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Rudyard Kipling


Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1910

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Summary and Study Guide


Rudyard Kipling’s “If—,” written in 1895 and published in Rewards and Fairies (1910), is a historical fantasy book consisting of a series of short stories, each preceded and followed by a poem. “If—” is a didactic poem that provides inspiration and guidance on the ideal behavior to be a better person. It underscores the virtuous stoicism so often attributed to the Victorian era and so often characterized as a definitive British character trait. Kipling found inspiration for the poem in the beliefs and actions of Scottish colonial politician Leander Starr Jameson. Jameson led the failed 1895 raid (the Jameson Raid) against Paul Kruger’s Boer government. However, Kipling wrote the poem to his son, John, so its message is universal.

Poet Biography

Rudyard Kipling was born in 1865 in Bombay (now Mumbai), on India’s west coast. He later received his education in England. As a child, Kipling spoke English, Hindi, and Portuguese. His language fluency is evident in his body of work, which deals with issues of language and identity. In 1882, he returned to India to work as a reporter.

Departmental Ditties (1886) launched Kipling’s literary career. Despite the poetry collection’s success, however, Kipling was mostly known as a short story writer. The popularity of his work did lead to various awards, yet Kipling declined both the British Poet Laureateship and knighthood. Though he refused these major public awards, the public still considered him the British Empire’s unofficial poet. Some of his work, for instance, such as Plain Tales from the Hills (1888), Soldiers Three (1888), and Barrack Room Ballads (1892) celebrated the common man, specifically soldiering.

In 1894, Kipling published The Jungle Book, a collection of stories that became a children’s classic around the world and remains popular to this day, including through its many adaptations such as Disney’s 1967 animated film and its subsequent live-action remakes. Kim (1901), Kipling’s most critically acclaimed work, is ranked in the top 100 on the Modern Library’s “100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.”

Kipling’s other notable works include Captains Courageous (1897) and Just So Stories (1902), as well as The Second Jungle Book (1895), The Seven Seas (1896), The Day’s Work (1898), Stalky and Co. (1899), Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906), Actions and Reactions (1909), Debits and Credits (1926), Thy Servant a Dog (1930), and Limits and Renewals (1932). Traffics and Discoveries (1904) is a hybrid work that includes short stories and poems.

When Kipling received the 1907 Nobel Prize in Literature, he was the first and youngest English-language writer to do so (to date). He died on January 18, 1936, and resides in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey.

Poem Text

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!

Kipling, Rudyard. “If—.” 1895. Poetry Foundation.


“If—” offers advice on how to be a virtuous human being, advocating for a morality established through moderation. The poem’s speaker advises the reader to lead a life of composure and to exercise self-control, integrity, and humility. These stoic values are vital when faced with conflict and the possibility of acting without virtue.

The poem focuses on how to respond to life’s challenges. The speaker also explains what it means to succeed: success in life is not about winning a game. One can measure success instead by how one plays the game and whether one remains resolute.