For instance, the line: “if you could think”, is contradicted by the author by saying: “and not make thoughts your aim.” Similarly, in urging the reader to both ignore doubt and make allowance for doubt, Kipling constructs a paradox.
Irony and paradox is characteristic of the tone of the entire poem.
Kipling weaves detailed illustrations to offer his advice and emphasize the intricate actions a man should or should not take, rather than just listing the characteristics of an ideal, honorable man.
His motivational words full of humility tap right into the core of its readers; forcing them to ponder along issues much higher than the pettiness that encompasses daily life.
, in 1910, it has become one of Kipling’s best-known poems, and was even voted the UK’s favourite poem of all time in a poll of 1995. 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!
Closer analysis of the poem reveals an intriguing back-story and some surprising stylistic effects.
The poem’s final words, ‘you’ll be a man, my son’, suggest that the poem is addressed to Kipling’s actual son, and ‘If—’ should first and foremost be interpreted as a poem addressed to a younger man, listing the necessary characteristics a man should acquire or cultivate in order to be a paragon of manly virtue. Stoicism looms large in Kipling’s poem – that is, the acknowledgment that, whilst you cannot always prevent bad things from happening to you, you deal with them in a good way.
This is summed up well in the referencing to meeting with triumph and disaster and ‘treat[ing] those two impostors just the same’ – in other words, be magnanimous in victory and success (don’t gloat or crow about it) and be dignified and noble in defeat or times of trouble (don’t moan or throw your toys out of the pram).
“If” stresses the likelihood of finding oneself in a similar situation, while “you” urges the reader to own up and take responsibility.
Kipling has also deftly given life and movement to the poem through the use of personification.