If – Rudyard Kipling | Poetry Analysis

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Born in Bombay, India on December 30, 1865, Rudyard Kipling was an English journalist, short-story writer, poet, and novelist. Kipling in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was among the United Kingdom’s most popular writers. His notable works include The Jungle Book, Just So Stories, Kim, Captains Courageous and “If“. He mainly wrote short stories, novels, children’s literature, poetry, travel literature and science fiction works. In 1907, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, as the first English-language writer to receive the prize, and at 41, its youngest recipient to date. He was also sounded for the British Poet Laureateship and several times for a knighthood, but declined both. He died on January 18, 1936 in England.
(Image from Goodreads and Bio paraphrased from Wikipedia)

First published in the “Brother Square-Toes” chapter of Rewards and Fairies, as a collection of verse and short stories in 1910, Kipling addressed the poem to his son John, after he was inspired by the actions of Leander Starr Jameson.

One could say Kipling’s lines portray what he desperately missed in his childhood, capturing it in words imparting it to his son. As a child, not only was he sent away by his parent but was also abused by his foster mother which could have contributed to his poor performance at school. Needless to mention, the deaths of his two children left him deeply shattered and emotionally broken. Quoting School Work Helper, “This life path contributed to the creation and development of a personality profile, highly evaluated by a man’s indifference towards pleasure or pain and he never relates it with wealth, power, or fame.”

The title If comes across as an unconventional one, but with repeated use throughout the poem, he emphasises its importance and consequences depending on each scenario mentioned in the respective verse. It can be noticed that throughout the poem, the poet has portrayed multiple scenarios, emphasising on the one which the readr should adapt to his general conduct in life. The use of the pronoun ‘You’ imparts a deeply personal tone to the poem as well.

Through the course of this poem, the poet lays emphasis on what one should do/how one should deal in certain scenarios. Starting with a request to keep your head on when everyone is losing theirs, refers to one keeping a level head in tense situations in contrast to how everyone else is dealing with it, he goes on to emphasise on the importance of self trust while taking into account whatever doubts others may have implying the much needed ability to sympathise with others’ thoughts and opinions. He ends the first stanza asking the reader to have patience and advising him or her to not stoop to the level of a liar even when he/ she is lied to.

Moving on to the second stanza, here the poet encourages the reader to dream and think and advises against losing oneself in them such that he/she loses their grasp over reality. He makes use of the poetic device of Personification in the following well known lines, which have been on the wall of the players’ entrance to the Centre Court at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, where the Wimbledon Championships are held.

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

Quoting Poem Analysis,” Kipling’s diction here is also worth mentioning. The word impostor suggests a pretense or disguise. Perhaps he uses this word to showcase the fleeting nature of both: success never stays, nor does disaster. Additionally, he could possibly be suggesting that with these two words often comes a disruption or change.” Proceeding, the poet ends the second stanza telling the reader that they must be strong enough to tolerate their truths being twisted by others for selfish purposes and emphasises on how one should always be prepared to watch their life’s works come undone and still be able to build everything back again.

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on where there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

The third stanza begins with poet reminding the reader that they must not dwell on their past losses. From Poem Analysis, “These lines are particularly powerful. The speaker is imploring the reader to endure, even if that feels both physically (sinew) and emotionally (heart and nerve) impossible. It is also worth noting the capitalization of “Will.” Perhaps Kipling wanted to emphasize the resilience of the human spirit here by making it a power that is separate from the person who possesses it.”

In the fourth and final stanza, Kipling wraps up all the conditions he put forward by presenting the conclusion which captures the consequence of satisfying the conditions. Before doing so, he also mentions that the reader should be able to treat all people with respect regardless of their positions or status in life. He further reminds the reader that they shouldn’t focus too much on disappointment and should make the most of every minute.

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son

From Poetic Analysis, the poem is structured in “four stanzas of equal length; each stanza contains eight lines. Each stanza has a set rhyme scheme of ababcdcd, with the exception of the first stanza, which has the following rhyme scheme: aaaabcbc. In terms of meter, the poem is written in iambic pentameter, with five feet consisting of a stressed and then an unstressed syllable.”

Poetic devices used here include metaphors, personification, symbolism,
anaphora, assonance etc.

Referred Sources:
School Work Helper
Poetic Analysis

Quoting School Work Helper, “Every line of the poem has the tone and the truth of a slogan about life and can be approached as a personal life philosophy built upon virtues of fortitude, responsibilities and resolution.”
This has always been a phenomenal piece of art but I feel even more appreciative of its poignancy after analysing the tone and context. An iconic poem, this is often regarded as yet another magnificent piece from an equally spectacular writer. I hope you found this poem heartfelt and motivating! Please don’t hesitate to point out any errors or misinterpretations. Thank you so much for reading!


12 thoughts on “If – Rudyard Kipling | Poetry Analysis

  1. This poem has had special meaning for me since I was a Teacher Assistant in Gulfport, Mississippi during the mid-1980s. The principal and the teacher I assisted enlightened me as to a means by which I could enroll in college classes. At the end of the school year, the principal gave me a leather bound book with Rudyard Kipling’s “If” inside. She had it marked and suggested I read it. From that day, I have loved this poem. Being a poet already, this poem spoke volumes to me.
    Thank You for reviewing the poem. If it touches one life as it touched mine, it will have done much for that person. I commend you for taking this task to hand. Reviewing books and poetry is not an easy task, but well worth time spent. I thoroughly enjoy reading your reviews. Blessings!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Poems just take on a whole new dimension as you associate it with a personal incident as you have. I’m truly happy, inspired and touched that this poem holds so much value in your life. Thank you so very much for your kind words. It means so much and I appreciate it more than words could possibly say. Wishing you a blessed week ahead!

      Liked by 2 people

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