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'If'
by Rudyard Kipling 
(1865-1936)
 
If you can keep your head while 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 thought your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two imposters 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 a 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 breath 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,
And 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 second's 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!
 
Joseph Rudyard Kipling's 'If' must be one of the most famous - and certainly one of the longest - sentences ever written (with eighteen main sub-clauses). All things to all men, the poem has been cherished by an assortment of diverse personalities. The Kaiser kept a copy of it on his desk during the First World War, whilst his opposite number, president Woodrow Wilson 'derived constant inspiration... and often tried to live up to its standards'. The Spanish fascist Primo de Rivera hung it on a wall in his office; Antonio Gramsci (leader of the Italian communist party) rendered it into his native tongue and even the King of Siam attempted to translate it into Thai.
  Born in Bombay (Mumbai) but schooled in Devon, Kipling's literary career was well-established by the early part of the twentieth century, with classics such as Plain Tales from the Hills (1888), Barrack Room Ballads (1892), The Jungle Book (1894), Kim (1901) and the Just So Stories (1902) already to his name. 'If' was first published in the 'Brother Square Toes' chapter of Rewards and Fairies (1910) - which itself had been recently serialised in the magazine The Delineator (July of that year). Rewards and Fairies was the sequel to Puck of Pook's Hill (1906) and consists of interlinked short stories and poems themed around the imaginary exploits of two, time-travelling children.
  'If' soon took on a life outside of its immediate context and was rapidly 'pirated' in numerous, unauthorised editions. Kipling's (U.S.) publishers, Doubleday, were highly exercised by the fact that Americans, in particular, seemed to believe that (a) the poem was in the public domain and (b) written about George Washington. This latter misapprehension is understandable as 'Brother Square Toes' does mention Washington's statesmanlike qualities en passant. In 1920 Kipling won a court case against 'Genatosan' Ltd. (manufacturers of 'Sanatogen') for their illegal use of some of its lines. No feminist, he would refuse Marie Stopes, the controversial pioneer of 'Family Planning', permission to alter the text. It seems she'd suggested that if only men could keep their heads and 'fill the unforgiving minute with sixty second's worth of due distance run', they'd be more entitled to be called men ('my son').
  The author wrote (in his autobiography Something of Myself [1937]) that 'If' had been 'anthologised to weariness' and 'contained counsels of perfection most easy to give'. He felt that it was disliked by many younger people (who had been compelled to copy it out). He also mentions -in the same book- that the poem was 'drawn from' the character of his Scottish friend, Dr Leander Starr Jameson (1853-1917). This gentleman, whilst an administrator in the British South Africa company, had led a force of 470 mounted men in a raid that has come to be indelibly linked with his name. Their intention - backed by Cecil Rhodes and, almost certainly, the British colonial secretary Joseph Chamberlain - was to advance the 180 miles from Bechuanaland into Johannesburg, Transvaal, and unite with 'Uitlanders' (non-Boer European workers) to topple the government of Paul Kruger. The 'Jameson Raid' ended ignominiously on 2nd January, 1896, four days after the would-be insurgents crossed the border into Transvaal. The Uitlanders did not revolt, the rebel force was captured and Dr Jameson was led, in tears, into captivity. Kipling's was not the only poem written in praise of the ill-fated and ill-thought-out expedition. Alfred Austin, the poet laureate, also contributed some verses, which -although embarrassing to his Conservative backers - were of lesser quality and more readily forgotten.
  'If' seems to have been composed in 1909 (two years after Kipling had become the first English writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature). It was probably written at 'Batemans' in Burwash (his family's Sussex home since 1902) and soon after a visit from Jameson - the sort of 'strong man'/desperado who so appealed to to the diminutive writer. By now in his mid-forties, Kipling cohabited with his older, American wife, the protective and possessive 'Carrie' - and their daughter, Elsie - in their own comfortable Jacobean Manor house, furnished with oak beams and large fireplaces. The ill-fated John (short-sighted like his father) had been packed-off to 'st. Aubyn's' boarding school two years previously. With his own, almost boy-ish enthusiasm for new technology, 'Rud' had prevailed upon an eminent Civil Engineer of his acquaintance to install an electrical generator, powered by the river at the bottom of their garden. Another enthusiasm of these years was centred on the various prototypes of the automobile. Though he never drove himself, the author soon acquired an early edition Rolls-Royce with its attendant chauffeur.
  This same year (1909) Batemans was visited by George Clemenceau - until very recently the French prime minister (as he would be again during the coming war). Kipling established friendly relations with many contemporary, imperialistically-minded politicians (including Rhodes, Teddy Roosevelt, Andrew Bonar law and Lord Beaverbrook). His own cousin, appropriately enough, was Stanley Baldwin - whom he felt to be 'nearly a socialist'. The writer's conversation, always inclined to be 'salty', cannot have been improved by his recent abstinence, on doctor's orders, from smoking. Always something of an insomniac (who felt that he worked best just before dawn) Kipling was ambivalent about his own verse, feeling that it lacked real poetry. According to one of his friends, he felt that it was 'a useful means of expressing ideas where they could not be expressed in prose'. His method was almost invariably to get a tune into his head - and then fit words to it.
  After serving his fairly nominal 15 month's imprisonment (somewhat oddly, in Britain) L.S. Jameson had been paroled - doubtless through his influential friends' backing- and had served as premier of Cape Colony immediately after the Boer war. He would be granted a Baronetcy in 1911. Kipling was never the same man after the 1915 death-in-action of his only son, the myopic John (for whom he'd 'pulled strings' to obtain a commission in the Irish Guards). He would decline the offer of a knighthood on several occasions, as he'd declined the Order of Merit (twice) and - reputedly - the post of poet laureate. He would die, aged seventy, of complications arising from a perforated duodenum, and on his forty-fourth wedding anniversary. In 1996 'If' was voted the 'Nation's Favourite Poem', according to a B.B.C. poll (with twice as many votes as the runner-up). Unfailingly 'dug out' for sporting occasions, its injunction on the correct approach towards those 'two imposters' still greets tennis stars about to enter Wimbledon's 'Centre Court'.
 

Further reading:
Adams, J., Kipling, Haus Books (2005)
Kipling, R., Rudyard Kipling, the Complete Verse, Kyle Cathie (2002)
Kipling, R., Something of Myself, An Autobiography, Hesperous (2007)
Establishing a substantive provenance for this poem has proved a tortuous business. Two possible avenues for research, which might have been expected to provide assistance, were singularly uncommunicative. The curatorship at 'Batemans' and the staff of the 'Kipling Archive', university of Sussex, both failed to reply to correspondence (with return-addressed, pre-stamped envelopes provided). These joint failures of scholarship and of courtesy reflect poorly on the institutions concerned.

Kevin Saving © 2009