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If by Rudyard Kipling

Summary : One of his most quoted works, Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’ was written as a tribute to Leander Starr Jameson.

Poem Name?—?If

Poet?—?Rudyard Kipling

Performer?—?Sir Michael Caine

Language?—?English

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One of his most quoted works, Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’ was written as a tribute to Leander Starr Jameson. Ironically, though inspired by the actions of a failed military raid, the poem in its entirety talks about being a ‘virtuous man.’ The poem, first published in Rewards and Fairies (1910), is written in the form of paternal advice to the poet’s son, John.

Kipling uses a series of paradoxes to convey a fairly simple message to his son. Life is a set of contradictions and one must overcome them to truly become, what Kipling refers to “a Man.” The contradictions vary from keeping one’s calm during a stressful situation to abstract concepts like dreams and their power over an individual’s life.

The poem then can be seen as a life lesson of sorts. It conveys the importance of taking risks and facing loss. It talks about holding oneself together and never forgetting where one comes from. Through its swift pace and engaging nature, the poem is a message for everyone to contemplate and reflect how they lead their lives.

There is a certain relatability to Kipling’s writing that makes it timeless. ‘If’ could be read in any context and yet, would make perfect sense to the person reading it. The end is quite telling of how Kipling viewed English masculinity in the context of society. Interestingly, the poem is about compromises, something that ‘men’ should not have to make. It is only after adhering to all the paradoxes as well as maintaining individuality and humbleness, that one truly becomes a man. Perhaps in Kipling’s understanding, it is only after much strife that men can ‘inherit the Earth.’

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In a recitation, Sir Michael Caine’s deep, steady voice does the poem endless justice. Well-spaced, with good enunciation, Sir Michael brings out the raw emotion in the poem. As a person whose father was at war and as a soldier himself, Sir Michael deeply resonates with the poem. He openly abhors war and goes on to call it ‘truly disgusting’ and something started by ‘men too old to fight themselves.’ While the sentiment is sound, it is also ironic how much value the poem, which is dedicated to an imperial soldier, has to Sir Michael who is so staunchly anti-war.

Sir Michael even relates to the poem from his point of view as an actor. He states that the lines, “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/ And treat those two impostors just the same;” are truly relevant for actors as they face success and failures at an equal rate. Even the words, “If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken/ Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools”, can be seen as a reference to the paparazzi, that have the tendency to turn quotes into clickbait.

Regardless of the fact that it was meant to be a poem from a military perspective, ‘If’ echoes the modern sentiment of living in paradoxes. The consistent usage of the word ‘if’ gives the reader a chance to reflect and consider their actions as they move along the poem. It works like a thread, binding multiple possibilities together all while questioning the end result of it all.

Watch Sir Michael Caine reciting “If” by Rudyard Kipling: