Study Guide


If Summary

"If" is basically an instruction manual for how to be "a man," at least according to the speaker. It is basically 30 lines of "if you do this, and if you don't do that," followed by two lines at the end that explain everything. Yes, you have to wait until the very end to find out what will happen if you do the following: keep your head, don't lie and hate, risk everything and lose it but start over again, watch everything you've dedicated yourself to get destroyed but then bend down and rebuild it again, handle success and failure with grace, don't get too upset if people twist your words and use them to deceive people and… that's the gist of it. If you can do all this, the speaker says, you will be a man, and will have the world and everything in it. So, you'll have that going for you.

  • Stanza 1

    Lines 1-2

    If you can keep your head when all about you
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;

    • Well, we've got a poem called "If" and, whaddya know, "if" is the first word of the poem.
    • The speaker is addressing somebody, and tells him (we're just assuming that our speaker's addressing a "he" at this point) that if he can keep his head when everybody else around him is losing theirs and blaming him then…
    • Then… what? Then nothing, we guess.
    • Okay, so maybe it's not nothing, but the lines don't give us a "then" yet, so we really can't say for sure at this point.
    • What we do know for sure, though, is that "to keep one's head" meant just about the same thing in the 1890s (when our friend Kipling wrote "If") as it does now: to be cool, calm, and collected.
    • And just as to "keep one's head" meant just about the same thing, so did "lose one's head": to go crazy, lose one's mind, act strangely, and so on. 
    • Think of it like this: We often think of the head as the source of reason, wisdom, rationality, and the like. To "keep it" (to prevent it from falling off) is to be rational, in control, etc.
    • Now, without going too much into the whole Second Boer War thing, which inspired Kipling to write the poem, we can safely assume that these lines have something to do with all the craziness down in South Africa at the time. (If you want to know more about this violent little episode, head over to "In a Nutshell" or "Best of the Web.") 
    • One last little thing: Did you notice that the first two lines end with the same word ("you")? Technically this is a rhyme, but we think it's just a little cheap, using the same word and all.
    • At the same time, it does emphasize the speaker's addressee. We are reminded twice, in two lines, that this is a poem directed to somebody. 

    Lines 3-4

    If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too:

    • Just like the first two lines, the next two lines also contain an "if" clause. 
    • This time, the speaker tells his addressee that if he can trust himself when "all men" doubt him, but make excuses for, or justify ("make allowance"), their mistrust then… then… then...
    • Big surprise—these lines also refuse to give us a "then" to go with the "if." 
    • Bummer.
    • At least this much is for certain: the opening four lines of the poem make a comparison between the speaker's addressee (remember, we still have no idea who this is) and everybody else ("all men").
    • It's not exactly that this unidentified fellow is the chosen one or anything, but he's clearly being advised on how to go about being something special (the third line also ends in "you").
    • In other words, the speaker is saying, "Look bro, if you can somehow act calmer and collected, and can believe in yourself, even when everybody else is losing it, well then…"
    • And there's the rub. The poem is developing a recipe for success, only we have no idea what form that success will take, yet.
    • Hopefully this poem doesn't just leave us hanging, and we eventually get a bonafide "then" to go with our "if."

    Lines 5-6

    If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,

    • And yet again we meet a series of lines that start with "If you can." This is what's known in the poetry biz as an anaphora.
    • This time, the speaker tells his addressee that, if he can wait patiently and not get sick of waiting, and if he can endure all the lies people will say about him and refuse to tell his own lies in return ("deal in lies")…
    • Well, you know the drill. We still don't know what happens if this guy can do all the things the speaker says, so let's just keep going.
    • Hopefully, we'll get the answer soon.

    Lines 7-8

    Or being hated don't give way to hating,
    And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;

