From Edwardian England, one of the world’s great inspirational poems


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!
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Background -

a short biography of the poet and writer Rudyard Kipling
Edwardian man in white shirt and spectacles, the poet Kipling
●  Kipling was born in December 1865 in Mumbai (Bombay), India, a nation and culture that exerted a profound and enduring influenced on much of his work. His parents were members of the Anglo-Indian society that ruled India at that time - his father being also professor of architectural sculpture at the Bombay School of Art.

●  He was taken away to spend much of his childhood and youth in England - an unhappy time for him - before returning to India in 1882 where he worked as a journalist. In 1889, he went once again to England where he later met and married Caroline Balestier before moving to the United States where their two daughters were born. It is around this time he wrote the famous ‘Jungle Book.'
●  By the time he returned once again to England in 1896, he had become a celebrated writer, his successes coming mostly from short stories and children’s books.

●  His son was born in 1897 - John, who sadly died in the First World War, and by this time Kipling had also lost one of his daughters, Josephine, to illness. These events affected him profoundly.

●  Although he turned down a knighthood on two occasions and the offer of Poet Laureate, he did accept the Nobel Prize for Literature, which was awarded to him in 1907. Three years later his famous poem - IF - the subject of this webpage - was published as part of a collection of short stories.

●  He was a Freemason and an advocate of British colonialism. His work is inextricably linked to both the achievements and the vices of the Victorian age, and opinions were divided even in his lifetime regarding how much this background influenced his thinking and world view.

●  He died in 1936 as was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Insights, themes and ideas for interpretation

●  Published in 1910, the work can be interpreted as a coming-of-age poem, lines concerning timeless values, about finding inspiration and developing qualities of leadership and self-confidence. The uncompromising, minimalist nature of the piece also has a very modern ring to it, and it is no coincidence that it has been taken up in the fields of business enterprise, competition and sports psychology as a key to motivation. The ultimate pep-talk.

●  It can also be viewed as a didactic (teaching) poem - extolling the virtues of gentlemanly manhood: the British 'stiff upper lip' - the epitome of Victorian stoicism and fortitude at the time.

●  The poet urges a younger man (his son, we eventually learn at the end of the piece) to adhere to a series of principles that will enable him to succeed in life. This is achieved by standing firm in the face of adversity - not in a confrontational sense, but rather by seeking calm and acceptance and of cultivating balance and a sense of moderation and adherence to what is often called 'the middle way'. These principles have been advocated by philosophers and religious teachers throughout the ages, and they are hard to argue with. The middle way is best because even virtues, when taken to extremes, can turn into vices.

●  Surprisingly, in his autobiography (published posthumously in 1937) the writer makes only one reference to the piece, stating that it was drawn on the character of Dr Leander Starr Jameson, a well-regarded colonial adventurer who rose to prominence in South Africa during the years leading up to the 2nd Boer War. He took a military initiative on behalf of British interests, but was scapegoated when it failed and was betrayed by the British government, and even imprisoned for a time. Declining to reveal the extent of betrayal or the perpetrators of it, Jameson was lionised by British society for his stoicism, and eventually went on to become Prime Minister of the Cape Colony. In this sense, the lines 'Or being lied about, don't deal in lies, Or being hated, don't give way to hating' have a certain irrefutable relevance. But Jameson's example fails to provide convincing sources for many of the other lines, and for these one has to acknowledge Kipling’s dept not only to classical education but to the philosophies of his country of birth, India, and the religions of the East.

●  IF- has been described as voicing many of the principles of the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient and highly influential scripture from antiquity, still widely read today and in which the qualities of wisdom, humility, loyalty and steadfastness are presented as the greatest virtues.

●  Kipling was one of the leading writers of the Victorian/Edwardian age and helped in no small way to shape British perceptions of India. His poem encompasses many of its highest ideals of that nation’s spiritual identity, explaining timeless principles of living a proper life that transcend every cultural boundary and which will quite possible continue to be read as long as people consider what it means to be human.

Technical info’

Type of Poem =

didactic - that is, instructional and inspirational in tone - consisting of 4 stanzas of 8 rhyming lines each.

Rhyme Scheme =

AB AB CD CD with the exception of the very first 4 lines, which all rhyme with one another.

Meter =

mostly iambic pentameter (that is 5 pairs of unstressed and stressed syllables per line) but alternating with lines containing an extra syllable at the end. So, a lot of ‘rules' are broken here, albeit with an obvious and deliberate consistency.
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