Here is a summary, review, and analysis of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’, a didactic poem on the specific traits of a good leader.
Review: Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’ is a dissertation on the virtues of model leadership and exemplary manhood. The poem celebrates stoicism, fortitude and righteousness as the hallmark of manliness. Through a series of paradoxes, Kipling tells his son how the middle path – a golden mean in everything will serve as the secret key to this world and everything in it.
The poem exhorts the reader to be patient, honest, and forthright, especially when faced with opposition and temptation to act in a less virtuous manner. He may have to face criticism, opposition, lies, and hatred. When others blame him, he must neither lose heart nor retaliate the same way. He must remain confident and believe in himself; yet he must do his best to see the grounds for others doubting him. In all things he must hold on to his strength of character, morals, and to his values, yet he must not look too good or wise.
Stoic detachment to success and failure alike is the keynote of the poem. An ideal man cannot be deceived into thinking either triumph or disaster final. Sometimes he may even have to risk the fruits of a lifetime’s toil, lose everything and start anew when nothing but sheer will power remains. Still he must hold on.
When it comes to people, he must be able to walk with kings and talk with crowds and not “lose the common touch” even when remaining noble of character. All men should be given their due; yet none too much. He should remain upright so that he won’t be swayed or hurt by friends or foes.
Praise of a strong work ethic is echoed throughout the poem, as is a warning against idleness. The poem also places higher value on the ability to act than on the ability to dream and philosophize.
Throughout the poem, Kipling illustrates ideal behaviour and virtue through the use of paradox: righteousness without smugness; detachment while practicing determination; and noble life blended with commonality. The employment of these contradictory extremes throughout the poem serves to illustrate a central theme of striving for an idealized “golden mean” in all facets of life.
“If” by Rudyard Kipling: Analysis and Comparative Note: The strong emphasis on balance in “If” possibly reflects an oriental influence on Kipling’s own life philosophy, as a basic teaching of Buddhism is the quest for what is known as the Middle Way—a quest for balance in the search for spiritual enlightenment.
Kipling’s thoughts on action without desire, equanimity, humility, and uprightness also echo Lord Krishna’s description of a man of steady wisdom in The Bhagavad Gita. In fact, many of the ideas expressed in the poem directly reflect Lord Krishna’s message of Nishkama Karma to Arjuna:
“Karmanye Vadhikaraste, Ma phaleshou kada chana
Ma Karma Phala Hetur Bhurmatey Sangostva Akarmani”
You have the right to perform your actions, but you are not entitled to the fruits of the actions. Do not let the fruit be the purpose of your actions, and therefore you won’t be attached to not doing your duty.
Furthermore, when Kipling says:
“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,”
One is reminded of the story of Naranathu Branthan, a great philosopher in the disguise of a mad man. He would roll up big stones to the top of a hill and then let them roll down to convey the futility of life and the need for Karma or action.
The entire third stanza takes the reader’s mind to The Old Man and the Sea, that masterpiece of honour in struggle, defeat, and death, where at the end of the story Hemingway mentions, “A man is not made for defeat…a man can be destroyed but not defeated.” “Build ’em up with worn-out tools” surely brings up the image of Santiago making a new harpoon by strapping his knife to the end of an oar to help ward off the line of sharks.
If by Rudyard Kipling: Literature for comparative study:
- A Nice Citizen: Abraham Lincoln’s letter to his son’s teacher
- From Hamlet: Polonius giving advice to his son