    • The speaker continues the same train of thought.
    • Now, even though he doesn't say "if" in these lines, the "if" of line 5 governs lines 7-8 as well. These lines are all part of that same bit of advice. 
    • This time around, the speaker says that something will happen if the addressee can somehow handle being hated, but not become a hater himself.
    • Something will also happen if he manages to present himself to others in a certain way. Still, he must avoid looking "too good" and talking "too wise."
    • While "look too good" could refer to the addressee's unparalleled, killer, sophisticated fashion sense, it probably means "good" in a moral sense.
    • Nowadays, we would say, "Don't come across like a good-goody, or a goody two-shoes. That's not what people want."
    • But wait—why don't people want a Mr. Perfection-Goody-Goody-type dude around? Well, people want to be surrounded by good people, but not by people that are so over-the-top good that they seem too good for everybody else.
    • Just think of that kid you knew in elementary school who was sort of a tattle-tale, and you'll see what we mean.
    • As for that "talk too wise" business, it's a similar idea. The speaker is instructing his listener to speak like a wise man, but not to come across as too wise. 
    • This is probably because if you come across as way too wise and smart, you run the risk of alienating people who might not understand you.
    • You might also come across as a know-it-all, and, well, nobody likes a know-it-all (trust us).
    • Well, now that that is all cleared up, we should probably say something about just what kind of man the speaker is envisioning here,
    • He's clearly giving instructions, that much is clear.
    • In a nutshell, he's saying, "Be honest, be confident, don't doubt yourself, don't hate other people, and be patient."
    • We could certainly be wrong, but it's starting to seem like the subtitle of this poem could be "If: How to Develop Effective People Skills."
    • Our whole lives, we've been taught to believe in many of the same things the speaker talks about in the poem's first stanza.
    • Even though this poem is from well over a hundred years ago, it does seem like it could have been written yesterday. Don't ya think?
    • Before we go any further, let's take a quick peek at the rhyme and meter
    • This stanza is a tad strange in that the first four lines all have the same end rhyme (AAAA), while the last four follow a more standard rhyme scheme (CDCD). 
    • As for the meter, well, for the most part that's a textbook case of the iambic pentameter. Yes, we said the iambic pentameter.
    • We say "for the most part" because there are a few funky things going down with the meter in this poem, but only a few though.
    • If you would like to read about them, head over to "Form and Meter"—if you dare. (We're clearly trying to use the title of the poem as much as we can here.)
  • Stanza 2

    Lines 9-10

    If you can dream---and not make dreams your master;
    If you can think---and not make thoughts your aim,

    • At the beginning of the second stanza, we encounter a very familiar train of thought and a very familiar literary technique: anaphora
    • Yes, the speaker is back at it with more of the "if you do X, and if you do Y" business.
    • Here, he tells his listener that, if he can dream but not become a slave to his dreams, and if he can think but not make thoughts his aim…
    • Okay, so if he can, then what? We still have no idea what follows the "if," so let's just keep moving along.
    • The point of these lines is twofold. On the one hand, it's great to dream, but sometimes dreams can get just a little carried away. 
    • For example, you might love ice cream more than anything. In fact, you might love it so much that, when you're starving, you dream about how nice it would be to have about ten gallons of it.
    • Sure, it sounds like a great idea, but it isn't: tons of sugar, tons of fat, lack of nutrients, a major stomach ache, etc., etc. 
    • On the other hand, dreams are exactly that: dreams. They're not "real" in any physical sense. They are imaginary things, fantasies, mental ideas—something like that.
    • The speaker is saying that it's great to dream and to think about things, but at the end of the day, you have to focus on the matters at hand.
    • Let's say you've got a huge Algebra test tomorrow. And by huge, we mean massive, gigantic—the most important exam of your algebraic life.
    • While studying for this uber-important test, you start thinking about how when you grow up you wanna drive a Ferrari. 
    • Then you start thinking about how you wanna move to Hawaii, and how you wanna spend every day at the beach.
    • Before you know it, it's bed time and you're not ready for your test yet.
    • By focusing too much on your thoughts and dreams—by making them your "aim" instead of the imminent exam—you've clearly done yourself a disservice, and perhaps jeopardized your grade.
    • And by jeopardizing your grade, you've just jeopardized mom and dad's willingness to buy you that nice steak dinner. 
    • The speaker isn't saying, "Hey, don't daydream"; he's reminding the listener that practical matters must also be dealt with. The end result of obsessing over those other things can have a whole lot of negative consequences (as in our example: bad grades, no steak dinner, etc.).
    • We could sum up these lines in the following way if we really needed to: "Listen bro, if you can dream and think, but not lose sight of the tasks at hand, then [um… we don't know what goes here yet]."
    • Bottom line: it's important to stay focused, and to maintain control of your sometimes super-busy imagination.

    Lines 11-12

    If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same:

    • The speaker now starts talking about a personified version of Triumph and Disaster.
    • If the listener can manage to meet with both success ("Triumph") and misfortune ("Disaster") and act the same way in each case ("treat those two impostors just the same") then...
    • Okay, we're just going to start leaving these little summations as a dot dot dot because it seems pretty clear at this point that we're not gonna learn the answer until the end.
    • Anyway, why are Triumph and Disaster both considered "impostors"? It sure seems like we should get to the bottom of this odd little quip.
    • We're guessing that it has something to do with the fact that both success and failure are misleading. Neither one lasts forever.
    • Success inevitably fades, and disasters always work themselves out.
    • In other words, they are both impostors because, well, they are short-lived.
    • Think of it like this: Success makes you happy. Disaster? Not so much. After some time, the emotions evoked as a result will go away.
    • This isn't always, strictly speaking, true—but you get the picture.
    • The point the speaker is trying to make is that one shouldn't get overly excited about success, or overly upset about disappointment. 
    • He doesn't come right out and say this, but based on all the other stuff he's been saying about maintaining composure, being patient, and all that, it seems like a logical assumption.

