It’s easy to imagine “If—” as a great modernist title. Terse, mysterious, hesitant, it could have introduced a Williams fragment full of precarious gaps and leaps, or an Auden riff on the As You Like It line about evasive speech: “Much virtue in If.” Instead the title belongs to Rudyard Kipling, to the year 1910, and to a didactic poem that remains a classic of righteous certitude.

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:

Meanwhile, Kipling himself remains an icon of obnoxious wrongness. George Orwell’s 1942 disclaimer has been widely quoted: “It is no use pretending that Kipling’s view of life, as a whole, can be accepted or even forgiven by any civilized person.” Imperialist racist, aggressive militarist: Kipling was this and more, and very publicly. Even in his least controversial work, the outlook Orwell called “morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting” bleeds in at the margins. Read “If—” beside Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden,” and the line “Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it” starts to smell like colonialist arrogance—or “jingoistic nonsense,” as one British paper put it in 1995, after Britain had voted “If—” its all-time favorite poem.

And therein lies the reason for issuing disclaimers at all: Kipling has lasted. For decades, Orwell wrote, “every enlightened person has despised him, and at the end of that time nine-tenths of those enlightened persons are forgotten and Kipling is in some sense still there.” In his 1939 elegy for W.B. Yeats, Auden judged that time had “Pardoned Kipling” by separating his writing talent from his bigotry. Auden dropped that stanza from later versions of the poem, but global culture has never dropped Kipling.

Disney’s Jungle Book remake comes out next year, and “If—” still tops those polls in Britain. The poem adorns coffee mugs and dorm posters; it’s been quoted on The Simpsons and in Joni Mitchell lyrics; it ranks among the most-searched-for titles in the Poetry Foundation’s online archive. Former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, who says he first heard it recited on an NFL broadcast, defiantly quoted it during his downfall on corruption charges. Onward it swaggers like its own idealized “Man,” indifferent to love and loathing, refusing to quit. It’s the poetic advice column forwarded around the world, the kind of timeless wisdom everyone thinks someone else should follow.

Kipling himself dryly remarked, in his late memoirs, that the poem offers “counsels of perfection most easy to give.” One of its pearls adorns the players’ entrance to the Centre Court at Wimbledon: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two impostors just the same.” No Wimbledon competitor has ever done this.

Still, the poem clearly speaks to an ideal or an aspiration. When thousands of readers search the Web for “If—,” what are they hoping to find? Why do its lessons lodge so easily in the memory, even if we’re not trying to learn them? To reckon with—maybe even outgrow—this old-school lecture on maturity, it’s not enough to heap our enlightened scorn on the poet. We have to examine his character and our own.


“If—” was published in the last year of the Edwardian era, the year in which Virginia Woolf believed “human character changed” and modernity began. But Kipling had conceived it 15 years earlier, in 1895, and as a cultural document, it’s purely Victorian.

Kipling had one of the great unhappy Victorian childhoods: beatings, public humiliations, absentee parents, wretched eyesight. Born in India to British parents in 1865—December 30th will mark his 150th birthday—he was packed off to England for schooling at the age of five. Under the “care” of an abusive guardian, a military widow, his acute homesickness turned to lasting misery. Edmund Wilson recounts the grim story in The Wound and the Bow (1941), plausibly arguing that childhood trauma was the “wound” Kipling carried into his adult work. For one thing, it seems to have informed the “definite strain of sadism” Orwell detected in his writing. It also surely informed his deep interest in childhood itself and in strict codes of moral correctness.

By the time Kipling began writing “If—,” his powerless days were behind him. He’d rocketed to fame in 1890 with Barrack-Room Ballads—the collection that contained “Tommy,” “Danny Deever,” and other future anthology fodder—and had secured his place in the history of children’s literature with The Jungle Book in 1894. At the time, he and his young family were living in Brattleboro, Vermont, where he drew rapt attention as “the Genius of the place” (in his friend Mary Cabot’s words) until his reluctant return to England in 1896. International celebrity had amplified his strident politics, and “If—” first developed as a topical comment on a now-obscure controversy.

In December 1895, a dashing colonial administrator named Leander Starr Jameson led a raid against the Boers in the Transvaal of South Africa. He was trounced by his opponents and jailed by the British government that had originally backed him, but the British public—riding a gathering wave of what became known as jingoism—glorified him. The incident helped ignite the Second Boer War, which Kipling witnessed firsthand while visiting troop hospitals and producing a troop newspaper. For Kipling, Jameson was a martyr to official hypocrisy, a model of stoic pride, and, perhaps, a projection of his self-image as an adventurer among petty critics.

The poem soon gained a second inspiration: the birth of Kipling’s son, John, in 1897. When it finally appeared in print (in the children’s book Rewards and Fairies) in 1910, John was just reaching adolescence—the age of its ideal reader. In the interim, Kipling had met with two of his greatest triumphs and disasters: winning the Nobel Prize in 1907 at age 42 (he remains the youngest laureate in literature) and losing his daughter Josephine to pneumonia in 1899. During this period his politics had only grown noisier and harsher, and by 1910, according to Wilson, they had touched off “the eclipse of [his] reputation” that progressed until his death.

But “If—” was an instant hit. Orwell reports that, along with some of Kipling’s other “sententious poems,” it was “given almost biblical status.” Like William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus,” it dangles the promise of mastery over self and world. Like First Corinthians, it sketches a blueprint for maturity without filling in too many specifics. And like all fatherly advice, it’s tempting to read as an older man’s counsel to his younger self, the sweet or bitter harvest of lessons learned. “If you can dream—and not make dreams your master,” you’re well on your way to a successful career in the arts. “If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,” you’re not so much stoic as intensely self-protective. A remarkable number of lines are about handling abuse.

T.S. Eliot was fascinated by Kipling and once wrote a cautiously approving introduction to his verse. (In one spine-tingling moment, he praises Kipling’s skillful use of the word whimper.) Where Orwell ultimately judged Kipling a “good bad poet,” Eliot saw him as a writer who “was not trying to write poetry at all,” but sometimes tossed off a great poem anyway.

“If—” certainly isn’t trying to do anything “poetic” by modern standards: present rich ambiguities, capture shifting moods or the texture of consciousness. It’s just preaching. Now and then, critics have scoured the poem for deeper intent; in one ingenious reading, Harry Ricketts argues that it “destabilisingly” echoes John Donne’s “The Undertaking” (which advises a male “you” in a series of “if” clauses) and Thomas Gray’s “Ode to Adversity” (“Teach me to love and to forgive … and know myself a man”). Yet “If—” lacks the density and argumentative subtlety of those poems. Beside the stormy imagery of Yeats’s “A Prayer for My Daughter” (1919) and the disillusioned candor of Langston Hughes’s “Mother to Son” (1922)—two well-known “advice” poems with which “If—” nearly shares an era—it reads like a pre-game pep talk. (You don’t see many modernist lines inscribed in sports arenas.) Its tone recalls Polonius’s “To thine own self be true” speech, minus the surrounding symphony of Shakespearean irony.

The poem’s sheer daddishness—its blend of creakiness and timelessness—has left it wide open to parody. Long before Grampa recited it at the roulette tables on The Simpsons, Elizabeth Lincoln Otis affectionately tweaked it in “An ‘If’ for Girls” (1931), which registers both the nearness and distance of Kipling’s cultural universe:

If you can dress to make yourself attractive,
Yet not make puffs and curls your chief delight;
If you can swim and row, be strong and active,
But of the gentler graces lose not sight;
If you can dance without a craze for dancing,
Play without giving play too strong a hold,
Enjoy the love of friends without romancing,
Care for the weak, the friendless and the old;

Otis’s ideal girl at times seems destined to become a Victorian helpmeet: a “loyal wife and mother” who can “make good bread as well as fudges.” Yet she’s also expected to “swim and row,” “master French and Greek and Latin,” and know how to “ply a saw and use a hammer”—in other words, to be as well educated and well rounded as the boys. Though ostensibly deferential (“With apologies to Mr. Rudyard Kipling”), Otis ends up giving Kipling’s “Yours is the Earth” line a proto-feminist twist:

 You’ll be, my girl, the model for the sages—
             A woman whom the world will bow before.

