Menanteau Serfontein – 18 February 2022
In a 1995 BBC opinion poll, “If“ by Rudyard Kipling was voted the United Kingdom’s favourite poem.
I have always liked the poem and I support the values, principles and virtues that are contained in it.
“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;
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 (dishonest people) to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with wornout 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”;
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!
Brief comments on the content of the poem:
“If”— is an inspirational poem that provides advice about the values and principles that one should live by. The poem provides various ways in which to rise above adversity that comes across everyone’s path.
The speaker of “If”— champions a morality built on moderation. In this poem, he advises his son to move through life with composure, and to always exercise self-control, integrity, and humility.
Even though the poem deals exclusively with “manhood”, I believe that the values and principles referred to in the poem, apply across the board to men as well as women.
No matter what happens, the speaker believes, it’s important that people keep their cool. He tells his son to “keep his head” even when everyone around him is losing their composure—not to respond with vitriol just because other people might “hate” him. Similarly, the speaker says that his son should calmly devote himself to rebuilding his life if it ever becomes a shambles, encouraging him to remain reasonable and diligent even when times are tough.
The speaker also insists that his son shouldn’t become smug about his own measured and virtuous way of navigating life: “Don’t look too good, nor talk too wise,” the speaker says, steering his son away from vanity (in the sense of merely wanting to look like a good guy) in favour of simple levelheadedness.
He warns against merely dreaming and thinking without action, i.e. the son should follow-up and follow-through with his dreams and thoughts.
The speaker sees “Triumph” and “Disaster” as equal imposters – triumph can go to one’s head and can easily cause a fall – disaster/defeat could cause doubt, fear and wanting to give up. Triumph and disaster should be treated equally – with humility and wisdom.
Composure and self-restraint, the speaker implies, make it possible to act with respect and dignity in all circumstances and to lead a respectable and virtuous life.
The poem also emphasises the idea that one should be resilient in the face of adversity. Those who neither succumb to vice nor vanity, are those who are capable of persevering through hardship – their “Will” always telling them to “Hold on!”
The idea, then, is that composure contributes to strength, integrity and respect: the speaker insists that his son will be “successful” if he practices self-discipline and self-restraint. These qualities will also turn the boy into a true “Man,” the speaker says, indicating that he thinks respectable men are defined by their ability to lead measured, dignified lives.
The son is told “if you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue or walk with kings—nor lose the common touch”: in other words, he has to develop an inner security that makes him brave, centred, unflappable. Mingling with crowds or people in high places who have different views and morals, he should always remain true to his own values and beliefs.
The whole poem is structured around a set of goalposts, values, principles and standards of good behaviour that a boy should strive towards in order to become a “Man.”
Manhood, in this poem’s view, is its own reward, providing its possessors with an unshakeable sense of self.
The following articles which deal with some of the values and principles that are implied in the poem are contained on this website and are well worth reading:
- Self-control and Self-restraint
- “Who am I”? Knowing yourself and where you are going
- The Real Self vs the “Mask”
- The Man in the Glass – Poem by Peter Dale Wimbrow Sr.
- Integrity and Honesty
- Taking Personal Responsibility
- Respect, Honour and Dignity
- Humility vs the “BIG ME”
- Duty, Trustworthiness, Reliability, Dependability and Faithfulness
- Courage, Willpower, Perseverance and Follow-through
- The Need to Adhere to Traditional Universal (Absolute) Values and Principles
- Sacrifice Today for Something Better Tomorrow – Delayed Gratification
- Men Without Chests
NOTE: Some of the above comments were extracted from an analysis contained in LitCharts. https://www.litcharts.com/poetry/rudyard-kipling/if#:~:text=The%20speaker%20of%20%22If%E2%80%94%22,bad%E2%80%94go%20to%20one’s%20head.
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