    Lines 13-16

    If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
    Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools;

    • The poem continues with much the same tone
    • This time, the speaker tells his listener that if he can "bear" to see the truths he's spoken misinterpreted ("twisted") by knaves (jerkfaces) who use it to deceive foolish people…
    • And if he can watch everything he's ever dedicated himself to shattered, and yet still manage to pick up the pieces… then something will happen. 
    • If we know one thing at this point, it is that we don't know what will happen. So let's just continue picking these lines apart.
    • A "knave" can mean a number of things. While it can sometimes be one of these, it is also a general term for a rogue, or a rascal, or a conniving evil guy, or what have you.
    • You can speak all the truth you want, but there will always be rascals around who will twist it, not literally, but metaphorically, to mean whatever they want and use it for their own ends. 
    • "Things you gave your life to" is very general, but we can't help thinking it refers to something like a "cause" or an "idea" or a "career."
    • Sure, it could refer to that ant farm you've been working on for 2 years, but it's supposed to be something just a tad grander than that (unless you've got just a killer ant farm on your hands). 
    • What those "things" are, however, is less important here than the ability to build those things again, even if the skills or desire one used is old, tired, and worn-out.
    • This is all very metaphorical, mind you, so we should probably try to make it a bit more concrete.
    • Let's say that you spent your entire twenties building a career as an attorney—you went to college, then to law school, then took the bar, and then got a job at a killer law firm.
    • After two years, the firm goes bankrupt (a miracle, given how much lawyers charge), and you're looking at the ashes of a career.
    • All may seem lost...
    • … but it isn't. You're tired, the bar nearly killed you, and so did that job search. But hey, you're still alive, and that desire to build a career as a lawyer is still there, even though it's a little "worn out."
    • You forge ahead, despite your fatigue.
    • That's the point here. That's stoicism. For more, check out "Why Should I Care?" and "In a Nutshell," while we check out the next stanza.
  • Stanza 3

    Lines 17-20

    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:

    • The theme of loss (symbolized by the word "broken" in the last stanza) continues in this poem's third stanza.
    • This time our speaker counsels his listener about money, in particular about how to handle things if he loses it all.
    • If the listener can put all his money ("winnings") in a giant heap (maybe like this) and gamble it all away, but then start over and never tell anybody…
    • You know the drill at this point.
    • Clearly, we're talking about gambling here—well, sort of. Yeah "winnings" and "pitch-and-toss" are totally gambling words, but gambling is here a metaphor, for the most part. It's a metaphor for earning money and losing it by taking chances, by gambling (but not at a casino or something).
    • Speaking of pitch-and-toss: it's an old game where a group of people throw coins at a wall. Whoever's coin lands closest without touching the wall wins all the other coins. There are other versions of the game, but that's the most common.
    • So what's the point? Earn, take chances, lose, be quiet and strong about it, and move on—that's what being awesome is all about.
    • Whining and crying about your losses? That's decidedly not awesome.

    Lines 21-24

    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!"

    • If the speaker's listener can force his body to keep pushing further, even when it is worn out and tired, even when he feels like he has nothing left except the will to "hold on," then…
    • "Heart and nerve and sinew"—those are pretty biological terms now, aren't they? Is the speaker writing a textbook, or trying to show off that he knows cool words like "sinew"?
    • Well, what we know for sure is that "sinew" is a fancy term for a tendon or ligament.
    • "Heart and nerve and sinew" here is a classic example of synechdoche. These three words are the speaker's way of saying "muscles" or "body," but in a way that calls attention to the actual, physical components of motion: nerves and sinews.
    • Now the stuff about "serve your turn" is a way of saying "do things on your behalf" or "do what you want them to do."
    • The body gets tired and worn out. This is what "long after they are gone means." 
    • Obviously the heart and nerves and sinews aren't gonna literally go anywhere (so this is a metaphor), but if they get tired and worn out, they might as well be "gone." 
    • Even if those nerves and sinews are totally exhausted and worn out, one thing still remains: the will to go on. 
    • The will is some type of internal desire or motivation. It's so powerful, the speaker implies, that it can force those worn-out muscles to hold on and keep going.
    • This is almost like the Force, in Star Wars
    • We're not joking. The Will here (note that it's capitalized in the poem, showing its super-importance) is like some invisible power that is so strong, it can make things move—like muscles.
    • This whole passage is about the power of that Will. Even when the body seems like it is beaten and can do no more, the will can make it do more. The will—the internal spirit—is stronger than the body.
    • We can't help noticing that these lines remind us of another very famous Victorian poem: Tennyson's "Ulysses".
    • That poem is also about striving and fighting on, as in the poem's concluding lines: "Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield" (just thought we'd share).
  • Stanza 4

