Bryan Paul Sullo

20 Tenets of “If—”

In Arts & Entertainment, Character Development on 17 January 2014 at 7:30 am

If—Today (18 January 2014), being the seventy-eighth anniversary of the death of Rudyard Kipling (1865 — 1936), I thought it fitting to post something about one of his most famous poems, “If—”.

“If—” was written in honor of Kipling’s friend, Sir Leander Starr Jameson (1853-1917), and it soon became a sort of mantra for those wishing to develop their own (or someone else’s) character. The following excerpt is from Kipling’s autobiobraphy, Something of Myself.

Among the verses in Rewards was one set called `If—’, which escaped from the book, and for a while ran about the world. They were drawn from Jameson’s character, and contained counsels of perfection most easy to give. Once started, the mechanization of the age made them snowball themselves in a way that startled me. Schools, and places where they teach, took them for the suffering Young – which did me no good with the Young when I met them later. (`Why did you write that stuff? I’ve had to write it out twice as an impot.’).They were printed as cards to hang up in offices and bedrooms; illuminated text-wise and anthologized to weariness. Twenty-seven of the Nations of the Earth translated them into their seven-and-twenty tongues, and printed them on every sort of fabric.’

Though not enumerated as such, the poem contains twenty tenets on the subject of an upstanding character. Following is the original verse (to the left) accompanied by the underlying tenet of each line, or set of lines.

“If—” by Rudyard Kipling
If you can keep your head when all about you 
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
1. Stay focused and collected no matter the circumstances.
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,  2. Make sound judgments and stick to them.
But make allowance for their doubting too;  3. Don’t forget that you’re not infallible, and don’t get mad when people see things differently than you.
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,  4. Be patient.
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,  5. Don’t compromise your character by stooping to the level of your adversaries.
Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,  6. Resist cynicism. (Be slow to anger. Don’t harbor a grudge.)
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise; 7. Be humble in your actions and speech.
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;  8. Think big, but live practically.
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;  9. Develop your mind, then put it to use.
If you can meet with triumph and disaster 
And treat those two imposters just the same; 
10. Don’t get too puffed up with success or too down about failure. Neither one is as important or as under your control as they seem.
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken 
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools, 
11. People will misquote and malign you. Don’t let it bother you. (Forgive.)
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken, 
And stoop and build ’em up with wornout tools;
12. Nothing lasts forever. Don’t be afraid to start over at the beginning for a worthwhile endeavor.
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 
13. Don’t be afraid to take risks. Accept your losses and move on.
And never breath a word about your loss;  14. Don’t be a complainer.
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”;
15. Train your mind and body to be submissive to your will.
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,  16. Be in the world, but not of it.
Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch;  17. Cultivate your ability to associate with those above your station, but don’t look down on those below yours. (Stay humble while pursuing success.)
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;  18. Keep your sense of who you are, so that people who do you wrong (through bad or good intent) don’t affect your self-esteem.
If all men count with you, but none too much;  19. Be reliable, but don’t be a doormat. (Serve others, but don’t become a slave.)
If you can fill the unforgiving minute 
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run – 
20. Don’t squander your time. Use it in worthwhile activity.
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, 
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son! 

Of course, this is just one man’s opinion. There are undoubtedly many other ways to interpret this poem and many other truths to be gleaned from it. What would you add, or take away? Leave a comment, and let me know.

If you’re interested in the image at the top of this post, It is available as an 18″ × 24″poster from the terriffic site, The Art of Manliness.

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