Friday, April 24, 2015

K is for Kipling

"Do you like Kipling?"
"I don't know, you naughty boy; I've never kippled."

Today's manifesto is a well-known poem.  Well-known?  Probably well-worn and cliché, to lots of people.  It's Rudyard Kipling's If—  (The only work of art I know with an em-dash as part of its title.)

Though lots of people leave off the dash

I'm sure that many see it as dated and utterly Victorian, but I'm still charmed by it.  The poem is framed as advice given from father to son.  Each stanza starts a thought, then pauses to start another.
If you can keep your head when all about you
  Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
  But make allowance for their doubting too;
You'll see where these thoughts are headed at the end.  But before then, the stakes get raised.  Critics have made hay about the stereotypical English upper-class stoicism that Kipling suggests be the proper response to life's troubles...
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
  And treat those two impostors just the same;
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:

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;
...but in some arenas of life we could probably use more of this grown-up approach.  There's more, but it's the last four lines that are the most memorable.
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
  With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
  And -- which is more -- you’ll be a Man, my son.
I didn't learn about this poem until I was about 21, when I saw it referenced in a slightly mopey 1980s comic book story about how the Flash's sidekick was having a tough time living up to the glory of his superhero mentor.  It was kind of silly and melodramatic, but at least the "sixty seconds worth of distance run" was a decent fit with super-fast-running costumed capers.

Even more recently, I discovered another poem -- similarly full of lines that start with "If..." that is quite inspiring, too.  In 1945, Alma Androzzo wrote a song called "If I Can Help Somebody."  It was later made famous by Mahalia Jackson and several other popular singers, and it inspired Martin Luther King Jr. throughout his life.
If I can help somebody as I pass along,
If I can cheer somebody with a word or a song,
If I can show somebody he is travelling wrong,
Then my living shall not be in vain.
. . .
If I can do my duty, as a good man ought,
If I can bring back beauty to a world up wrought,
If I can spread love's message as the Master taught,
Then my living shall not be in vain.
Does it have anything to do with Kipling's poem?  Not really, but when you look at them side by side, they serve as two neat "bookends."  Remember the two extreme impulses of manifestos that I've been thinking about?  "Do your own thing" versus "Be nice to one another."  These two If's certainly personify the two extremes, don't you think?  (Long-time readers will know that I'm a sucker for these kinds of quasi-symbolic idea pairings...)


  1. Kipling would be very disappointed in me. I'll never be a man.


    1. Oh, those misogynistic Victorians with their handlebar mustaches...

      (I don't mean to make light of Kipling's biases, but I do hope we as a culture can "reclaim the good" in their work while still dealing squarely with their problems. I'm also a fan of Aleister Crowley's literary output, so this issue kicks me in the face often!)

  2. Replies
    1. Om...

      Hey, interesting thing: after a few weeks of posting these on pretty much auto-pilot, I'm going to dump my planned post on Monday and replace it with something I just discovered. Something about a long time ago and a galaxy far far away...

    2. Looking forward to it, already!

  3. I haven't read a lot of Kipling - just bits and pieces of Jungle Book - and not since childhood. But I actually have a couple of his books on my TBR shelves now, including If.

    1. "If" has been it for me, Kipling-wise. He's not really all that high on my own TBR list. If I had to pick a wacky Victorian colonial orientalist to explore more, I'd have to go with Sir Richard Burton. :-)