Study Guide

If Negatives (No, Don't, Never)

By Rudyard Kipling

Negatives (No, Don't, Never)

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.

  • Line 5: The speaker stresses the importance of patience by saying the speaker will be a man if he cannot be tired by waiting.
  • Lines 6-7: These lines display the speaker's taste for anaphora, the repetition of the same word or words in successive lines, and suggest that the speaker's son shouldn't deal in lies or give way to hating.
  • Line 8: The speaker's son shouldn't look too good, or talk too wisely. The lines emphasize the importance of not coming across as a know-it-all, or as a self-righteous saint.
  • Lines 9-10: We encounter anaphora again as the speaker emphasizes dreaming and thinking, but this time it's about not becoming a slave to one's dreams or thoughts.
  • Lines 19-20: "Never breathe a word" means "say nothing." One doesn't really breathe words, per se, so this is a metaphor for talking. It is also a metaphor for being strong, for being able to endure disappointment without getting too upset about it. 
  • Line 27: Here we get a neither-nor phrase, one that stresses the importance of not letting friends or enemies hurt you. This too is a metaphor for being strong, for being able to not let things get to you.

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