“If” by Rudyard Kipling is one of the most popular poems of the last century, and its inspirational messages hold true today as much as they did when it was written in 1910. Yet, it also feels outdated in some ways — should we really never embrace our extreme emotions and always try to be ‘fine’ even when we’re not? Overall though, I do agree with its motivational and stoic attitudes — we should all certainly learn to make the best out of difficult situations and avoid arrogance or overconfidence in times of success. Read the poem and the poem analysis and make up your own mind about its advice!
My analysis is tailored towards English Literature students at GCSE, and A-Level, but it’s useful for anyone studying the poem at a deeper level too! I’ve structured it in a way that suits the following exam boards: CIE (Cambridge) / Edexcel IGCSE, CCEA. Eduqas/WJEC, AQA, OCR.
If you find this document useful, you can take a look at the full Edexcel IGCSE poetry course.
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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!Rudyard Kipling
Make allowance — ‘to make allowance’ for something means to accept it even if it’s flawed or problematic
Doubt — the feeling of not trusting yourself or someone / something else
Impostor — a fake person who pretends to be someone they’re not
Knaves — dishonest or sneaky people
The Will — a reference to ‘willpower’, the motivational force in a human’s psychology — the idea of ‘the Will’ is important in philosophy and religion, many people debate over whether we have ‘free will’ (complete freedom of choice in our actions in life) or whether our lives are deterministic (already set out for us, either by religious or social mechanisms)
Virtue — purity and goodness
This is a lyric poem, so there’s not exactly a story to it — instead, it’s an exploration of an idea. In this case the speaker is addressing the reader, giving us some wise advice. This advice takes the form of how to be, but also what to avoid in life — and to not copy the bad behaviour of others.
In Stanza 1 Kipling says to stay strong and clear-headed even if others are hostile towards us, to trust ourselves even when others don’t (but also to accept that they might doubt us), to encourage patience, to not lie even if people lie about us, to not hate others even if we are hated ourselves, and finally to not boast or seem too perfect and clever about all of our strengths — we shouldn’t ‘look too good, nor talk too wise’.
Stanza 2 gives advice on our thoughts and actions: we should think and dream, but not allow these to control us, and we should not be too influenced by moments of extreme success (Triumph) or failure (Disaster). We should also be able to withstand seeing our truths manipulated by others, and our hard work coming undone or being broken. When something we’ve put effort into has broken, we should work to fix it again.
Stanza 3 explores the idea of perseverance — never giving up. Kipling extends the concepts of success and failure, saying that we should be able to lose everything we’ve earned and still have the motivation to build it back up, as well as never complaining to others about the loss. We should push our nerves and emotions as far as they’ll go, and then some more — by making our willpower stronger than anything else.
Finally, Stanza 4 is about achieving greatness, but staying humble — Kipling says we should keep our individuality and goodness when talking to crowds, as well as staying in touch with everyday people even when achieving high status. We should make ourselves liked by everyone, although not the point of obsession. If we can fill even the smallest amount of time with achieving our long term projects and goals, then ‘the Earth’ is ours — and we will be fully adult.
The poem has a personal, emotional, and motivational tone which is intended to inspire its readers — for this reason, it is likely that the speaker is the poet himself (Kipling). His personality comes across as passionate and positive, but also very balanced — he understands the difficulties we must face in life and that there will be ups and downs, so his message is to not get carried away with the good, but also remain positive during the bad — in other words, we should always be moderate rather than extreme in our reactions.
Personification — Triumph and Disaster are capitalized, and called ‘two impostors’, this means Kipling is personifying them and turning them into characters — negative characters, that are exposed as not real (as the word ‘impostor’ means ‘a fake person’). Metaphorically, Kipling is saying that Triumph — when you feel like you’ve won a great victory — and Disaster — when everything is ruined or terrible — are not what they seem. These represent antithetical extremes — they are almost the opposite, but in Kipling’s mind, they are equally damaging if you fully embrace them. He says instead that we should remain moderate and gain control over our extreme emotions because that is the best way for a mature person to be fully in control of themselves.
Anaphora — The word ‘If’ is repeated over and over, at the beginning of many lines, showing that the poet is building up one continuous idea (of how to be a mature, fully balanced, and successful person), but also at the same time exploring different aspects of this topic. It has a sense of building in greatness as the poem progresses, but the word ‘If’ also creates a conditional clause — the phrase that follows ‘if’ it always depends upon specific conditions to work, so it signifies a possible future reality, but also creates doubt and uncertainty.
