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.
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.)
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."
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?