Study Guide

If Quotes

  • Philosophical Viewpoints: Stoicism

    If you can keep your head when all about you
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you; (1-2)

    The important, stoic principle of maintaining control is expressed right at the beginning of the poem. The whole idea of "keeping one's head" applies to other stoical ideas in the poem: not giving in to hate, not despairing over defeat, and not giving in to physical exhaustion.

    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, (5-7)

    Stoicism is about being patient and about not giving in. These lines say it best. "Don't deal in lies," and "don't give way to hating." Hating, lying—these are negative things, and giving into them is a way of losing control of one's emotional equilibrium.

    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 impostors just the same: (9-12)

    We meet the idea of control again, this time with dreams and thoughts. The neatest thing about these lines is the rhyme on "master" and "disaster." The poem very cleverly tells us that a key aspect of stoicism is mastering disaster—emotional, literal, or any other kind.

    If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools, (13-14)

    We again see a connection between stoicism and endurance. Here, that endurance takes the form of being able to watch "knaves" distort one's words in order to deceive people. Being able to "bear" something implies being able to observe without overreacting, getting too upset, and the like.

    Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools; (15-16)

    The key word is "watch." Note that there is no mention of things like "get upset," "throw a fit," or "sulk." Nope. This is because to be truly stoic is to observe what has happened and to go about fixing it, without getting all bent out of shape.

    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 breathe a word about your loss: (17-20)

    These lines pick up right where lines 15-16 left off. This time it's not about "watching," but rather about "not breathing a word" about one's loss to anybody. These lines reiterate the point that, to be stoic, one must start over at times—without making a fuss.

    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!" (21-24)

    Stoicism is also about strength and endurance. Just look at the language in these lines: "force," "serve," "hold on," "Hold on!" It is just as important to press on, even when you feel like your body is broke, as it is to calmly endure disappointment.

    If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much: (27-28)

    Stoicism is about making oneself invincible, as much as that is possible. Friends hurt us, and so do foes, but we should always try to not let that happen. We need to put on metaphorical armor if we want to succeed.

    If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds' worth of distance run, (29-30)

    The strength and endurance aspect of stoicism is brought up again, this time with a metaphor about making the most of an "unforgiving minute." Life is short, that's for sure, so you might as well stoically do the best you can—go the "distance," as they say.

  • Men and Masculinity

    Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools; (15-16)

    If we were going to paraphrase these lines, we could say they say "take it like a man." In other words, "watch" the things you've devoted yourself to get destroyed, but then be strong, act like a man, and fix them. Kipling loved this idea, as you can see in our "Calling Card" section.

    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!" (21-24)

    All this business about the "Will" makes us think of some champion fighter or soldier, forging ahead. It makes us think, in short, of typically masculine virtues (strength, power, and those kinds of things).

    If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds' worth of distance run, (29-30)

    These lines recall lines 21-24, and again make us think of athleticism, competition, and strength—typically (but not always) masculine themes.

    Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it, (31)

    This line is all about possession, control, owning things. Those ideas are, traditionally, very masculine ones. While not super-explicit or anything, these lines definitely connect masculinity, colonialism (remember the poem was written in response to a British attempt to gain more control over parts of South Africa), and power.

    And---which is more---you'll be a Man, my son! (32)

    It doesn't get any more, well, sexist than this. The whole poem is all "if you do this, and if you do that, you will… become a man." A man is what we're shooting for—not a woman, but a man with control over the earth and everything in it. In a nutshell, this is a poem about how to become a dominating male when you grow up.

  • Defeat

    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: (1-4)

    Defeat is everywhere. The speaker imagines a scenario, for example, where just about everybody is losing their minds (a form of defeat). It is the listener's job to be the one who does not lose his own mind. He must be unique.

    If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same: (11-12)

    Hmm, strange that "Disaster" and "Triumph" are grouped together and both called "impostors." Yes, very strange indeed. We have to wonder, does this mean that a triumph can also lead to future disasters? Probably, if the success goes to your head and you lose sight of the bigger picture.

    Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools; (15-16)

    "Broken" and "worn-out"—this is the language of defeat, in a nutshell. Luckily, this doesn't have to be a permanent state of affairs. Clearly, things can be re-built, even if the tools are a little rusty.

    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 breathe a word about your loss: (17-20)

    Gambling and losing all of one's "winnings" on a game of "pitch-and-toss" is a metaphor that refers to losing just about anything. Loss = defeat, plain and simple. The rhyme on "beginning" and "winning" is interesting, however. It suggests that the beginning—starting over—might actually just be another way to win.

  • Politics

    And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise; (8)

    The speaker introduces a theme that will be important later when the poem becomes more obviously political: balance. To be a good leader, the listener must not be "too" much of anything (too wise, too upright, etc.). Excess is no good.

    If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
    Or walk with Kings---nor lose the common touch, (25-26)

    The idea of talking with crowds makes us think of political speeches, while walking with kings suggests passing with social elites. A good leader must be able to get along with people from opposite ends of the social spectrum ("Kings" and "crowds").

    If all men count with you, but none too much: (28)

    Well this is an interesting political idea. One must be liked ("count with you"), but not too much. As with the rest of this poem, excess of all kinds is bad—in politics and in life.

    Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
    And---which is more---you'll be a Man, my son! (31-32)

    Okay, so the speaker probably means "Earth" in a general sense here, but in a poem inspired by an invasion? That screams for a political reading. The poem's suggestions are partly an instruction manual for controlling land (cities, regions, countries, the world, the universe, and quite possibly beyond).