For a particular poem to retain its power across years and generations, it must give expression to something that transcends the passing of time, and do so in such an exquisitely memorable manner that it simply cannot be imitated or remade. Competitors and critics may sally forth and give it battle; lesser authors may adopt its theme or mimic its style; but its image will remain—an image somehow more perfect, and more captivating of a deeper truth, than any other that belongs to the civilization which holds it dear.
Although the English world is blessed with much extraordinary poetry—so much so, that even a sampling of its finest works could fill many volumes—there are, I think, a few selections whose elite status is beyond question. I will not attempt to compile such a list here; but I happily proffer Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem “If–” as one such creation which has earned its place of glory.
For those unfamiliar with the poem, it is perhaps helpful to know that Kipling wrote “If–” at the height of his popularity in Britain, when he was the most representative author of one of the greatest empires the world had ever seen. Appearing in 1910, shortly after Kipling received his Nobel Prize for Literature, “If–” stands as one of the quintessential exhortations to the inculcation of maturity, courage, and self-discipline in its reader—of what Victorian and Edwardian society would have proudly called the manly virtues.
With just four brief stanzas to the entire poem, it is at once a stunningly succinct and fascinating piece. It begins:
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
Proceeding thus, we see that Kipling’s unusual, if pithy, choice of title takes on a new importance from the poem’s first line. It is apparent that the conditional word “if” is not merely the idle vanguard of each verse—it symbolically represents that very pivot of free will upon which our lives turn, and therefore implies the weight of a struggle which might or might not be fulfilled. The possibility of failure looms like a shadow over all that follows. It is as if Kipling wants his readers to feel the risk of this journey through the labyrinthine contradictions of life; and he warns us according to the fate of most men, which is the threat of succumbing to the hatred, calumny, and thoughtless impatience of the world.
Following from the first stanza, the poem ascends through a series of additional aspirations and virtues, raising us to contemplate ever more lofty standards of attainment. Many of these memorable lines have been adopted as if mottoes for the boldest ventures in human discovery and commerce; others have been engraved upon the architraves of storied sporting arenas, as with the couplet famously adorning the Centre Court of the Championships at Wimbledon:
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same
Accordingly, perseverance and right character are given as superior to victory itself. But it is sorely misleading to describe this poem, in the common way, as a simple paean to individualistic stoicism—for there is really much that is Aristotelian, and not a little that is Christian, in the ethics it propounds. Particularly in the final stanza, we find that Kipling draws his reader beyond the pinnacles of strength and endurance, and towards a sort of balance, or ability to grasp the precise measure of the good in a variety of changing circumstances. Perhaps its finest lines reside in this last verse which reads:
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!
What a wonderful array of trials are encompassed by these words! We are to understand that kindliness, affection, friendship, and charity are essential things; but they too can be betrayed by the careless, or by those otherwise intoxicated with mere appearances. As Kipling would have it, there is nothing inherently perfect in either the aristocrat or the peasant—those who choose to exalt based on class, those whose heroes are only the celebrities, or only the masses, are equally wrong. We are to meet each individual on the level of personhood, always giving the fullness of respect which is accorded thereto—but also receiving from our neighbor only what is right, and departing anon when he too departs from the deathless law which judges all men. This is Kipling at his best; this is Kipling as we find him in the Jungle Books, and Captains Courageous, and Kim, and a host of short stories and poems which are often forgotten to modern readers.
How, indeed, could such a standard be inimical to the Christian ethos? Is it not its ally, if not the immediate offspring of its thought? For, unless I am much mistaken, this selfsame stanza rings with the echoes of many familiar themes. In the mention of “sixty seconds’ worth of distance run” I hear an allusion to the words of St. Paul: “Know you not that they that run in the race all run indeed, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that you may obtain.” (1 Cor. 9:24). And then, too, in the crowning achievement, there is the faint semblance of the parable of the Prodigal Son, wherein the good father famously instructs his faithful child: “thou art always with me, and all I have is thine.” (Luke 15:31)
But the last thing to be said about Kipling’s “If–” is that it is an exhortation most needful to the present age—especially insofar as it is a piece of literature which has the power to stir consciences and embolden the spirit of a nation. The essentials of manhood, or the virtues of manliness, are given scarce voice through the most powerful cultural forces of our day, perhaps because they have diminished precipitately in the esteem of too many supposedly refined or cosmopolitan minds. Naturally, the symbols of physical or athletic prowess are as significant as ever before; but the qualities of intellect and soul which transcend brute strength must never lay dormant, as if useless appendages of some bygone era in human development. The absurdity of any argument on behalf of so self-evident a truth might have struck Kipling as strange; but, in a few sweeping strokes, his poem “If–” provided a fitting exemplar, or inspiration, for all men who would strive to achieve the fruition of those very talents with which they have been gifted.
Kipling’s work is therefore a model eminently fitting for all places and times—a model equal to the many good things we have received, freely and distinctly, from the one Lord and Maker of all.
(Photo credit: Roger-Viollet / Rex Features)