If we had to describe the sound of this poem in three words, they would be: "run-on sentence." Okay, so that's a little harsh, but if you think about how run-on sentences work, you'll see what we mean. If you've ever encountered a run-on sentence, you know they tend to go on and on and on, like this, "So I went to the store, and then I went to McDonald's, and I got a cheeseburger, and then I had a Diet Coke, omg I went to the pet store next, and… and… and…"
So, maybe "If' doesn't quite sound like that, but then again it sort of does. The most widely-used literary technique in this poem is anaphora, which is the repetition of the same word, or series of words, at the beginning of successive lines. More than anything else, it is the anaphora in this poem that gives it a run-on feel. Take a peek at lines 9-11,
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
Notice all of those phrases: "If you can," "If you can," "If you can." Anaphora goes down in lines 18-20 as well:
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: (18-20)
Part of the reason the poem is so repetitive, and sounds so much like a run-on is because it's a poem spoken by a father to a son. Repetition works well on kids, especially if you're trying to teach them something. While at times all the anaphora—the "if, if, if" and the "and, and, and"—gets a little tedious, but if you were trying to give a young person a mini-lecture about how to become a man and conquer the world, you might resort to this strategy, too.
"If": a simple, two-letter title, and one that does and does not tell us a whole lot about the poem. When we come across this simple little title, our immediate reaction is naturally, "If what?" This is because "if" is one of those words that really needs a friend, some other words to go with it. If you just walk into a room and go "if," people might look at you like you're from Mars (or Jupiter, or even Pluto). Right off the bat, then, the poem's title puzzles us. It is enigmatic, to say the least. (Note: this does not mean Kipling is from Mars.)
Here's the other thing about the word "if." It usually describes something that isn't real, or isn't real yet. It points to something could potentially happen, or potentially exist. Think of it like this: if somebody says to you "if you go to the store, you can buy soda," they are saying "hey, you haven't gone to the store, and you might not go to the store, but if you do go, then you can get some soda." So, the word "if" usually describes something that doesn't yet exist (you haven't gone to the store yet), but also implies that some other things will happen: you will be able to get soda once you're there. (We're going somewhere with all this—just bear with us.)
This is the basic idea of Kipling's poem. It is 32 lines of things that the speaker's listener hasn't done yet (learned to be strong, patient, wise, etc.). If he does them, but only if, then he will basically have possession of the entire world (a metaphor for power, a fulfilling life, and other things). What's more, the listener will be a man. In short, the title tells us that "If" is a poem about how certain things must be done. Only if those things are done, will certain other things happen.
And here's one more little thing to consider: We never find out what will happen if the speaker's addressee does everything he's supposed to, unless we read to the end of the poem. In other words, only if we read all 32 lines do we learn what will happen if the listener does everything he's supposed to do. Like the poem's addressee, we too have to do our part if we want answers.
Well, we don't get a lot in the way of setting in this poem. There are suggestions here and there (references to a gambling game, descriptions of interacting with common people and kings), but overall this poem doesn't really describe really any specific places.
Nonetheless, there are two places that, although not technically in the poem, are nevertheless a really big part of its identity. If you imagine a giant pot of soup cooking on the stove, the poem itself would be the soup, but the ingredients that gave the soup flavor would be the poem's historical background. To put it another way, there are two major settings that influenced the poem "If." You can't cook soup without a few ingredients, right?
The first bit of background would be late nineteenth-century South Africa. If you've read our "In a Nutshell" section, you know this poem was inspired by the exploits of a dude named Sir Leander Starr Jameson, who led a failed invasion into an area of South Africa called the Transvaal. The Jameson raid was part of an unauthorized attempt to gain control of the Transvaal, and its recently discovered gold and diamond deposits. At the time, South Africa wasn't South Africa. It was a collection of colonies and territories—some British, others run by the descendants of the original Dutch settlers (called "Boers"), such as the Transvaal. (Check out a map of 1895 South Africa right here.)
The British really wanted control of the whole area, especially some of the Boer-controlled areas. For their part, the Boers were fed up with British intervention and began moving away from the British, only to see the British come after them. The 1890s in South Africa, then, was a time of conflict, yet another battleground between European powers that was nowhere near European soil. The British and the Boers would eventually fight a few wars, the second of which, called the Second Boer War, ultimately resulted in the British annexation of most of the area.
