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 youAre 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.