Kipling deals mostly in moral generalities; Otis promotes concrete skills and actions. Kipling wants readers to “fill the unforgiving minute / With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run”—a metaphorical statement about effort. Otis literally tells readers to get some exercise. Kipling’s is finally a spiritual and not a practical guide; in that one sense, it’s a little ambiguous, a little elusive, a little “poetic.”

After promising an entire world’s worth of freedom, “If—” concludes by promising something “more”: two limiting labels.

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

To be a “Man” in prewar England was to maneuver inside an armored suit of gender conventions. To be Rudyard Kipling’s son was to be trapped in a generational tragedy.

John was named after Rudyard’s own father, John Lockwood Kipling, who had fueled Rudyard’s youthful misery by sending him away but also collaborated in his son’s adult success. (An artist and art-school principal, he illustrated several of Rudyard’s volumes, including The Jungle Book.) Rudyard’s parental legacy was similarly mixed. On the one hand, he spun some of the most inventive bedtime stories ever recorded; on the other hand, he wrote high-level support-our-troops sermons such as “Tommy”; favored compulsory military service for men; and generally trumpeted martial virtues at every opportunity. He internalized a code that even some of his contemporaries found stodgy, and he passed it on. He’d never fought in the trenches himself, but “when the drums [began] to roll” for the Great War, he helped John march—pulling strings to maneuver his eager but severely myopic son past the army’s eyesight requirements. John went missing in the Battle of Loos in 1915 and was confirmed dead two years later.

As a celebrity author, Kipling remained an official booster of the war; as a grieving father, he sank into a deep bitterness. “Kipling spent the later part of his life in sulking,” wrote Orwell, whose essay never mentions John’s death. “Somehow history had not gone according to plan.” The world he’d seemed to master as a literary prodigy crumbled around him; the decade that began with “If—” ended with Eliot’s “Gerontion.” Belatedly, he confronted “the wastage of Loos” in the 1925 story “The Gardener,” whose heroine loses an adopted son to the war and resents “being manufactured into a bereaved next of kin.”

And so, in its dark-glass way, “If—” reflects modern uncertainty after all. It’s a masterpiece of timing, of structure, of rhetoric (the genre that Yeats pointedly contrasted with poetry). But the more you read it, the more you hear a countersong beneath the assurance. In that long series of perfectly balanced clauses, you hear a mounting fear that the child won’t succeed. The sentence keeps building; the number of required conditions keeps growing. Maturity starts to seem like a very big “if.”

For both author and readers, the anxiety is justified. What we want to find in the poem—as in so many Victorian/Edwardian relics—is precisely an authoritative, prelapsarian sense of certainty. Once upon a time, the unconscious thinking goes, there were no world wars. God, parents, and country could be trusted. Poetry didn’t need instability and iconoclasm. Men were Men. But those simpler values were always tainted where they existed at all. The rigid composure of “If—” foreshadows the madness that split poetry into fragments. The world Kipling promises was fallen already.

Originally Published: December 15th, 2015

Austin Allen’s first poetry collection, Pleasures of the Game (Waywiser Press), won the 2016 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize. His poems and essays have appeared widely. He lives and teaches in Cincinnati.

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  1. December 16, 2015
     Steve Ely

    Good stuff. My poem 'Ely on Orwell on Eliot on Kipling'
    in my book 'Englaland' (Smokestack, April 2015) makes
    many of these points and the preceding poem 'Camp Fire
    Yarn No. 28'is an account of Baden Powell's heroics at
    Mafeking written as a Kiplingesque ballad.

  2. December 16, 2015
     Rich Goodson

    An excellent commentary. It's weird how I get caught up in the rhetoric of 'If'
    - such that part of me believes in its hoary assertions while I simultaneously
    know it to be nonsense. The comment about how the proliferation of 'if'-
    clauses seems stretched, seems to contain its own shadow of anxiety - is a
    nicely deconstructive point.

  3. December 17, 2015
     George Wolff

    Austin, I like you essay very much. May I put a link to it in an eBook I am finishing on "How to Enjoy Modern Poetry," in wh I use "IF--" as an example of a traditional poem, in contrast to most modern poems? I'll send you a copy if you'd like.
    Also, see "The Unfading Genius of Rudyard Kipling"
    by T. S. Eliot, O.M. "The Unfading Genius of Rudyard Kipling," where Eliot praises Kipling more fully than in his Intro.
    http://www.kiplingjournal.com/...

