“If ” by Rudyard Kipling
Joseph Rudyard Kipling is the author of the poem “If”. Kipling wrote the poem during his stay in Great Britain in 1909. It was first published in 1910 and gained immediate attention everywhere in Britain, and it was quickly adopted as a popular anthem.
Kipling lived from December 30, 1865, to January 18, 1936. He was born in India and moved with his family to England when he was five years old. In India, he was born in Bombay, presently called Mumbai to a British Family on 30 December 1865 to Alice Kipling and John Lockwood Kipling. His mother was a lively woman and his father was a sculptor and pottery designer who went on become the Principal of Architectural sculpture at Sir Jamestjee Jeejebhoy School of Art in Bombay. Kipling was named after the Rudyard Lake in Staffordshire, England which his parents loved as a place of beauty. Kipling’s parents considered themselves Anglo-Indians and the complex issue of identity and nationality was a prominent feature in his works as the writer himself wrote in his autobiography. Joseph Rudyard Kipling was an English writer chiefly known for his works on the British rule in India.
Five days after Rudyard Kipling’s death on 18 January 1936, George Orwell published a short essay in the New English Weekly as an obituary or as a sort of tribute to the “household god” with whom he had grown up:
For my own part, I worshipped Kipling at thirteen, loathed him at seventeen, enjoyed him at twenty-five and now again rather admire him. The one thing that was never possible, if one had read him at all, was to forget him.
Kipling was awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize in Literature in 1907. He also remains the youngest recipient of the award to this date. The prize citation said: “In consideration of the power of observation, originality of imagination, virility of ideas and remarkable talent for narration which characterize the creations of this world-famous author.” Nobel prizes had been established in 1901 and Kipling was the first English language recipient.
The honour of being the British Poet Laureate and Knighthood was also proposed to him whom he reportedly declined or refused to accept.
He wrote stories and poems of British soldiers in India and stories for children. In the poem If, Kipling provides a guide for how to live an honourable and successful life. The principles presented still apply today. In India, a framed copy of the If poem was placed on the wall in the cabins of the officer cadets at the National Defense Academy. The poem presents the way that the officers should conduct their lives.
The poem If uses figurative language. Figurative language uses words and phrases that are not meant to be taken for real in a literal way. It uses a phrase that describes something by comparing it to some other thing or as a symbol of some action. This is known as a metaphor.
impostors = people who pretend to be someone else
knave = tricky, deceitful, unprincipled person
sinew = tissue that connects muscles to bones
common touch = ability to be along with ordinary people
breathe a word = tell a secret; talk about something
make allowance = permit; allow
master dominant = power and control
pitch-and-toss = a game of skill and chance
serve your turn= be useful; helpful
sinew = strong tissue that connects muscles to bones
stoop = bend
triumph = victory; success
winnings = money that is won in a game
wise = smart
worn-out = damaged
Central idea: The key idea of the poem is that success comes through self-control and a true sense of the values of life. Peril lies in extremes. A man must not lose heart due to suspicions or opposition, but he must make every effort to see the grounds for both. He must not be deceived into thinking either victory or final disaster; he must use every one of them wisely— and move on. He has to hold on to the golden mean in all situations. If he does, he’ll own the world, and even better, he’ll reach the highest status of manhood for his personal reward.
Summary of “If”
“If” is a didactic poem, a work to teach. It gives instruction in developing several specific traits of a successful leader. Kipling provides this instruction not by specifying specific features, but by offering detailed illustrations of the complex actions that a man should or should not take to match those features. The poem is about moral lessons and behaviour. It includes advice from a father to a son on how to grow up to be a better person and a true man. He reminds his son that he will be a man if he can hang on to his beliefs and not be manipulated by others. If he takes his advice, he will have a life that is satisfying and enriching.
The first stanza of the poem illustrates self-confidence and expresses that in being confident; the reader must have the courage to face unpopularity and disagreement. Nonetheless, this stanza also advises against a self-confidence that does not allow alternative views to be considered. By exhorting the reader to disregard both doubt and allowance for doubt (lines 3 and 4), Kipling creates a paradox (the combination of mutually opposing ideas which, although apparently contradictory, serve to make a point in their contradiction) that is characteristic of the tone of the whole poem.
Line 5 recommends patience, line 6 advises honesty and line 7 advises moral fortitude. Such three lines, along with the poem’s first four lines, share a common thread: they offer guidance in maintaining right behaviour in the face of unrighteousness. In line 8, however, Kipling is swift to validate his advice, telling the reader “yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise.” That is, a person must avoid smugness when acting righteously.