"If" also very much belongs to the late Victorian period, an era known for its relative uptightness and conservatism. If you take a look at this site, you can get an idea of what we mean by that. Read more about the Victorian period here and more about Queen Victoria herself right here.
The Victorian period was also the great age of British Imperialism. And by great, we do mean great. By 1900, Great Britain controlled nearly a quarter of the world's land, and governed almost 400 million people (some more strictly than others). Australia, New Zealand, large chunks of Asia (primarily India and Pakistan), and even larger chunks of Africa (Nigeria, South Africa, Sudan, Kenya, Malawi, and others)—not to mention Canada—were all part of the Empire.
The British saw themselves as partaking in a civilizing mission on the one hand (non-Europeans were less evolved, and couldn't govern themselves, the theory went), but also as improving their own country. British expansion gave the country greater accesses to resources unavailable back home (tea and sugar, for example) and opened up other opportunities (such as trade routes). While we could go on for days about the British Empire, for now you can read more about it here if you like.
So, while the actual setting of Kipling's poem is not well-defined for us, the historical and cultural settings in which "If" appeared are pretty clear: Britain was branching out all over the world, and it took a certain kind of personality to lead that charge. What kind, you might ask? Well, look no further than the instructions provided by the poem itself.
If one thing is for certain, it is that the speaker of this poem loves the word "If." He loves it so much he uses it 13 times. In a poem that's only 32 lines, that's nearly every two lines. Now the speaker doesn't use this word a million times because he has some kind of problem or anything like that—far from it. By the end of the poem, we learn that the speaker is talking to his son and the poem is partly instructional. The speaker, then, is not just a father, but a father who is putting his parent-as-teacher cap on for all to see.
Lots of parents, when they're in teacher mode, have this way of appearing very wise, and the speaker of "If" is no exception. The very fact that he is able to list off all the different things his son must do if he wants to become a man tells us that he has been around the block a few times and is familiar with just about every roadblock his young child will have to negotiate in his journey through life.
Now, even though the speaker definitely resembles your incredibly smart father, or your very wise grandpa, he also comes across like a sage counselor of sorts, the quiet guy in the corner that is usually reserved, but every once in a while decides to speak just to show that he knows more than all the blabbermouths in the room. Just think of a guy like Maester Aemon from Game of Thrones and you'll have an idea of what we mean.
Again, we get this vibe from the speaker because, well, he gives such detailed explanations about every possible little situation. We can't help feeling that the speaker doesn't just know about stuff, but has seen so much of it that he knows exactly how things will play out: truths will be twisted by knaves to make traps for fools, men will lie like crazy to get ahead, the things one has spent one's whole life building will collapse… you get the idea. In short, this guy has seen it all, and lived to tell the tale.
If you can bear to be teased for 30 lines, then this poem shouldn't be too bad. What do mean teased? Oh, just the fact that the speaker says "if" about a million times but then waits until the very end of the poem to tell us what will happen if his listener does all the things he counsels. Sometimes, having to wait that long can be, well, tough. Still, the words in this poem aren't super-gnarly or anything, and other than a few strange references to things like "pitch-and-toss," things run rather smoothly.
Kipling talks about manhood constantly, like all over his poetry—sometimes explicitly, sometimes not so much. While we have no idea for the first 30 lines of "If" that it's going to be a poem about being a man, it is very clear at the end that that is what it is. In many ways, the poem is a recipe for how to be a man and conquer the world: "Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it, / And---which is more---you'll be a Man, my son!" (31-32).
"If' isn't the only Kipling poem that talks about manhood, though. "The Thousandth Man", for example is all about brotherhood and friendship. "The White Man's Burden," a poem that has gotten Kipling in a lot of hot water over the years, is about leaving behind childish things and, well, becoming a (white) man: "Take up the White Man's burden-- / Have done with childish days" (49-50). And of course, we also see that same idea in that most famous of Kipling books, The Jungle Book, if in a slightly different way.
A line of iambic pentameter consists of ten syllables, divided into five groups (or feet). Each foot consist of an iamb, or an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. An iamb produces a rhythm like daDUM. Just check out line 2:
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you.
Here that daDUM daDUM daDUM? There you have it: iambic pentameter.
