Rudyard Kipling’s “If”

posted by Eivind on May 8, 2012, at 10:19 pm

Michael Elston reckoned I should share this poem with you. And I agree. I like the end the best.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Paul-Miller/1322449080 Paul Miller

    Robert Morley does this reading with the appropriate measure of gravitas. Thanks for sharing

  • Tim Dienes

    I have despised this poem for years!

  • EivindFS

    :) That just made me smile.

    What do you despise about it?

  • Nickduffell

    I think you have to go very carefully around this poem. Kipling was a creative genius but a dark man I believe. May I share what I wrote about this poem in my 2000 book, “The Making of Them”?

     Kipling’s writings reveal a deep and heartfelt belief in courage, honour, and the gentlemanly ideal within the mores of society. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in his famous poem If. In this work he urges the reader to keep his head  when all about him are losing theirs. You will be a man, he says, “if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you”. I find this sentiment both moving and at the same time disturbing. I think the poem is worth some attention, for it has a lot to say about the value and limitation of gentlemanly conduct. 

    The idea of being a man “if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you” offers a vision of purposeful self-control. But importantly, it blurs the distinction between the repression of emotions and self-mastery. In other words, what is the difference between preventing ourselves being blown around from pillar to post by our fears and feelings in times of crisis, and the psychologically dangerous path of blocking out our emotional and instinctual responses? Many a gentleman, unaware of the subtle distinction, has been caught in this trap.
    To live life with courage and fortitude is an admirable aim. It recalls the ethos of the warrior. But if it is not to be a defensive stance, it implies that one is not afraid of feelings (and thereby unconsciously driven by them) but willing to learn emotional mastery through cultivating awareness. 

    Today, those interested in the path of the warrior would do better to read the works of Carlos Castañeda than Rudyard Kipling. Kipling runs the risk of allowing his readers to confuse what Castañeda calls ‘a warrior’s unshakeable intent’, with the injunction to ‘keep your head’. Whatever Kipling meant, this is most likely to encourage the gentleman to hide his messy emotion, and pull up his socks in order to make the best of it. For the boarding school man it can become a further invitation to deny his emotionality and tenderness – another example of the curious double-bind in which he finds himself, with its morale-boosting, yet self-denying tone. 

    I think the poem ultimately fails to throw any useful light on the dilemma. It does, however, explicitly rationalise the Victorian gentleman’s preference for stoicism and loyalty over emotion and humanity, as Kipling presents the gentleman as a civilised warrior, in service of high ideals. However, the fear of chaos and emotion make his concept of warriorhood a rigid affair. Perhaps Kipling’s own life offers a key to what he meant in If.  

    He spent the first six years of his life in India, happily indulged both by his artist parents and his beloved native Ayah and Bearer. When he was six, he and his three year-old sister were taken to England and left in the care of complete strangers, hired by his parents. The children were not prepared for this, nor did they ever receive an explanation for why they were abandoned. They did not see their parents again for six years. In the meantime, young Rudyard was consistently persecuted and punished by his foster mother and bullied by her son. He preserved his sanity by protecting his little sister and keeping her spirits up. This he did through the invention of stories of their idealized Indian home and wonderful parents. Finally, he had a breakdown and his mother returned. At twelve, however, he was sent to Westward Ho boarding school where he was regularly beaten and seriously bullied. 
    Kipling kept his head and sublimated both experiences through his writing; the first abandonment became the motivation for many his of children’s tales, written late in his life. The second experience was imaginatively glorified in the public school stories Stalky and Co., where the brutality is directed against the bullies, and virtue triumphs. It is therefore most likely that Kipling’s own need not to be vulnerable produced the anti-emotional sentiment in If, which became a symbol of the spirit of the age and is still going strong. Even in 1999 a survey conducted by the BBC celebrated If as England’s favourite poem!

    On a personal note, I first properly encountered Kipling’s poem when I was twenty. It was during one of the most terrifying times of my life, when I was paying a price for my youthful anti-establishment rebellion. After he had spent the night interrogating me, with an impressive degree of psychological brutality, an undercover police officer gave me the poem to read. I was deeply bewildered and even more unsettled. Was this a generous attempt to support my courage in the hour of darkness, or was it an invitation to betray my individuality and conform? 


    Nick Duffell

  • EivindFS

    I hear you and embrace your input here, Nick. I think it’s extremely important what you offer.

    This in particular stands out to me: “In other words, what is the difference between preventing ourselves being blown around from pillar to post by our fears and feelings in times of crisis, and the psychologically dangerous path of blocking out our emotional and instinctual responses? Many a gentleman, unaware of the subtle distinction, has been caught in this trap.”

    Thanks for sharing!

  • http://www.postmasculine.com/ Zac Champigny

    This is one of my favorite poems ever. Thanks for sharing. 

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