is repetition. Kipling used the phrase “if you” throughout the poem. “If” stresses the likelihood of finding oneself in a similar situation, while “you” urges the reader to own up and take responsibility. Kipling has also deftly given life and movement to the poem through the use of personification. Examples of such lines include “make dreams your master” and “if you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same”. These lines demonstrate how Kipling assigns human-like attributes to these abstract qualities, adding life to the entire poem.
Alliteration was also employed to create a rhythm within the poem. For instance phrases such as “with worn-out tools” and “sixty seconds” create interest and lend structure, flow, and beauty to the poem. He also makes use of the rhyming scheme of AAAA in the first verse. In the rest of the verses, he has used an ABAB BCBC DEDE rhyming scheme to keep the readers captivated.
If is a didactic poem. This poem is a must-read for people of all ages and from all walks of life. If serves as an instruction in several specific traits of not only a sound leader, but also a benevolent human being. The virtues illustrated in If are free of pretension and glamor; Kipling does not mention heroic actions, wealth or fame. For him, a man should be measured by his humility and the grace to face the challenges of life audaciously. The poem stirs a variety of feelings of awe, inspiration, and admiration. His words of wisdom and advice are universal and equally valuable for everyone.
Andrew Lycett, Kipling’s biographer, deems the poem one of the writer’s finest and reported to the the Daily Mail (2009), “If” has utmost value even in the complex postmodern world: In these straitened times, the old-fashioned virtues of fortitude, responsibilities and resolution, as articulated in ‘If-‘, become ever more important.” Wayne Dyer in his book Wisdom of the Ages (1998) wrote about the poem in the following words, “The lofty ideas in his four-stanza poem inspire me to be a better man each time I read it and share it with my children, students, and audiences.” Therefore it is highly recommended that everyone should read the poem and reap the benefits of the wisdom along the stanzas.
Dyer, W. W. (1998). Wisdom of the Ages. New York: HarperCollins, 251, 23.
Kipling, R. (1910). Brother Square-Toes. Macmillan.
Kipling, R. (1991). Rudyard Kipling: Something of Myself and Other Autobiographical Writings. Cambridge University Press. p. 111.
Lycett, A. as cited in Wansell, G. (2009, February 16). The Remarkable Story Behind Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’ – And the Swashbuckling Renegade Who Inspired It. Daily Mail. Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1146109/The-remarkable-story-Rudyard-Kiplings- If—swashbuckling-renegade-inspired-it.html.
South Africa, December 29, 1895: a group of British mercenaries enters a Boer-controlled and administered territory known as the Transvaal Republic. "Boer" was the name given to the descendants of South Africa's early Dutch settlers, but the mercenaries were attempting to take control of Johannesburg for Great Britain. Through a series of mishaps (the invaders failed to cut all the appropriate telegraph lines, for example, and the Boer government was thus able to halt their advance), the invasion ultimately stalled.
The raid was led by one Sir Leander Starr Jameson, and has thus become known as the Jameson Raid. While initially only a small blip on the radar, the raid ultimately had a number of profound effects on the later history of South Africa (which was not yet a unified nation in 1895). The whole deal was part of an unauthorized British plan to gain control over the Transvaal and its recently discovered gold and diamond deposits.
The basic plan had been this: foreigners living in Johannesburg (called "Uitlanders") would be encouraged to revolt against unfair Boer government practices. Then—poof, the invaders would enter, quell the uprising, take control of the city and thus the nearby gold mines. It was an elaborate plan, to be sure, and one that depended on everybody doing their part (the Uitlanders revolting, Jameson's crew cutting the right telegraph lines, etc.). Clearly, things went… well, awry.
And two things happened as a result of the Jameson Raid. (Well, lots of things happened, but there are two big ones that we need to talk about.) First, things only got worse between the British and the Boers in South Africa. In fact, things got so bad that the two groups decided to duke it out on the battlefield in a conflict that has become known as the Second Boer War (1899-1902). At the end of the war, nearly 100,000 people died, both on the battlefield and in British concentration camps. The Brits got the lands they wanted, though, and ultimately incorporated them into the Empire.
The other important consequence of the Jameson Raid was Rudyard Kipling's poem "If." While Kipling is best known these days for the Jungle Book (1894), he wrote lots of poems, stories, and even a novel—all works that are not as widely read as they once were. (And, yes, this is the same Jungle Book that was the basis for the Disney movie. You can read what we have to say about one of the stories in Kipling's famous short story collection here.)
Kipling was inspired by Jameson's leadership and bravado. While written shortly after the raid in 1896, Kipling didn't publish the poem until 1910, when it appeared in a collection of short stories and poems called Rewards and Fairies. The poem is often described as a near perfect description of Victorian Stoicism, or the stiff upper lip, philosophical outlook and attitude that champions strength and endurance even in times of immense struggle. "Unblinking fortitude even in the face of adversity and hardship," as the BBC describes it.
If anything is definitively British, it is this outlook, this stiff upper lip. It is for this reason that, ever since its publication, the poem has been very dear to the British people. Lines from the poem show up all over the place, such as in the tunnel entrance to center court at the All England Club (where Wimbledon tennis tournament is held every year). You can read more about the Victorian period here and still more about Kipling's poem here.
In the 2000 hit movie Gladiator, Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix encounter each other in a computer-generated version of the Roman Coliseum. Maximus (Crowe), a general-turned-gladiator, finds himself taunted by the Emperor Commodus (Phoenix), who tries to enrage him with details about how his son and wife were killed at Commodus's orders. Maximus, who must be seething with anger, maintains composure. The only visible signs of his pain are a brief swallow and, maybe, a choked back tear.
Most people would have lashed out at the evil Commodus and attempted to dispatch him immediately. Maximus has been deceived, betrayed, enslaved, forced to fight—in short, he's lost everything, largely at the hands of Commodus. He's a general, however, and knows better. He remains strong, waiting for the time when he will rise again. He is, in short, the definition of stoicism.
Stoic? Yes, "stoic": an adjective that means enduring pain, hardship, misfortune, but not showing any emotion. The word is used loosely nowadays, but it used to refer to a very specific school of philosophy, pioneered by one Zeno of Citium. You can read more about the movement right here.
It is a word that is often used to describe people like Maximus, who manage to be strong (or appear that way) despite staring misfortune right in the face. Somebody could have recited Rudyard Kipling's "If" at some point in Gladiator, and it would have fit in just perfectly.
This is because "If" is a poem about stoicism, about being strong in the face of pain, sadness, bad luck, hard times, etc. and continuing to move forward without throwing a fit or acting up. It is about being patient, about finding a happy medium between extremes of emotion. The speaker of Kipling's poem, for example, talks about losing everything but starting over without crying about it, about watching other people lie and hate and choosing to not stoop to their level, about not letting friends or enemies hurt you, and many other things.
To put it simply, "If" is a kind of primer, 32 lines of advice about how to be stoic. In fact, you could say it's a poem about how to become a gladiator in the coliseum of life.