Now, if you take a peek at the other lines in the poem, you might notice a pattern. All of the even-numbered lines (2, 4, 6, 8, 10, etc.) contain 10 syllables and are textbook iambic pentameter. But what about the odd-numbered lines (1, 3, 5, 7, etc.)? Let's look at line 25, for example:
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue.
Notice, that everything is cool up until that last word, "virtue," where we have what appears to be the beginning of another iamb but… poof, we're on to the next line. Intriguing, to say the least.
Okay, don't get too worked up now. This is perfectly okay. The odd-numbered lines have an extra syllable. There are many fancy terms for this oh-so-peculiar phenomenon. Sometimes the syllable is called "extrametrical," sometimes "hypermetrical," and, when people want to be really fancy, they will call the whole line "hypercatalectic" (that's hi-purr-cat-uh-lec-tic). There are all sorts of reasons why a poet would want to add an extra syllable. Maybe Kipling started writing and realized that line 1 had an extra syllable and decided to roll with it. Maybe he had more to say in the odd-numbered lines. Maybe he just wanted to change things up. These are all good reasons, and we will never know for sure why the odd-numbered lines are hypercatalectic.
We can speculate about its effect, however. To do that, we have to talk briefly about the poem's rhyme scheme. Every stanza (except for the first, but wait just a second on that) has the following rhyme scheme: ABABCDCD, where each letter represents that line's end rhyme. This means the first and third lines rhyme, the second and fourth, etc. Each stanza contains four different groups (ABCD), and everything fits into a neat pattern. The alternating rhyme scheme, and the alternating metrical scheme (one line with an extra syllable, followed by a line with no extra syllables) stress the importance of pairs, of twos, of sequences. In a poem that is all about consequences—if you do x, then you will achieve y—this is a very important formal set up. It's the poem's way of making the nuts and bolts of poetry (rhyme, meter) display the poem's message—nifty.
Okay, now before we conclude, we have to talk about that pesky first stanza, which has the following rhyme scheme: AAAABCBC. Yeah, we know this is a little odd, not to mention unoriginal (Kipling rhymes "you" with… "you" three lines in a row). In a poem that is so balanced (4 octets, or eight-line stanzas) with strict meter, the first stanza is like a sore thumb that sticks out. Okay, so why put a sore thumb in the poem then, Mr. Kipling? Simple: this poem is about the uncertainty of life—money is lost, people turn their backs on other people, stuff gets destroyed. In a poem that is partly about how life throws you curve balls, the first stanza actually makes sense. It is the poem's curve ball, the poem's way of, again, displaying one of the poem's major themes.
For a poem that, at the end of day, seems pretty triumphant or uplifting, there sure are plenty of references to things getting broken, lost, and destroyed. All these references reiterate the idea that things don't always go as planned. That's just life. But none of these things are permanent. There are ways to overcome life's setbacks and defeats, and this emphasizes the importance of rebuilding after a loss.
If this poem is anything, it's a poem about what not to do if you want to be a man (or if you want to have a successful life). Seriously, at times the poem assumes a kind of "don't do this, and never do that, and you better not do that" tone. "If" is a very negative poem, at least in that sense. Thank goodness that all the things it says not to do seem like things that one shouldn't do anyway (give into hate, lie, get worked up about stuff rather than fix them, etc.). In the end, it's what one doesn't do that matters more than what one does—or something like that.
If "If" is anything, it is a poem about endurance, about persevering, even in hard times. And we don't mean just literal endurance, as in the final stanza's discussion of distance running. There is also emotional, or figurative endurance—all that business about holding on, and finding the will to continue, even when one's body feels like it's about to break. In many ways, "If" is a poem about strength, and at times it seems like its underlying theme is "only the strong survive."
"If" is a poem of extremes. If one thing is for certain, it's that whenever the speaker wants to make a point he goes from one extreme to the other. In stanza 2 there's "Triumph and Disaster," breaking and rebuilding in the third stanza, and then friends and foes, kings and commoners in the fourth stanza. These extremes are in the poem because the speaker wants to stress the importance of the middle. If his listener wants to be a man, and to have complete possession of the earth, well, he's gotta learn to stay in the middle.
We regret to inform you that there is no sex in this poem, none whatsoever. Heck, this is pretty much a father-son bromance of a poem, and it's all about conquering defeat, not getting too emotional about things, and learning how to be a man.