  4. December 18, 2015
     Greg Tingey

    The usual ignorant cods about Kipling being "racist" I
    note.
    In which case, why is "Gunga Din" the poor, probably
    low-caste water-carrier, the "better man" ??
    And why was he hissed & nearly expelled from his Indian
    club, because he showed sympathy & understanding of the
    locals, if he was a "racist", eh?
    The other thing people ought to remember about RK is
    that, before he became a successful Author & Poet - he
    was a Journalist - & a very good observer & reporter.
    If there was racism around, & there was, he reported it
    - that was his job.

  5. December 18, 2015
     Rev Robert Maury Hundley

    RK'S time in Brattleboro, Vermont, maybe inspiring Margret Chula & Diane Whitney, even close to Robert Frost while boosting Jay Parini. I knew Hayden & Rosemary Carruth, + David Budbill, in northern Vermont. Does Vermont squeeze poetry out of some? The questions of RK are still there, how to be a Self.

  6. December 19, 2015
     Francis

    Good essay! :)

  7. December 19, 2015
     Jally

    An obnoxious and ignorant piece of writing. World views are constantly
    changing. The treatment of the Ancient Romans on the people they
    colonized was severely barbaric by our modern standards - feeding
    slaves to wild animals for sport, nailing supposed 'criminals' who were
    not given a fair trial to crosses, raping and pillaging etc etc .
    Colonialism is as old as human history ( namemore than one country
    that has not been colonised at some point in time. britain was
    colonized repeatedly over an 1 000 year period) and yes, in retrospect
    from our modern perspective , the British colonial era was barbaric too,
    but at the time - as with Ancient Rome - certain practices were
    acceptable to most people with very few ( certainly not a critical mass )
    ever even questioning them. For example At the height of the British
    colonial era child labor was completely accepted in the UK itself - as
    was slavery in America. Today educated people abhor the idea of these
    practices. And so World views change. To judge Kipling as a person on
    the basis of his worldview - which was perfectly normal AT THAT TIME
    is showing gross ignorance of history and the human condition

  8. December 20, 2015
     John Burghardt

    Who are you,Austin Allen? This is a wonderful essay.

  9. December 20, 2015
     Ronald Keeperman

    It is not simply that RK shares Rudyard Kipling's initials that I add the following small point of personal
    information to this conversation. We know almost nothing about Shakespeare and yet we revere his
    work and judge him on that alone. I think that this should be the standard we hold up for artists who
    create objects that define us as creatures of immensely different shades of talent. I like to learn as
    much as is possible of the private lives and thoughts of the artists whose work I admire, enjoy, savor,
    but keep that knowledge in a vault, so to speak, so as not to take unnecessarily from the creation, but to
    add to it only if necessary.

  10. December 20, 2015
     peter j conradi

    Excellent essay full of hard-won insight : thank you !

  11. December 20, 2015
     Brandino Machiavelli

    Young Austin Allen shows the typical endemic incapacity
    to lift himself above his time, his environment and his
    prejudices. The fact remains that "IF" continues to be an
    all-time favourite with the masses. Maybe that's
    democracy at work. Maybe, unknowingly, they understand
    the poem, its time and Kipling's limits and greatness
    better than young cool and trendy intellectuals.

  12. December 21, 2015
     Jeffrey Paparoa Holman

    My father, a Petty Officer in the Royal Navy during WW2, had a cyclostyled copy of If in his wallet, found after died in 1972. He had carried with him during the war, in which he served from the first day to the last. He also survived by a few metres a kamikaze attack on his carrier HMS Illustrious, in April 1945. He was on the bridge and saw the plane coming straight at him. Whatever we might see in Kipling, this man found found something in the poem that made sense to one who had faced his own death. It is easy to criticize the taste of others but not so easy to hear what they hear. It wasn't Kipling's jingoism or racism that caused my workingclass father to make this poem a credo. I think it helped him survive war's madness.

  13. December 22, 2015
     Peets

    Nicely done! Well informed and thought provoking. I'll forgive you for
    not mentioning that the poem was recited in full during a 1980 episode
    of the sitcom "Taxi"-which was my first exposure to it as a 10 year old.
    No google back then so I had to find an actual book containing the
    actual poem. "Or walk with kings--nor loose the common touch" has
    stayed with me through my life and when I have walked with kings I
    recall my workingclass roots and upbringing to keep me grounded.
    Perhaps Kipling, a man of his time, also struggled to maintain such a
    balance because he no doubt saw that nobility is not the product of a
    bloodline. It is the result of that most human of endeavors, the struggle
    to overcome adversity. He paid dearly for his beliefs and one can only
    imagine the regrets he would have suffered late in life.

  14. December 22, 2015
     Russell Hogg

    The writer spends a fair bit of this article condemning
    Kipling for his racism. Many in the comments section
    object to him doing this. I am afraid that the way the
    world is, writing the article this way is simple self
    preservation. Once you get past the 'Kipling was a vile
    racist' stuff, the article is actually pretty interesting
    and insightful.

  15. December 22, 2015
     Bill

    Please read Kipling's Recessional if you think that he was a jingoist.
    The whole poem (written in the mid 1890's) is a counter-blast to war-
    mongers.

    Yes, Kipling did write patriotic poetry. He considered it his job to do so
    during national conflicts such as the Boer War and WW1. Much as
    today's anti-war politicians still praise the troops while condemning the
    cause.

    Accusations of racism are harder to shift but he acknowledged in his
    poetry that Piet (Boer farmer and guerilla) was a better friend to the
    British working man than the Generals and politicians. And that the
    Sudanese were all 'first class fighting man', which by the standards of
    the day was high praise. I do not see any similar respect among
    today's commentators.

  16. December 22, 2015
     Mr. Ronald Weasley

    A good read, but as some of the other
    commentators I don't understand why RK
    is being held accountable for common
    world views of the time which he lived in?

    I feel like Kippling to a much greater
    extent is scrutinised compared to other
    writers, politicians and artists from other
    times with views that don't match today's
    society.

    Perhaps this essay would have been
    better if it focused on why his work still is
    so popular 150 years after death.

  17. December 22, 2015
     Charles

    I am no expert on literature, but the Kipling story "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" is to me personally the best work of prose I've read in the English language. And another Jungle Book story, "The Undertakers," is also of very high quality. Kipling is like Wagner; we dislike the man, but the greatness of the art is what makes him last.

  18. December 23, 2015
     Anarcissie

    Pious, sanctimonious, sententious, self-righteous -- for a certain kind of person desiring to posture in a certain way, what's not to love? Plus, you get a good solid dose of retro patriarchalism. No wonder a lot of people search for it. It's what they like. Well, it could be worse -- at least we don't hear about 'lesser breeds without the Law' or being 'White -- all white inside.' Thank God for small mercies.

  19. December 23, 2015
     Alex Leibowitz

    I think the biographical detail about Kipling is
    interesting, but I also don't buy what appears to be
    the central thesis of this poem, that we need to
    understand it to understand the ideal that Kipling
    points towards. Why not instead try to reconstruct
    the philosophical ideal Kipling is pointing towards
    and then examine whether or not that ideal is
    something trying to live up to or not? I think we've
    lost the ability to read works of literature naively -
    - as if, in the end, they might be "telling the truth"
    (telling too, that I felt the urge to put that phrase
    in quotes). Case in point: it's the analysis and not
    the summary, ultimately a kind of refutation, that is
    the gold standard in literary criticism.

  20. December 23, 2015
     Jan Sand

    The excuse that Kipling should not be judged for his beliefs since many attitudes of his time accepted then are disdained today is, to say the least, controversial.
    That he was extraordinarily talented in his craft is granted even by his critics who highly disagreed with a good deal of what he said. This only emphasizes what has been mentioned before that a person's work should not necessarily be evaluated equally to the individual who created it although doubtlessly there are clues within each that can be taken into account. Leni Riefenstahl is much acclaimed for her professional work for the Nazis and that does not necessarily indicate approval of that political regime. Nevertheless, had she devoted her skills against the regime there is no doubt she would be much more appreciated. In today's world the monstrous horrors proliferated by the prime world powers and accepted by much of their populations may well set a standard in future times for judgments rather unpleasing to current popular understandings, assuming we survive, which seems somewhat uneasily indeterminate.