The poem encourages the reader to be patient, frank, truthful, trustworthy and humble. He would have to face criticism, resistance, lies, and hate. When people blame him, he shouldn’t lose his faith. He must be optimistic and trust in himself, but he must do his utmost to accept their reservations. In these this, he must maintain his integrity, his beliefs and his principles, but he must not look too good or smart.
This poem encourages one to dream, but it advises not to make one’s master wishes. He’s supposed to dream, but he shouldn’t make his mind his target. Performance and loss should be treated similarly. He should still be hopeful as he sees the fruits of his hard work ruined. He needs to build them up with confidence.
In the final stanza, the poet instructs him to keep talking to the masses. He can, at the same time, uphold his virtue. The poet tells him to walk with the Kings without lacking the human touch. Both men ought to be able to rely on his assistance. Without any pause, he should forgive persons. If he can do all these things, so the world, and all that is therein, will be his own.
The poem is in the good rhyme scheme. It has good sound effects and fine imagery. The tone of the poem centres on human qualities. The mood is one of joy and optimism. There are no overly affectionate words, yet the message of the poet comes from the emotional tie to a child’s welfare. The speaker wants his child to do well in life. By using the second-person point of view, the reader feels that the poet is speaking directly to him. The language used is so simple that readers can easily understand. There are a lot of symbols and figures of speech, especially personification. Dreams assume the human role to control our lives. Success is personified as a triumph. Failure is personified as a disaster. Will is personified as a person who encourages us to succeed. We can also see the use of ‘metaphor’ used by the poet to make the poem more beautiful. ‘Unforgiving minute’ refers to the time that waits for no man. ‘Worn out tools’ represent the feeling of’ total tiredness’ and to make use of our old values. Symbols also make the poem more attractive. ‘Knaves’ represent scoundrels, liars or common people. ‘Kings’ represent for important people. The poem also makes use of the conditional clause “if” to talk about conditional fulfilment.
Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’ is a didactic poem on the virtues of model leadership and typical manhood. The poem celebrates stoicism, fortitude and righteousness as the hallmark of manliness. Through a series of paradoxes, Kipling advises his son John how to lead a successful life.
Kipling’s thoughts on action echo Lord Krishna’s description of a man in The Bhagavad Gita. In fact, many of the ideas expressed in the poem directly reflect Lord Krishna’s message of Nishkama Karma to Arjuna:
“Karmanye Vadhikaraste, Ma phaleshou kada chana
Ma Karma Phala Hetur Bhurmatey Sangostva Akarmani”
The message conveyed in the poem is very important. It helps one to lead a successful life. The poet as a father prepares his son to achieve his dreams. It is just like the mother bird who pushes her baby for his first slight. She has prepared him for the first flight by modelling, coaxing and instructing.
Question of ” If ” by Rudyard Kipling
Q. 1. The poem seems to be a long list of ‘ifs’. What is the ‘then’?
The speaker concludes his ‘ifs’ with the poem’s final lines, “Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it…And you’ll be a Man, my son!”
Q. 2. What, according to the speaker, are the qualities of a Man?
Answers may vary. Examples: patience, confidence, coolness under pressure, levelheadedness, imaginative, intelligent, caring, judicious, persistent, strong, loyal, and brave.
Q. 3. Describe in your own words what Kipling meant when he wrote, “If you can dream—and not make dreams your master.”
Answers may vary. Example: Kipling meant it is important to dream in life, but equally important, do not to let dreams distract you from the important tasks of day-to-day life.
Q. 4. To whom does it seem Kipling wrote this poem?
Kipling ends the last stanza with “And – which is more – you’ll be a man, my son!” It seems, then, he wrote this poem for his own child or children in general.
Q. 5. According to the last few lines of this poem, what does the speaker feel is the most important goal in a young boy’s life?
The most important goal for a young man does not seem to be something as grandiose as ruling “the Earth and everything that’s in it,” but instead simply to “be a Man,” who is able to live honestly and treat people well and fairly.
Q. 6. The theme of this passage is
a. living wisely.
d. being healthy.
Q. 7. Which phrase supports the theme?
a. “If you can keep your head…”
b. “If you can dream and not make your dreams your master…”
c. “If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue…”
d. all of the above
Q. 8. The line, “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,” means:
a. when you take a risk and lose everything, start over.
b. when you lose a game don’t be a sore loser.
c. when others lose at a game you are playing, share your award with them.
d. you should avoid games where you can lose a lot.
