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.
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."
- 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."
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.
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.)