    The man himself, of course, no longer exists so the matter of judging him, aside from judging his era, becomes somewhat academic, no matter the delight of some of his works.

  21. December 23, 2015
     Don Hollway

    Another elitist highbrow feels the need to dismiss work the masses find
    inspiring. How is it millions of people over a hundred years can read
    and treasure "If" without seeing racism or colonialism? Sure, Kipling was
    a product of his time, but do you imply that fathers of Indian Hindus or
    South African Zulus would have advised their sons differently? If fathers
    in modern Pakistan and Afghanistan -- ex-British colonies -- were
    giving their sons similar advice, the world would be a better place. Not
    everything needs to be viewed through the progressive/liberal lens. I
    think it more likely that, regarding "If," everyone else gets it, and you
    simply don't.

  22. December 23, 2015
     Matt

    Jan Sand,

    Thank you for mentioning Leni Riefenstahl and the Nazis as a point of comparison for Kipling and Imperial England.

    And what do you make of the fact that Kiplings beloved Imperial England fought the Nazis?

    You remind me of a quip: 75 Years ago my grandparents fought the Nazis. Today, my grandparents worldview is considered Nazism.

  23. December 23, 2015
     Hozo

    "It's just preaching."

    My lecture on Kipling ended with this second-grade sentence; more cogent literary analysis from the post-modern, politically correct, cookie-cutter chattering academic class that signifies nothing other than rote thinking.

  24. December 24, 2015
     Michael McLane

    Very well thought-thru and well written. Like Rudy The Kip's poetry, we don't have to agree with everything Allen says to appreciate its better parts. Yes, as has been said, Allen fell to the temptation to make modern judgements a hundred years after events, a distraction for reader and scholar. Still an excellent analysis.

  25. December 24, 2015
     Bjorn Merker

    There is much more of interest in George Owrell's long 1942 essay on Kipling than the critical line Austin Allen cites from it. About the "lesser breeds without the Law" Orwell has this to say: "The line is always good for a snigger in pansy-left circles. It is assumed as a matter of course that the 'lesser breeds' are 'natives', and a mental picture is called up of some pukka sahib in a pith helmet kicking a crocodile." Yet, says Orwell, the expression "refers almost certainly to the Germans, and especially to the pan-German writers". As for the poem "Recessional" itself, in which the phrase occurs, Orwell has this to say: "The whole poem, conventionally thought of as an orgy of boasting, is a denunciation of power politics".

    Similarly, an analysis of "The White Man's Burden" as a whole, performed by the poet Craig Raine, reveals perspectives unexpected on the conventional crude reading by denunciatory critics. Since I cannot do justice to Raine's subtle analysis in the space of a comment, I refer the interested reader to Raine's "Kipling: Controversial Questions" (pp. 17ff), published in the September 2002 issue of Kipling Journal.

  26. December 24, 2015
     Jan Sand

    As a soldier in the US Army Air Force from 1944 to 1946 I am well aware of the many horrors of that war and the stakes involved in winning. But that is irrelevant to my comment on the value and quality of an artist's work and the nature of his or her person. The British empire, as with the works of all powerful nations as is evident currently have small regard for acceptable behavior and an ignorance of that unfortunate fact should be remedied. As disgusting as the fascists were at the time, a knowledge of all involved nations at the time leaves no one with clean hands.

  27. December 24, 2015
     Rowena Hill

    It may be of interest: some years ago I found in a church in Venezuela a Spanish translation of 'If' accurate till the end where it says 'what is more you'll be a woman my daughter, and one day you'll come to me with my grandchild'.
    Men are apparently not expected here to live up to the virtues extolled in the poem - or are they considered feminine?

  28. December 25, 2015
     Chuck Vekert

    A small point but perhaps of interest to the sort of person who reads this type of essay. Mr. Allen's phrase "riding a gathering wave of what became known as jingoism" suggests that certain events in 1895 gave rise to the word "jingoism." In fact the word goes back to the Crimean War and the deathless music hall verse, which raised popular support for the war:

    We don't want to fight,
    But by jingo if we do,
    we've got the ships,
    We've got the men,
    We've got the money too!

