In 1896, thirty-one-year-old Rudyard Kipling was an internationally-renowned poet and story-teller when he wrote a poem with a one-word title: "If." The poem was inspired by "The Jameson Raid," an 1895 military action in the Boer War in South Africa. The raid, led by an English nobleman named Leander Starr Jameson, was in many ways a military disaster, but Jameson became a hero in the British press for his courage in attempting the raid and his willingness to take responsibility for the failure of the mission. The entire affair aroused enormous patriotic fervor in England, and Kipling was obviously caught up in the temper of the times.
Kipling's poem was not published until 1910, when it appeared in Rewards and Fairies, a collection of short stories and verse. The poem, which is in many ways one long ifferism, consists of four eight-line stanzas that read like one continuous thought. Almost overnight, the poem was hailed as a magnificent tribute to many of humankind's greatest virtues—staying composed under stress, remaining humble when victorious, never despairing when defeated, and always retaining honor and authenticity. In a 1995 survey by the British Broadcasting Company, If was named "Britain's favorite poem." The poem has become such an integral part of British culture that officials at Wimbledon's All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club had a couplet from the poem inscribed above the entryway to Centre Court:
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same.
For almost exactly a century, If has inspired millions of people, and in the past several decades it has become a staple of inspirational literature. In Wisdom of the Ages (1998), Wayne Dyer hailed the poem, writing, "The lofty ideas in his four-stanza poem inspire me to be a better man each time I read it and share it with my children, students, and audiences."
Bill Cosby found great solace in Kipling's poem after his 27-year-old son Ennis was shot and killed in 1997. In a January 1998 issue of Jet magazine, he said he found the first stanza especially comforting. "If was very calming, very calming," he told an interviewer, "Because there were times you wanted to yell out and just be a nasty person. Reading that paragraph over and over, I was able to suppress it."
For your reading and reflecting pleasure, here is the entire poem:
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 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 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 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,
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!
I have recently learned that a group of "If" enthusiasts have launched a web site ("All Things If") devoted to the ideals of the poem. To check it out, visit All Things If.
For an additional treat, if you would like to see some remarkably beautiful art posters inspired by the poem, visit Posterama.
In her 2007 album Shine, Joni Mitchell put Kipling's famous poem to music. It's a lovely tribute, yes, but if you're a fan of the poem be warned that Mitchell takes liberties with Kipling's original wording, occasionally "correcting" gender references (e.g., replacing "all men" with "everybody") and making a few other significant changes to the wording. Listen to Mitchell's rendition of the poem.