The Poem “If-” by Rudyard Kipling

For Whom is The Poem “If-” By Rudyard Kipling Intended For and Why?

“If-“ is undoubtedly one of the most beloved poems written by Rudyard Kipling. It was first published in the “Brother Square-Toes” chapter of the book Rewards and Fairies, a 1910 collection of poetry and short stories set in historical times with a linking contemporary narrative. For more than a century, “If-” has inspired millions of people all over the world, and has quite often been voted as Britain’s most favorite poem.

The poem is straightforward and written in simple language. It consists of four eight-line stanzas that reads like a continuous thought. The word “If-” is repeatedly used to emphasize the contrasting circumstances one may face in a lifetime, along with advice on how to handle those situations with virtue and dignity. In his poem, Kipling not only lists specific virtuous characteristics, but also provides concrete illustrations and practical steps which a man should or should not take to achieve a strong personality.

Rudyard Kipling wrote “If-“ in 1895 as a tribute to the Scots-born adventurer Dr. Leander S. Jameson (1853-1917) who in 1896, led a raid against the Boers in Tsansvaal, South Africa. Kipling wrote about Jameson in his autobiography Something of Myself. “Among the verses in Rewards (and Fairies) was one set called “If-,” which escaped from the book, and for a while ran about the world. They were drawn from Jameson’s character, and contained counsels of perfection most easy to give” (p. 111).

Superficially, it appears that Kipling is addressing his son John in his poem; bestowing him with the most precious advice and pearls of wisdom. However, anyone and everyone can gather the fruitful bounties quoted in this poem to glimpse at the magnificent insight into what an ideal personality should be like. “If-“ renders into many of humankind’s greatest virtues —staying tranquil under stress, remaining humble when triumphant, never giving up hope when defeated, and maintaining honor and genuineness at all times.

Kipling weaves detailed illustrations to offer his advice and emphasize the intricate actions a man should or should not take, rather than just listing the characteristics of an ideal, honorable man. His  motivational words full of humility tap right into the core of its readers; forcing them to ponder along issues much higher than the pettiness that encompasses daily life.

Kipling uses several literary devices to convey the message in the poem. The most prevalent literary devices used by Kipling is irony. For instance, the line: “if you could think”, is contradicted by the author by saying: “and not make thoughts your aim.” Similarly, in urging the reader to both ignore doubt and make allowance for doubt, Kipling constructs a paradox. Irony and paradox is characteristic of the tone of the entire poem.

Another literary device used by Kipling to make an impact on the reader is repetition. Kipling used the phrase “if you” throughout the poem. “If-” stresses the likelihood of finding oneself in a similar situation, while “you” urges the reader to own up and take responsibility. Kipling has also  deftly given life and movement to the poem through the use of personification. Examples of such lines include “make dreams your master” and “if you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same”. These lines demonstrate how Kipling assigns human-like attributes to these abstract qualities,  adding life to the entire poem.

Alliteration was also employed to create a rhythm within the poem. For instance phrases such as “with worn-out tools” and “sixty seconds” create interest and lend structure, flow, and beauty to the poem. He also makes use of  the rhyming scheme of AAAA in the first verse. In the rest of the verses, he has used an ABAB BCBC DEDE rhyming scheme to keep the readers captivated.

“If-” is a didactic poem. This poem is a must-read for people of all ages and from all walks of life. If serves as an instruction in several specific traits of not only a sound leader, but also a benevolent human being. The virtues illustrated in If are free of pretension and glamor; Kipling does not mention heroic actions, wealth or fame. For him, a man should be measured by his humility and the grace to face the challenges of life audaciously. The poem stirs a variety of feelings of awe, inspiration, and admiration. His words of wisdom and advice are universal and equally valuable for everyone.

Andrew Lycett, Kipling’s biographer, deems the poem one of the writer’s finest and reported to the the Daily Mail (2009), “If-” has utmost value even in the complex postmodern world: In these straitened times, the old-fashioned virtues of fortitude, responsibilities and resolution, as articulated in “If-,” become ever more important.” Wayne Dyer in his book Wisdom of the Ages (1998) wrote about the poem in the following words, “The lofty ideas in his four-stanza poem inspire me to be a better man each time I read it and share it with my children, students, and audiences.” Therefore it is highly recommended that everyone should read the poem and reap the benefits of the wisdom along the stanzas.

Dyer, W. W. (1998). Wisdom of the Ages. New York: HarperCollins, 251, 23.
Kipling, R. (1910). Brother Square-Toes. Macmillan.
Kipling, R. (1991). Rudyard Kipling: Something of Myself and Other Autobiographical Writings. Cambridge University Press. p. 111.
Lycett, A. as cited in Wansell, G. (2009, February 16). The Remarkable Story Behind Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If-‘ – And the  Swashbuckling Renegade Who Inspired It. Daily Mail. Retrieved from If- —swashbuckling-renegade-inspired-it.html.