Q. 9. When the author says, “Yours is the Earth and everything that is in it, ” he means that by following his advice you will
a. be very rich.
b. be very powerful.
c. live a good life.
d. have a lot of friends.
Q. 10. What advice does the author give in this poem? Explain.
Answers will vary. Examples of advice: trust yourself; be patient; don’t be influenced by the shortcomings of others; be independent; hold on to your own ideals, etc.
Q. 11. What does this poem remind you of in your life?
This poem reminds me of how hard it was to start growing up when I was a small boy. It reminds me of what a challenge it was to do things on my own, and it took me a very long time to become confident and start maturing. It also makes me think of how much more I have to develop in order to grow up completely.
This poem reminds me of when I was younger in life and everything was new to me. This reminds me of learning new things and seeing things for the first time. This brings back memories and still makes me wonder what the future holds.
Q. 12. What feelings does the poem awaken in you? How do your feelings connect with those of the poet?
This poem awakens a number of emotions inside me such as inspiration and a sense of happiness. This also made a strong association with me as some of the situations it explains or speaks about are experiences of my own. I think some of the feelings that I experienced are also the feelings of the poet. They also connect with the poet’s thoughts because they’re the same or close. My feelings on what you must learn and be able to do in order to become a grown-up connect to him and we share the same ideals and principles. It binds us in some strange way that makes it seem like there are too few terms in the English language to explain such a connection
Q. 13. What is the poem about? Consider speaker, symbols, comparisons, contrasts and conflicts.
The poem addresses growing up. It includes a talk about how the poet would tell his son to grow up. He also explains what a true human being is. This is what most of the lines are like. The conflict is a child that can not grow up and who is facing many difficulties. He does not know how to feel, how to behave or how to be.
This poem is about developing, maturing and becoming an adult. The poet brings his own observations into this and tells us about the high and low ends and conflicts that we face, like not giving in even though everyone else does. This compares and contrasts the right and wrong choices one person can make on his journey to adulthood.
Short Answer Questions
1. Who is the poem written for? How do you know this?
A. The poem is written for the poet’s son because the last line says ‘And-which is more – you’ll be a
Man, my son!’
2. Why did Kipling write this poem?
A. Kipling wrote this poem to give his son important words of advice.
3. Explain the phrase ‘…keep your head…’.
A. The phrase means to keep calm/level-headed.
4. What does the poet mean here? ‘And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:’
A. The poet could mean that we mustn’t place too much importance on our looks or speak as if we know best all the time.
5. Which poetic device is used in lines 11 and 12? Explain your answer.
A. Personification is used in lines 11 and 12. The words ‘Triumph’ and ‘Disaster’ are given capital letters which suggests that they are names. They are also referred to as being ‘imposters’ on the next line.
6. Explain the phrase ‘…breathe a word…’
A. This phrase is another way of expressing the word ‘say’.
7. What might the word ‘knaves’ mean?
A. The word knave means a dishonest man.
8. Summarise the meaning behind lines 21-24.
A. The poet is saying that when you feel as if you can’t go on, you must tell yourself to ‘Hold on!’ and not give up.
9. Explain your understanding of the following line:
‘Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,’
A. The poet could be saying that if his son was to spend time with people as important as royalty, then he mustn’t start believing that he is better than ordinary people.
10. What did the poet mean when he wrote the following lines? Explain your reasoning.
‘If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,’
A. The poet is saying that you must make the most of every minute of your life. The poet describes the minute as ‘unforgiving’ as time isn’t ever given back to you.
FIGURES OF SPEECH
The poem is straightforward and written in simple language. The keyword “If” is repeated to emphasize that we need to work hard to reap the rewards of life.
Dreams: masters who can control our lives. In this case, dreams assume a human role/quality, that of being a master.
Triumph and disaster are imposters who can lead us astray. Success is personified as “Triumph” and can make us complacent. Failure is personified as “Disaster”. It can influence us to believe that failure is permanent.
Will is personified as a person who encourages us not to give up.
Unforgiving minutes refer to time that waits for no man, it is like a race where every second is important.
Worn out tools refer to the feeling of total exhaustion that can force someone to give up.
Make one heap of all your winnings is compared to a pile of money won at the gambling table.
Walk with Kings means to socialize with important people.
Talk with crowds refers to mixing with all kinds of people.
A symbol represents an idea:
Knaves represent scoundrels, liars or conmen.
Crowds symbolize the common folk/people.
Kings represent the important people in society.
- Common touch represents humility.