  29. December 25, 2015
     Frank Lillquist

    I'm just an old retired journalist from a working class background so out of the orbit of most intellectual discussion about poetry. But I do recall long ago that poems like Kipling's Ballad of East and West, Macauley's Horatius, Chesterton's Lepanto interested me when I was a boy and lead me to at least give poetry a chance, unusual in the black leather jacket era. I went on to have some appreciation for Frost, Cummings, Houseman, etc and I don't think my opinions of India or the Ottoman Empire were adversely affected. Maybe that's one of the reasons Kipling is still around.

  30. December 25, 2015
     Virginia Richardson

    Perhaps Kiplings poem says more about the readers of the poem than
    its writer. I immediately thought of how the "masses" are responding to
    the jingoism of Donald Trump. In part, he is telling his followers how
    to think, but more importantly that it is okay to think that way. "If" is a
    self-help poem--easily understood with surface level and quite
    definitive ideas about how to approach a very confusing and
    sometimes nasty world.
    This is an excellent essay.

  31. December 25, 2015
     Chris Nelson

    Thank you, Austin. It's a great essay, well-researched, well-argued and thought provoking. Whether I 'like' it or not is quite beside the point. I learn a lot of new truths all the time - even at my advanced age, and even with a certain curiosity about the world and the time, ability and desire to satisfy that curiosity, there is always more to learn - and I don't always like the truths that I learn. But it is good to learn the truth, whether we like it or not; better to know than not-know. So I won't squawk about you "tearing down a good man". I've never known much about RK beyond his writing (and sometimes not even the writing, but some filmmaker's adaptation of the writing), so if I want to disprove your analysis I would have to do more scholarship of my own.

    But I don't think that I will do that. I believe your analysis is apt, and I think that "product of his time" is a pretty weak crutch to support a lot of nonsense that passes for "tradition" and "culture" throughout human history. Your essay helps to reinforce in me the idea that I've had for a long time - longer than you've been alive, I expect - that we each need to look anew at the world constantly and stop accepting status quo as "the way things ought to be, because this is the best of all possible worlds". So in that sense, whether I like what I've learned about Kipling or not, thank you very much for that reminder.

    I would like to remind you, though, that no matter how forward-looking (and thinking and acting) we try to be, and no matter how true to ourselves and our ideals we earnestly want to be - and occasionally attempt - we all fail from time to time and in greater or lesser degree. None of us can live up to the ideal of ourselves that our dogs seem to hold. And our dogs know who we really are, and how badly we fail and how often, and still seem to love us. So there's that. We're imperfect, and we are, after all, "products of our time" (and I'll grant that your time is not a particularly lovely one, especially in terms of looking back at products of history with any kind of fondness). So be honest and speak your truth clearly, but look in the mirror from time to time and imagine the words that will be said about you someday, too. We should all be so lucky as Kipling to be discussed with such ardor after so long.

    It's particularly serendipitous that I should have found this essay today - and I won't even get into what a roundabout way that was, since I've known and loved "IF" for decades, and I wasn't looking for it or expecting such an analysis. I'm rereading Tom Wolfe's "A Man in Full", which seems to be a near-parody of the poem. Surely Wolfe is well aware of Kipling's poem, and I don't think the title of the book is accidental, even though finding your essay has absolutely nothing to do with that other reading. But it's a nice juxtaposition: "IF", Tom Wolfe's novel and your essay all swimming around in my head.

    I'm also struck by the currency of the poem - which, whatever one thinks of Kipling, and no matter how well you have critiqued him and his work - will be popular for as long as we speak English, not to mention whatever translations do it justice in other languages. (I would imagine that there's a Klingon version by now, too, but I'm certainly not going there.) So, here we are, less than a week from Kipling's 150th birthday, the lot of us discussing on a poetry forum a poem from 105 years ago. And let's be frank: How popular is poetry these days? and poetry forums? Yet look at the number of thoughtful - even passionate! - contributions in just the past week! Apparently, Kipling still speaks to us.