    Lines 25-26

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

    • The poem's final stanza starts out by talking about how to interact with different types of people.
    • If the listener can talk with crowds and still keep his ethics ("virtue"), or hang with kings but still keep his connection with the common folk then…
    • Like other lines in this poem, these are all about balance, about finding middle ground.
    • "Kings" and "crowds" symbolize two societal extremes: the super-rich and royal, on the one hand, and the regular people, on the other.
    • The speaker is encouraging his listener to be able to hang with both groups, but not to be swayed by either.
    • He should be able to talk with the hoi polloi, but not succumb to their vices ("keep your virtue").
    • He should also be able to "walk," a metaphor for spending time, with kings, but not get all stuck up ("lose the common touch").
    • A good leader is able to navigate between radically different social classes and still not become too much like either one. That's the big idea here. 

    Lines 27-28

    If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much:

    • The juxtaposition of opposites continues. This time it's "foes" and "loving friends."
    • In the same way that the listener should be able to hang with kings and commoners, so he should allow neither his friends nor his enemies to hurt him.
    • He should be strong, impervious to potential harm. 
    • Furthermore, if all men "count with" (support) him, or find him important, but none of them too much…
    • Not too much? Why not?
    • Well, think about it. This poem is all about navigating extremes, keeping things in check, not getting overly worked up about anything.
    • One of the poem's major ideas is that getting overly-excited or obsessed with anything is, well, not a good thing.
    • As a future leader (we're guessing this poem is partly a primer for leadership), one must be liked, but not the object of obsession.
    • When leaders, or others in power, are the object of obsession, of being counted with "too much," you end up with egomaniacs who think they are above everyone else. (We're looking at you, Donald Trump.)

    Lines 29-30

    If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,

    • Okay, we're almost there folks, just bear with us a little longer. We can see the end of all these "if" clauses.
    • If the listener can bust out sixty-seconds' worth of running when there simply isn't enough time then…
    • Wait, how did we get that from those lines? Hmm, good question.
    • The phrase "unforgiving minute" is a way of saying, "you only get sixty seconds in a minute." It is "unforgiving" because, well, you will only ever get 60 seconds—no more, no less.
    • The point of these lines is basically: carpe diem, Latin for "seize the day." It is a phrase that means "make the most of it," do as much as you can while you still can.
    • Here that whole idea is represented by the phrase "sixty seconds' worth of distance run." A distance run is a long run, and the speaker is saying "run as far as you can in that sixty seconds."

    Lines 31-32

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

    • Finally, we've reached the end, and surely an answer to the poem's many, many "ifs." 
    • Taking a quick peek here… ah, yes, we have. We're there. Our own distance run is complete.
    • If the listener can do everything just described (not give into hate, risk his money and lose it and not complain, talk to kings and crowds just the same, inspire people just enough)…
    • then the earth, and everything in it, will be his. Pretty sweet, right?
    • And, even better ("which is more"), he will be a man. Er, who will be a man? The speaker's son will. It seems this is who he has been addressing the whole time.
    • In other words, this is a poem possibly spoken by a father to his child, and it's basically a how-to-be-a-man talk. (If the listener is not the speaker's biological son, he's certainly someone that the speaker feels fatherly toward. Why else would the speaker be dishing him up such a heaping helping of life advice?) 
    • You become a man (the poem says) if—and only if—you do all the things described in the poem. Hmm, well that's a whole lot of things one has to do, and a lot of them seem kind of hard. 
    • How, for example, are you supposed to just "watch" everything you've invested in get destroyed and simply rebuild it all?
    • Hey, nobody said this would be easy, but we'd be lying if we didn't say it sounds a little restrictive. And that's not just because of all the rules, but also because all this business seems limited to men.
    • There is no mention of women anywhere in this poem: nothing about love, marriage, and nothing about how to become a woman.
    • Okay, we get it—Kipling, a dude who loved to talk about manliness, is writing to his son.
    • But still, seems a little unfair.
    • And you know what else seems a little unfair? That part about the world and everything in it.
    • In a poem that was inspired by an attempt to colonize other parts of South Africa, we can't help wondering if this poem isn't also a recipe for conquering foreign lands.
    • This idea isn't totally explicit, that's for sure. But, there is often a connection in literature of this period between manhood, colonialism, and conquering others.
    • So you could say that this poem has an imperial, sexist subtext—just a little bit. And we're not the only one to ever notice this about Kipling.
    • Check out the first paragraph of this piece by George Orwell to read some rather scathing remarks about Kipling.
    • Despite all this, however, the poem does offer some sage wisdom:
    • One should continue to strive hard for things, one should fix things that are broken, one shouldn't give into hating and lying.
    • As you continue to study literature, you will see that, while sometimes a poem like this can be interpreted negatively, there are always two sides to the proverbial coin. And that's enough to learn for one extended lesson, don't you think?