If by Rudyard Kipling Analysis: The Stem of Morality

If by Rudyard Kipling cover image

One of the most beloved writers of the 19th century, Rudyard Kipling has also contributed to poetry with equally imaginative and creative abilities shown in the literature. The poem If by Kipling goes to show his love for children, just as The Jungle Book did. The poem is a message to the youth, a lesson for morality and how to handle pain and joy, failure, and success. 

The poem is said to be written for Kipling’s son but that can be apocryphal. The source of inspiration for this poem is well-known. Kipling wrote this as a tribute to Leanard Starr Jameson, a Scottish politician. Who this poem was tributed to is not the concern here, but what this poem says is of importance.  Let’s take a look at the poem. 

If poem 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 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!

The meaning of If poem 

The poem is a lyrical beauty encapsulating a message for stoicism, a way of finding morality, and the way to be a worthy human. Kipling addresses the reader(s) and tells them how to survive in this world. How to be an honorable person when the times try your patience, your morality, your will. Each line of the poem holds a lesson for the readers, teaching them what could go wrong, what could affect us, and how to act in that situation. 

Stoicism is the practice of being enduring in nature, being indifferent to both pain and pleasure. But what many forget, stoicism is also about holding to your moral beliefs, being honorable and just, and never be deterred or lose courage in times of adversity. This poem gives a lesson on stoicism with hypothetical conundrums.

Each stanza starts with an “if” to propose a difficult as well as a comforting situation. Kipling that emphasizes on the pleasing and painful effect of those situations and tells us that if we can react indifferently to these, then we can be a Man. Man here is capitalized because it represents more than a male human. It represents a man above all, morally. A person with God-like qualities, undeterred, indifferent to both comfort and calamity. 

But I think a few paragraphs are utterly incompetent to unpack the entire content of this brilliant poem. Saying that the poem is about stoicism would be like putting the dough in the oven and calling it bread. Each paragraph needs to be elaborated. Now, this elaboration isn’t an explanation. Kipling’s skill in writing powerful lines with simplicity is unparalleled. Elaboration aims to bring more than what the stanza says. 

If poem in-depth analysis 

The poem is made of four octaves stanzas and while it might be difficult to see, but each stanza has a theme, a quality that Kipling is talking about. So for the in-depth analysis of the poem, I’ll put the four stanzas under aptly termed headings; what the stanza is talking about. The four qualities are;

  • Self-control
  • Senses
  • Perseverance 
  • Morals

Self-control

Take a look at the first stanza;

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;

The first stanza teaches the readers about self-control, about self-restraint. Of all the vices that humans possess and all the troubles we bring to ourselves, how many times did a lack of self-control was a culprit? How many times the problems and the regrets could have been avoided if we could hold ourselves? This is the theme of the first stanza of If. 

Kipling tells us to keep calm and cool when everyone has lost control. When the ship is about to founder, don’t make hasty decisions. Keep calm even if you are being accused, subjected to jeers and insults. When you are being criticized, don’t get upset and let anger fill your mind. But the next lines are where Kipling incorporates stoicism.

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

   But make allowance for their doubting too;

This means that when someone criticizes you, keep confidence in yourself but also don’t shut yourself to what they are saying. That would be called being ignorant. Pay heed to what they are saying, take the best from it, and make yourself even better. And only good command over yourself, self-control can let you do it. 

Kipling also says not to take the vices of the vicious. If someone hates you, don’t take that hate. Don’t take something that is causing you pain. The same goes for lies. But at the same time, don’t try to show yourself as above all or talk too wise because is that is a vice as well.

The whole stanza is about learning self-control, about controlling our impulses, our incessant desire to react to anything immediately, without thinking about the consequences after. 

Senses

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 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;

The second stanza talks about put senses and our servitude to them. Our senses and the abilities they give us are necessary, but if not moderated, they can take us away from doing anything substantial. Thinking, dreaming, listening, seeing and feeling must all be moderated, using them to be aware not lost. 

Dreams are necessary, but a very sweet dream without action will most definitely result in inaction. The same goes for thinking. Thinking must be quickly followed by action, not another follow-up thought. This is what the second stanza teaches us.

It also tells us to be able to see and hear bitter things that are necessary. Don’t run away from the truth if it does not please your senses. Don’t get flooded with joy if you achieve success or drown in melancholy if defeat is what you get. It is necessary to be able to take all these bravely.

Have the courage to speak the truth, hear how harsh it may sound bear to see people twisting it, turning it something else. But be brave and take the criticism. Make your senses strong. Kipling called triumph and disaster as imposters because they are the same, just pretending to be different. 

Both triumph and disaster can render you inactive. To inundate your senses to such a degree that you cannot recover. This is why, with stoicism in mind, take both of them indifferently. 

Perseverance

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”;

The third stanza talks about perseverance, about the strength to start it again. What does perseverance mean? It is doing something difficult. And what is more difficult than doing something difficult that you had already done, again. Keep the courage to do it, be prepared to achieve all that you have achieved till now again. 

The line If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew To serve your turn long after they are gone holds a special meaning. Heart refers to passion, nerve refers to courage and sinew refers to strength. Keep these three qualities ready and you have the perseverance to go through anything.

Be prepared and do it again without a sigh if you have to. Because if things that you achieve are lost, no matter who you complain to, who you cry to or ask for justice, nothing will bring back what you lost. Only doing it again can. 

Morals

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!

Nothing defines a person better than the morals he/she holds. Your morals guide you and make you who you are. All the lessons that Kipling gave in the stanzas above are all culminated here. Perseverance, strength, courage, humility, self-control, etc are all your morals. And this stanza talks about the quality of morals; they never change.

So be the same when you are with the crowd or the king. Don’t give in to mob mentality when with the crowd and don’t treat people as an emotional stock of humans when with the crown. Be forgiving, be indifferent to friends or enemies. Have these qualities, ever unchanging and then, one can be a worthy person. 

In the end, Kipling refers to the readers “my son”. Is he referring to his son? Maybe. Maybe this poem was written for Kipling’s son. Or maybe Kipling refers to the readers as his “sons”. We know his love for children and his contribution to children’s literature. But that’s not the point. The point is, the message is for both his son and the readers. 

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