‘If —’ by Rudyard Kipling: About the poem
The poem ‘If’ by the India-born British Nobel laureate poet Rudyard Kipling is a poem of ultimate inspiration that tells us how to deal with different situations in life. The poet conveys his ideas about how to win this life, and after all, how to be a good human being.
The poem, written in 1895 and first published in ‘Rewards and Fairies’, 1910 is 32 lines long with four stanzas of eight lines each. It is a tribute to Leander Starr Jameson. The poem is written in the form of paternal advice to the poet’s son, John. You may read more about the poem at Wikipedia.
For the theme, as already told, the poem basically tells us the conditions that we should meet to succeed in life and make this life happy and a beautiful one. The whole poem is written in a single complex sentence. So all the subordinate clauses begin with ‘if’ and the main clause concluding the entire theme comes at the end, and the poem ends with a full stop.
This structure of the poem was important to achieve the conditional goal. The poet speaks of the achievement at the end, after discussing all the requirements to reach there. This structure is actually symbolic in suggesting that you can get the rewards only after you have fulfilled the preconditions. Moreover, this makes the readers eager to know what would happen when we meet all these conditions, thus retaining the curiosity and interest till the end.
And, as the main theme of the poem is a combination of so many if’s, the title ‘If’ is an apt one for the poem.
Now it’s time to go for an analysis of the poem.
Summary & line by line explanation of ‘If’
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
To be a good human being and to succeed in life, we should keep calm when other people around us are losing their cool. We should not lose our temperament even if others are blaming us for their fault.
Losing the temper does not solve a problem, rather intensifies that. Keeping the head cool makes us think wisely to face those tough situations, and ultimately a solution comes out.
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
We should have the faith in ourselves, even when others doubt us. But after that, we should give some importance to their doubt too and try to find out what may be the reason for their suspicion. After all, ‘To err is human…’.
So, By keeping faith in ourselves we make sure that we don’t get demoralized or disheartened. And, by allowing others’ doubt a little space of thought, we ensure that we are not doing something wrong knowingly or unknowingly.
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
We should work hard and wait for the result patiently. We should not get tired by waiting.
There are a number of real life examples where people missed big opportunities only by losing their patience. Moreover, there goes a number of proverbs. “Hurry will bury you.” “Haste makes waste.” “Patience pays off.” So, it’s quite understandable why the poet makes a point for patience here.
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
People may lie about us to others, but we should not indulge ourselves in lies. In other words, we should always remain truthful.
If we are misled or tempted to lie, people would ultimately discover the truth and won’t believe us anymore. That’s why it’s important to speak the truth even if that hurts us.
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
People may show their hatred towards us, yet we should not hate them. We should show our love and respect to others.
No man or woman is perfect in this world. Everyone has his strengths and weaknesses. We have to accept that and respect them for the good qualities in them.
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
We should not show us as too good a person or talk too wisely with common people, even after possessing such qualities.
Having acquired all these good qualities mentioned above, people generally feel proud and tend to show off how good they are. But, the poet warns us not to go that way. In that case, others would feel uncomfortable in our company and avoid us. Even others may try to prove us wrong at any cost, leading to an unhealthy competition.
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
To do something bigger, we should dream first. But the poet also reminds us not to be guided by unrealistic dreams. If dreams take the driver’s seat, we would get detached from reality and eventually fail.
There goes a saying – “You have to dream first before your dream can come true.” So we should dream to reach great heights in life, but keeping the reality in mind.
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
We should be able to think over a matter, but should not make the thoughts our aim. That is to say that we often lose our radar and get detached from the main point. So our thinking should not be scattered misleading us away from the target.
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
Life is a combination of success and failure, joy and sorrow, good times and bad times. We should accept both and face both situations with similar treatment.
Here the poet personifies Triumph and Disaster, capitalizing and calling them ‘two impostors’ (pretenders or cheaters). People becomes too happy in success and forgets their duty at hand. We may also get too complacent or proud at a small success, reducing our chances to reach higher goals. Again, at bad times, if we are too grieved, we may lose our faith and confidence. In both cases, our regular course of work is hampered. That is why the poet calls triumph and disaster ‘two impostors’. He asks us to treat those deceivers similarly, with a smiling face. In short, don’t be too happy or too sad under any circumstances.
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
We have to bear the tough situations where we see that our speech or statement is distorted by someone to befool others.
Very often we see that people misinterpret or even deliberately distort our words to use it in their favour. We should not lose our temper hearing that. Rather we should tolerate that, ensuring we have spoken the truth.
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
We have to hold our nerves even after seeing that our favourite thing that we built with all our effort and time is broken. Then we have to pick up the scattered parts and build it all over again. This is another key to getting to the top of the world, according to the poet.
To keep our cool is not easy in such a situation. But patience and the mental toughness would help us build them again. Indeed, there is a story about Newton that the papers containing his theories were destroyed in fire, and he wrote them again from the beginning.
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;
We should be able to accumulate all we have and take a risk in one turn of the game of pitch-and-toss. We may lose the game and all our possessions. But we have to stay calm without uttering a word about that loss and rebuild it from the beginning.
Here the poet talks about the capability of taking big risks to achieve much greater success and keeping quiet even if we lose the bet. This is yet another aspect of our mental toughness that we need to possess.
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!”
In the four lines above the poet continues the same theme of mental strength and the power of Will. We have to force our body (heart and nerve and sinew) to serve us even after it has lost the strength due to old age or illness. Thus we should keep on working driven by the power of Will which would ask them (heart and nerve and sinew) to ‘hold on’ compelling them to do their job.
If we want to do something great from our heart, the Will inside us would prevent the body from getting tired. Indeed, there goes a proverb: “When going gets tough, the tough gets going.”
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
We should stay in touch with people from every class of the society. We should be able to talk with common mass without losing our virtue or moral values. Again, we should be able to walk with kings without going beyond the reach of the common people.
The common touch would help us realize the reality and feel the needs of the society. On the other hand, the noble touch would give us the power and opportunity to reach higher goals.
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
We should build ourselves strong enough, mentally and physically, so that neither enemies nor loving friends can hurt us. Moreover, we should develop healthy relationship with everyone around us, and should not allow anyone to harm us.
We have to develop our personality the right way, so that everyone supports us and gives us importance (count with you), but none too much. If we allow someone to give us too much importance, we may be emotionally bound. That may restrict our freedom and prevent us from doing our duty. Or, we may get complacent thinking that we are so much liked by people, thus reducing our effort.
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Time is precious. A minute is filled with sixty seconds. Time (minute) is here called unforgiving , as it waits for none and doesn’t forgive him who wastes it. We should utilize every minute of our life in productive work. Wasting time is not something we can afford in our short lifespan.
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son.
Finally comes the achievement that we can get if we fulfill all the conditions mentioned so far. We can win this earth and everything in it. We can go to top of the world and rule over everything. And what is more, We would be a complete and perfect human being.
We should not forget that Kipling wrote this poem for his son, as it is addressed in the very last line. The poet wanted to show his son the right way to be a future leader. But it has inspired many a man in their journey of life on earth so far.