Rudyard Kipling was the most beloved writer of his time, and his most famous work was the poem “If,” a four-stanza poem that first appeared in his children’s collection Rewards and Fairies. “If” gained instantaneous popularity as an independent piece, a popularity that persists to this day. The poem is a rather inspirational instruction in the achievement of idealized ethical and moral behavior.
Kipling himself was a confirmed agnostic throughout his life. However, upon careful examination, the poem “If” reveals a deep influence of religious ethics upon the worldview that Kipling puts forth in this poem. In particular, “If” illustrates the influence of both Protestant Christian and of Buddhist philosophies in a quest toward an ideal life.
Kipling himself was often a vocal critic of Christian institutions, particularly of the doctrines related to salvation and human sinfulness, and especially of Christian missionary work. As a child, Kipling did not grow up in a particularly religious household, and although his parents were not churchgoing Methodists, both his paternal and maternal grandfathers had been Methodist preachers. However, despite the relative lack of traditional Christianity in Kipling’s life, Kipling’s own work nevertheless bears a marked influence from the tenets and the literature of Christianity. Angus Wilson writes in his biography of Kipling, The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling:
The gospel of work (one of [Methodist founder] John Wesley’s ever-reiterated themes), a hatred of frivolity, earnestness about life’s purpose . . . these [Kipling] inherited from his ancestors. And the language of the Bible in which to clothe [his work]; especially the Psalms, Proverbs, . . . didactic poetry, in fact. This is the superficial inheritance of Kipling from his Wesleyan grandfathers.
Two of the tenets of Protestant Christianity mentioned here—the Protestant work ethic and the influence of Biblical verse—are specifically evident in Kipling’s poem “If.” Indeed, the style of the poem “If” is reminiscent of the Proverbs of the Bible. Take, for example, the first few lines of Proverb 12:
Whoever loves disciplines love knowledge
But he who hates reproof is stupid.
A good man obtains favor from the Lord,
But a man of evil devices he condemns.
A man is not established by wickedness
But the root of the righteous will never be moved.
This example from Proverbs instructs the reader in righteousness and godliness by providing specific examples of upright behavior and, for each of these examples, the consequences of their parallel corrupt behavior. The structure of “If” is quite similar to this Proverb, not only in its instruction toward righteous behavior, but in its use of parallels throughout the entire poem. In just one example, lines 3 and 4 of “If” read: “If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, / But make allowance for their doubting too.” Just as parallel behaviors are illustrated in the Proverb above, forming the basic structure of the verse, so too does Kipling use parallel structure to make his point in advising the need to be able to both ignore doubt and make allowance for doubt. This trend is continued throughout the poem: for example, Kipling parallels the virtues of righteousness and humility in the first stanza by advising, “being hated, don’t give way to hating, / And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise.”
Kipling, though he did not espouse the theological doctrines of Protestantism, was still affected by its ethical and moral precepts. One of the most pervasive of Protestant ethics in Western society is the exaltation of work and productivity as godly and as a path toward salvation, along with an equal disdain for idleness. This societal view of work was in fact instrumental in the rise of industrialization and capitalism in Western societies. As Wilson notes in the quote given above, Kipling was not immune to the effect of the Protestant work ethic. This philosophy too is an integral part of the message Kipling puts forth in “If,” which offers instruction in the virtues, actions, and behaviors that, to Kipling, are the hallmark of model leadership and the makeup of an exemplary man. The Protestant work ethic is specifically reflected in the second stanza: “If you can dream—and not make dreams your master; / If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim.” Here, Kipling recognizes the need for idealism and philosophy, but it is truly the ability to act on those thoughts and ideals that is the message of these lines. Warning against idleness is also the aim of lines 29 and 30, which read, “If you can fill the unforgiving minute / With sixty...
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The poet in his poem is providing an inspirational insight for the readers to remain humble, soft, and tender and avoid the extremes and live up to all the opportunities of life wherever one can muster any joys of life. It is important to remain humble and live with pride.
As per the poet, it is important to live with your head up when you are winning no matter others are losing. It is important to maintain the calm and cool if the losers who are unable to keep their heads up blames upon you for their loss. One should also keep no place for doubts in our endeavors no matter others are pointing the fingers of doubt.
However, just ignoring their notion of doubt is not the solution. One should also think and analyze the causes of those disbelieves which others pin point. One should also have patience in life and know how to wait since patience is the virtue of success.
One should be truthful and not indulge in the game of blames and lies. No matter one is welcomed with hatred, but one should try not to give hate in return, and even be good to others so that others should not get any opportunity to hate. It is important to be humble, doubt free, keep patience, truthful and shower love, but in order to achieve these attributes, do not do show off. Do not try to look too good or too wise, means do not force upon yourself what you are not. Just be yourself and be humble.
The poet then explains that it is important for one to dream in life, since life is meaningless without dreams, but do not get governed by them. One should work towards achieving and fulfill your dreams but do not become a slave of your dreams.
Moreover, it is good to think, one should think before doing anything since it is wise to be thoughtful. But do not make those thoughts your only goals or objectives since they can lead you to wrong paths. The goals and objectives should be aimed after considering other vital factors along with one’s thoughts. Both success and failure are the part and parcel of life, but one should not become too happy with success and too sad with failures. One should treat both these extreme situations with a moderate emotion.
The poet details the audiences that one should not be led by the extremities. One should not just be truthful, but if any dishonest person twists those words in order to fool you, you should have the ability to listen to those bitter truths. It is also important not to forget one’s past, the way one travels the journey from ground and sky, since it involves lots of hardships and lessons learnt.
The poem then talks about being daring, where you risk all your achievements in life for a single calculated move. In life, the events of losses and profits do come. If in that one game, you lose all your money, all your achievements, and you have to start from the very beginning. All the struggles which you did in order to undertake those earnings, you land up at the beginning of that struggle. But still, you should become humble enough not to cry about the big loss you suffered. One should have self control and patience so that one builds stamina and will power. It is the will power which can derive your success.
In the last stanza, the poet inspires to maintain the virtue in oneself. No matter you talk with lots of people, but not try to goof up with them to build a false value or to impress someone. You should maintain the good quality in you, and not led by others when you interact with them. You should also maintain your simplicity, no matter you are surrounded by the company of hi-fi people. You should be modest and not influenced by anyone, neither by your friends nor by your enemies. Be yourself even if you are among the crowd. You should keep forgiving nature and if you keep all imbibe all these attributes in your life, you will be the king of yourself, untouched by any harms. You will be the winner of all the powers on this mother earth. You will become a real man of virtue.