Study Guide

If Defeat

By Rudyard Kipling


This poem isn't just how about how to be a stoic, about how to handle misfortune. It is also about misfortune itself, about defeat. Just think about all the different kinds of loss mentioned in this poem: money, the things one has dedicated one's life to, one's character. Defeat, loss—these are part of life, and there's simply no getting around that. The poem makes that very clear. The speaker, for example, doesn't bewail misfortune, or spout lines about how unfair life is, but rather makes us understand that this is just the way things are.

Questions About Defeat

  1. Do we get any explanation in the poem for why defeat is such a pervasive part of life?
  2. How do you think the poem's form (its rhyme, meter, and structure) relates to the themes of defeat and loss? Do they reinforce them? Undermine them? How?
  3. If defeat is so common in life, what is with all the references to success (rebuilding things that are broken, for example)?
  4. It's interesting that this poem was inspired by a defeat (the failed Jameson Raid). Is it odd that this poem is so triumphant, even though Kipling wrote it in response to a botched invasion? Or is defeat necessary for this kind of poem? Why do you think so?

Chew on This

This poem really stresses the importance of not having a defeatist attitude. In fact, a defeatist attitude is the quickest way to not get possession of the earth and everything in it. So, turn that frown upside down, future world dominator dude.

Defeats don't have to be permanent. If this poem says one thing, it says that defeat can be overcome, that losses can be turned back into wins.

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