The Poetry Project 2023: January
Reflections on Rudyard Kipling’s “If — ”
As I wrote a short while ago, my new year’s resolution for 2023 is to learn one poem a month off by heart. Asking friends and relatives to make their own suggestions, I put together a list of 12 poems and selected the first one at random.
First up? “If — ” by Rudyard Kipling. Here is a link to the poem in full. For those who would like to listen to the poem, here is a link to the lovely Ralph Fiennes reciting it.
The Britishest of all British poems
In 1995, “If — ” was voted Britain’s favourite poem as part of a public vote, gaining twice as many votes as the runner-up. Small wonder — as the best-known lyrical expression of the Victorian values of stoicism, self-discipline and reserve, it is considered by many to capture the essence of Britishness. That is to say: the famous stiff upper lip.
So enduring is “If”’s popular appeal and so firm its place in the British cultural imagination that excerpts from it have been placed in prominent public locations in the UK. The 3rd and 4th lines of the 2nd verse (“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same”) stand above the entrance to Centre Court at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club where the finals of the Wimbledon tournament are played each year. A call to equanimity so universal, it can reach out and touch everyone — from top tennis players going out to play the most important match of their careers to children on their first day at school learning how to be gracious winners and good losers.
Life & times
Born on December 30, 1865, in Bombay (now Mumbai) as the son of John Lockwood Kipling, an artist and teacher of architectural sculpture, and Alice Macdonald Kipling, the writer spent his early childhood years in India. The rich culture of the subcontinent would go on to have a profound influence on Kipling’s writing in later life.
Besides several famous poems (including “If”, “The White Man’s Burden” and “Gunga Din”), Kipling also wrote a number of novels, such as “Captains Courageous” (1897), “Kim” (1901), and “The Light That Failed” (1890). His best-known work, however, is and remains “Jungle Book”. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907.
Kipling was an enthusiastic advocate of British imperialism as well a staunch supporter of the war effort during World War I. Although the tragedy of losing his son John in the Battle of Loos in 1915 may have caused him to reflect — he was convinced that Britain was superior and that its people had a calling. That was: to fight for freedom and civilisation — and bring these values to the furthest corners of the world.
Rudyard Kipling died on January 18, 1936, in London, England.
A classic poem of universal appeal
Although his imperialist views have now turned him into something of a posthumous cultural pariah, Rudyard Kipling remains a key figure in the pantheon of British literature. To push him entirely to the sidelines of study and discussion in the modern world is to wilfully ignore the contribution he made to his genre.
While it is never possible to completely disentangle the author’s person from their work, one should certainly try and consider “If — ” apart from Kipling’s personal and political views on empire and white supremacy. It is a didactic poem that offers a set of universal guidelines for how to live a virtuous and successful life. It encourages the reader to maintain their composure and rationality in the face of adversity, to have self-confidence and self-belief, to be patient and persistent, to be honest and truthful, to seek knowledge and wisdom, to be strategic, to be resilient, be able to adapt to change, and to learn from difficult situations.
The series of commands set out in the poem, its call to aim for higher ideals beyond oneself — are almost prayerlike. Indeed, reading them back to myself again and again while learning the lines of the poem transformed it into a kind of secular incantation. It felt comforting: as if by reciting the words I was getting in touch with something greater; something shared with many others.
Because the poem originates from, and is deeply rooted in, British culture — one could conclude that it does allow the reader to feel connected to other Brits. It might be said to encapsulate the shared identity, offer a direct experience of that identity, and call for its perpetuation.
What IS Britishness, actually?
But — was the idea of Britishness as immortalised by Kipling in “If — ” ever a thing of truth? Or just a figment of the collective imagination, romanticised and elevated to the status of incontrovertible historical fact through the written word? And - even if that character trait did once exist on a broad scale across the peoples of the British Isles (…or Empire) — was it such a desirable thing, or did it do people more harm than good? Is it still the core of the nation character today?
Many Brits of my generation were brought up by Boomer parents who certainly subscribed to the values of stoicism and fortitude and who didn’t set great store by open displays of emotion. Our grandparents adhered to those principles even more stringently.
It is the right of every generation to question the ways of the ones who went before — and we Millennials are no different. The death of Princess of Diana is commonly seen as a kind of watershed moment in the nation’s relationship to its own emotional interior. Looking back, the outpouring of feeling witnessed at that time was the starting shot for a more open approach to mental health and the expression of one’s own feelings. To the delight of some — and the chagrin of others.
We Millennials were only teenagers at the time. Old enough to remember the days of chillier demeanours, but young enough to absorb and understand the ways and mores of the new era of emotion. We understood the value of the stiff upper lip — but also knew to question it and see alternative ways of being.
Too much of a good thing?
In a way, that loosening of the national emotional corset has been a thoroughly good thing. Mental illness has been destigmatised, enabling people who are struggling to speak out and obtain help. “Pull yourself together and get on with it” as a piece of advice sometimes doesn’t cut it. Not even close.
But most of the time, it does. The pendulum which started to swing away from reserve to openness in 1997 has now gone too far. Feelings are starting to take on the quality of facts. The emotional is starting to take precedence over the rational, and the idea of looking inwards is nudging out the idea of looking to the outside — and getting over oneself.
If Kipling were to spend a few days in modern Britain (or any other Western country for that matter), he might not encounter people who had lost everything “And never breathe a word about [their] loss”. Instead, he might meet people who have taken risks, lost everything — but then spend the rest of their lives moaning and refusing to take any responsibility for their mistakes. They might just be making a fortune by peddling their supposed victimhood on social media. I think he’d be horrified.
To some, “If” might seem like an uptight relic of yesteryear. To me, it looks like the perfect antidote to a world losing itself in the narcissism of lucrative victimhood and emotional incontinence.