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If by Rudyard Kipling analysis

Summary

Kipling’s famous poem about human nature offers a catalogue of thoughtful advice to a young male, consisting of the many qualities he feels are essential to become a man, such as a self-belief, modesty, humility and truthfulness.

Introducing the poem

‘What advice would a father give to a son who is ready to leave home and venture out into the world on his own? Explore the different areas of life you think the father feels are important enough to guide his son through. Imagine the conversation between them.’

Structure and form

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Kipling’s guidance takes the form of a series of opposites, for example, ‘keep…lose’ and ‘trust…doubt’. These slowly build up in the course of the poem to reveal only in the concluding line the main reward for doing so, that is, as a symbol of having reached manhood.

The alternate rhyme scheme maintains the momentum of the counsel and since this lengthy poem appears to be merely one sentence long, this implies the spiritual and mental journey to manhood is a long, complicated and challenging one.

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Language/comments

  • The long list of qualities that Kipling suggests lead to manhood are numerous (and viewed realistically, appear collectively unattainable). This is why the future conditional tense is repeatedly used (signalled by ‘if’) as it expresses the sheer difficulty of the task. Yet the rewards offered to justify any sacrifices made ‘Yours is the earth … you’ll be a Man’.
  • By constant repetition of the second person singular ‘you’ (with implications of a plural address too, encompassing us all), the narrator achieves a direct appeal and maintains our interest. By the end of the poem we are intrigued to discover where his lengthy advice leads.
  • The imperatives issued do not feel commanding, but friendly and good-natured ‘don’t deal in lies … don’t give way to hating’. The focus is on avoiding excesses in life (notice they are largely inner qualities and values, as material excesses are only briefly mentioned ‘winnings’). The advice is to approach all things moderately, with a degree of patience and maturity.
  • Poetic techniques strengthen the counsel. Fulfilling every moment in an as energetic and enthusiastic manner as possible is advocated in the metaphor ‘fill the … minute/With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run’. Personification is used to promote caution against ‘impostors’, such as ‘Triumph and Disaster’.
  • Although the majority of the guidance is sensible and prudent, there are hints of recklessness too, as in the area of gambling ‘risk it all’, suggesting chances can be taken and that life should not be mundane but lived to the full. The important aspect is not to publicize any losses.
  • The crux of the poem, revealed in the final two lines, expresses the huge rewards that can be expected. Significantly, being ‘a Man’ is perceived as infinitely better ‘which is more than acquiring ‘the earth and all that’s in it’. The final exclamation mark can be viewed as a closing symbol of encouragement.