Study Guide

If Defeat

By Rudyard Kipling


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.