Antithesis — almost every idea presented in the poem has an opposite (an antithesis). We should ‘wait and not be tired by waiting’, ‘being lied about, [not] deal in lies’ and meet with ‘Triumph and Disaster’. These extreme opposites that are often balanced equally, create a sense of both excessive positivity and excessive negativity being a bad thing — Kipling always tries to keep his opinion in the middle ground between the extremes, instead of embracing one or the other.
The ending — the final phase ‘you’ll be a Man, my son!’ could be interpreted as an anticlimax — something less grand than we were expecting. Yet, if we delve deeper we can see that Kipling is showing that it takes great strength to be a Man (or a woman) rather than a child — he has given us all the qualities that he feels are needed for a person to be fully mature and strong in their character. We can say that the poem has a didactic message — it is intended to teach readers about success, happiness, and fulfillment in life.
Octaves — the poem is split regularly into three octaves (8 line stanzas), with an ABABCDCD (alternate rhyme) rhyme scheme — this regular structure with a slightly varying rhythm represents how the individual person should stay strong even if the world around them is fluctuating, or they are faced with different positive and negative situations.
Enjambment — ‘risk it all in one pitch and toss, / And lose’ — Kipling uses a gambling metaphor to suggest the idea that we shouldn’t be so precious about our money or success that we wouldn’t risk any of it — he goes so far to say that we should probably risk all of it and lose it because then we would gain a lot of self-respect when we build it back again.
A single sentence — the whole poem is one complex sentence, showing that all of these ideas are interconnected and they lead to the same conclusion — a positive, successful life.
Success is not constant — Kipling talks of ‘Triumph’ as an impostor — something that is fake and temporary, and he also says that we should ‘risk it all… And lose’, meaning that it’s good to risk and lose your winnings in life — either financially or otherwise. This may seem scary or stupid at first. However, the reason for saying this is that if we lose everything and then still manage to build it back up, we will have gained a lot of self-knowledge and self-respect, and in the long term we will feel much more stable because even if the worst happens, we can work hard to get ourselves back into a favorable position. The confidence in ourselves and our abilities is far more valuable than any success or money that we may have achieved.
Happiness comes from self-control — all of Kipling’s statements are about moderation and being in control of one’s own character at the very best and very worst of times. We should assert our individuality in a crowd, but also empathize with the masses instead of only thinking about ourselves. We should withstand being hated or people lying about us, but also never boast or be overconfident and arrogant. Understanding and avoiding the extremes and creating a controlled, balanced, and adaptable character seems to be the most important message that Kipling is trying to impart.
Individuality is important for happiness — several times throughout the poem, Kipling reminds us not to pay attention to what others think or say, especially in their judgments and negative criticisms or misinterpretations of our actions. This seems obvious, but it’s very easy to feel self-conscious and worry about offending others, to the point of it damaging our own characters. Kipling feels that we should embrace our individuality and not bend too much to others’ beliefs about how we should act or feel — in his opinion, this is the way to true, lasting happiness.
We should all aim for virtue, not perfection — Kipling tries to take a realistic approach in his poem, he knows that life is full of ups and downs and that success in some ways can cause problems in others, or that failure can have the potential for an even greater beginning. If we remain true to ourselves and good-natured in character (virtuous), then he is confident that we can make the best out of any situation and we will succeed in life. It’s not about being perfect — so for Kipling, we could say that a perfectionist’s approach to life does not achieve success and happiness, instead, it’s about developing inner strength and the ability to adapt to different situations.
The poem was published in 1910.
Some interpret the poem as being written for Kipling’s own son — as the poem ends in the phrase ‘my son’, which could be taken literally. Kipling was famously a short story writer and wrote a lot for children, so that supports this interpretation.
Stoicism — Kipling’s poem reveals a stoic attitude to life — stoicism is a philosophy that promotes balance, harmony, and moderation. Stoics also use logic and rationality to navigate difficult situations (they keep a level head and don’t allow their actions to be ruled by their emotions); they believe that we should find positives in pain and suffering, in order to learn and adapt from these experiences.
The poem also expresses a ‘stiff upper lip mentality’ — the idea that you don’t show your emotions or allow them to defeat you, as when a person cries their lips often tremble. This is a typical British attitude to life — where traditionally the British are known for not showing extremes of emotion in public. This was a particularly popular attitude during the Victorian Era, in which Kipling became a famous poet (although the poem is written 9 years after Victoria’s death, it does feel more Victorian than Modern in its tone)
- The Purpose of Life
Thanks for reading! If you find this document useful, you can take a look at the full Edexcel IGCSE poetry course.