    If Kipling, even with his flaws and blind spots and prejudices, speaks as well as he does over so many years and cultures (because he doesn't only speak to Englishmen and American men - doesn't even speak only to men, for that matter) and was a product of his times, then he is a pretty good product of some bad times. I wish that we had comparable products of today's times.

  32. December 28, 2015
     Dave

    Can my 10-year-old boy -- and indeed, all the 10-year-old boys of
    the world -- learn more from Rudyard Kipling, or from Austin Allen?

    We all know the answer. But if I were to exert myself wildly to find
    something valuable in this piece, it would be a negative example:
    don't criticize someone without producing compelling reasons. Lazily
    relying on fashionable epithets and vaguely disapproving quotes from
    plaster saints such as Orwell or Auden isn't compelling, to an honest
    reader. It just makes Mr. Allen a dealer in second-hand prejudices.

  33. January 1, 2016
     Graham Beal

    I agree with those who chide the author for his simplistic take on
    Kipling as obnoxious. Frankly, I don't see how a thorough reading of
    his works can sustain such a position. But really, I want to reach out to
    Jeffrey Holman because my father, an electrical engineer, was also
    nearly killed by the kamikaze attack on HMS Illustrious. What a
    coincidence. As he told the story, it blew most of his clothes off. "If
    you can keep your clothes on, when all about you..."?

  34. January 2, 2016
     rodney a. hickman

    young man, you did a fine comment on this poem. i learned
    alot. keep going and thank you muchly for your article.

  35. January 2, 2016
     Susan Drake Swift

    Not sure why Austin sets himself up as judge and
    jury regarding an author who can hardly be beat for
    verbal rhapsody, breadth of subject, or insights
    into life. For proof my children offer the Just So
    Stories, I suggest Kim, and my late great-father-in-
    law would recite In the Neolithic Age: Here's my
    wisdom for your use as I learned it when the moose
    and the reindeer roamed where Paris roars tonight.
    There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal
    lays and every single one of them is right.

  36. January 4, 2016
     RIch Rostrom

    You've misunderstood "The Gardener". Nearly all critics agree that Michael, ostensibly Helen's nephew by her deceased brother, was actually her illegitimate son.

  37. January 5, 2016
     Adil Jussawalla

    Austin Allen's article an interesting reappraisal,
    but whenever I think about the detachment Kipling
    advocates, particularly that bit about treating
    Triumph and Disaster, those two impostors, just
    the same, I'm reminded of The Bhagavad Gita.
    The detachment the Gita recommends is strikingly
    similar to Kipling's advice in 'If'. Couldn't Kipling
    have known something about what the Gita taught during
    his years in India?

  38. January 12, 2016
     Alan Kirshner

    May I ask;

    If, when the words of IF are read using their common dictionary definitions, (that is to say at face value without irony etc.), does anyone find any of the lines objectionable? or useful? or inspirational?

  39. January 13, 2016
     Jesse Berry

    One must be able to separate the art from the artist.

    I liked the essay. But I agree with the comments that said Kipling's character is indicted here, without specific evidence of wrongdoing.

    Unless his poetry is being judged immorally nationalistic? I note that we've discussed Ms Riefenstahl. Art must go far, far before it violates moral law.

    People in upcoming centuries will look back at us, and recognize that one of our everyday actions or assumptions was unmitigated evil cruelty. At our current point in history, no one realizes it's wrong; yet we are all, innocently, monsters.

  40. January 14, 2016
     DrA T

    IF also serves as the Chariot
    whisperer to anyone laureled in
    momentary Triumph overtaking a
    hard-pressing adversary, from the
    very same writer who was to warn
    his homeland in the Recessional, a
    year after IF was first drafted.

    America at that time was building
    the New Navy, about to enforce
    the Monroe Doctrine in a challenge
    to Spanish Imperial de facto
    control, and having its own laws
    being challenged internally by such
    events as the Davenport riot and
    massacre, all of which Kipling saw.

  41. January 25, 2016
     Ford

    Quote 'Kipling wants readers to “fill the unforgiving
    minute / With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run”—a
    metaphorical statement about effort.'

    Surely this is not about effort but about using time
    wisely?

  42. September 29, 2016
     KateRobart

    Just came across this article and, though late, was going to post about Gunga Din. Glad to find someone else came up with it.