Old favourites time again...
(Poem #271) If
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; If you can dream -- and not make dreams your master; If you can think -- and not make thoughts your aim, If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster And treat those two impostors just the same: If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools, Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken, And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools; If you can make one heap of all your winnings And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, And lose, and start again at your beginnings, And never breathe a word about your loss: If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew To serve your turn long after they are gone, And so hold on when there is nothing in you Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!" 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!
In the commentary to Tommy, I remarked that 'the sheer volume and diversity of [Kipling's] poetry has made many of [his poems] famous in many different genres'. However, 'If' goes beyond that - it is known and memorised by people who have never otherwise heard of Kipling, beloved by those who are not 'into poetry', solemnly taught to generations of children and reprinted in countless anthologies. Of course, as good as the verse is - and like nearly all Kipling's verse, it *is* good - the poem's popularity is largely due to its subject matter. Like Henley's 'Invictus' it is a stirring challenge to pit oneself against a hostile universe; again, like many deservedly less famous poems it is an example of that most beloved of genres, Good Advice to the Younger Generation. That the latter has not detracted from its appeal is remarkable - on the face of it this is just the kind of poem that the system loves to forcefeed generations of children, who in turn regard it with a 'yeah, right' cynicism. The difference is twofold. Firstly, unlike most of the self-conscious 'children's' poets, Kipling is genuinely *good*. The verses breathe conviction, energy, and even excitement; whatever criticism may be labelled against Kipling's work, dullness is not one of its faults. Secondly, Kipling understood his audience. One need only read 'Stalky and Co.', whose thoroughly subversive nature was way ahead of its time, to see that. And 'If' promotes the same kind of self-reliant individualism as Stalky does; it glorifies the gambler, the adventurer, the taker of risks. Take another read through the poem, and note how well it fits the protagonist of practically any adventure or heroic fantasy novel. Small wonder, then, that it has a similar appeal, and that despite the last line, children in general will not find the poem patronising or sententious. On a more personal note, I've always felt that the quatrain beginning 'If you can make one heap of all your winnings' was one of the most thoroughly romantic pieces of verse I've encountered, capturing perfectly the grand gesture, the moment when life hangs in the balance, when all creation holds its breath and the universe shrinks down to the blood singing in your veins and the faint, faraway rattle of a cosmic die. (Yes, I have been reading too much sf&f - why do you ask?) And this brings me to the final - and perhaps the greatest - reason this is such a memorable poem. Quite simply, it touches people - there is almost invariably some section the reader can relate to, that sticks in his mind because of its almost self-evident rightness and pops up unbidden at odd moments. No, this is not the greatest of Kipling's poems - but it may well be the farthest-reaching. - martin Notes: Kipling wrote If with Dr Leander Starr Jameson in mind. In 1895, Jameson led about 500 of his countrymen in a failed raid against the Boers, in southern Africa. What became known as the Jameson Raid was later cited as a major factor in bringing about the Boer War of 1899 to 1902. But the story as recounted in Britain was quite different. The British defeat was interpreted as a victory and Jameson portrayed as a daring hero. -- http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/kipling-if.html Links: Invictus: poem #221 Other Kipling Poems on Minstrels: As a diehard Kipling fan, I have run a number of these - rather than list them all, go to [broken link] http://www.cs.rice.edu/~ssiyer/minstrels/index_poet.html and scroll to Kipling. The biography et al can be found at poem #17