A Soldier’s Circumstantial Characteristics: A Balanced Perspective of Kipling’s “If—”


The historical context of Kipling’s “If—” reveals that there were serious debates regarding how to react to the Boers in South Africa and the Jameson’s Raid. These conflicted perspectives were a microcosm to a larger debate concerning imperialism and the fighting soldiers.

Kipling seeks to find a balance between these perspectives by listing descriptive rather than prescriptive characteristics of soldiers. In Kipling’s “If—,” man is not just a pawn or a solider, but rather, an individual who must conform to the specific circumstances to survive Britain’s imperialistic war.

Kipling’s Son

Kipling’s background reveals his support of his son, who was a soldier. Kipling was born in India to a supportive and encouraging family that Kipling called “the family square” (Gray 185). His upbringing in this supportive home would impact how Kipling reared his son, John. Because John was only thirteen when Kipling published “If—,” Kipling was unsure if John, whom Kipling pushed into military service, would appreciate its meaning and hoped that John would understand the meaning “on his journey to manhood” (Bertman 49).

Therefore, Kipling provides a list of descriptive characteristics that a soldier, like his son, would need to survive the war. By being pro-soldier, Kipling could consequently be considered supportive of war and imperialism.

The Complicated Issue

However, Kipling was not completely supportive of imperialism because the British military dehumanized the soldiers by gambling with their lives. England’s sons were subjected to the power of imperialism; in order for a boy to become a man, he must be “willing to serve an empire that has such contempt for its people as to wager their souls at the gambling table” (Grasso 91–92).

Kipling could mean that if a soldier has enough “sinew” or strength, then the soldier could survive the war; however, Kipling could also be suggesting that if there is enough sinew or funding for the war to continue imperialism of the Empire, then war is more likely to continue, as well (“sinew”). Thus, when funding war is the main concern, the soldier becomes merely a pawn. The soldier’s plight exposes imperialism in a negative light.

Politics of the Day

Since Kipling portrays the soldiers as both sacrificial and heroic, Kipling was apparently influenced by the political discussion of his day. An article reported that the House of Commons discussed that the Boer government limited the right to vote for British citizens in South Africa (“Imperial Parliament” 2). Some members were in favor of intervening while others were not; the House concluded that Britain would not interfere (2). Yet, this would not be the case. Kipling stated that his inspiration for the poem was Dr. Jameson, who led the failed Jameson’s Raid against the Boers in South Africa (Bertman 44).

Hence, the propulsion of England’s imperialism would continue no matter the consensus at home. In Jameson’s Raid, the Boers were superior in fighting, while the British soldiers, who were less prepared, were sacrificial lambs (“To The Editor of The Standard” 3). Men died for their country while the politicians back home bickered. The decision of whether to support imperialism was controversial during Kipling’s time.


“If—” may be interpreted in the extremes as either a celebration or a critique of Britain’s imperialism. However, Kipling’s argument actually presents a balanced perspective. “If-” suggests that in order to survive the war, a soldier must develop necessary characteristics.

Kipling examines the soldier in light of the failed Jameson’s Raid and other conflicts in South Africa, thus framing the poem as a balanced perspective on imperialism.



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;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
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;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
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!

Source: A Choice of Kipling’s Verse (1943)

Works Cited

Bertman, Stephen. “The Inspiration for ‘If—’.” Kipling Journal 85.343 (2011): 44–51. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 9 Oct. 2012.

  • In his article “The Inspiration of ‘If—,’” Stephen Bertman provides several examples of incidents during Kipling’s time that contributed to the shaping of his perspective. Some major factors that could have impacted Kipling include the Jameson Raid, the translation of Bhagavad Gita by Sir Edwin Arnold, and Kipling’s raising his own son, John.
  • First, Kipling wrote in his autobiography Something of Myself that his inspiration for the poem was inspired by Dr. Jameson. Bertman explained that Leander Starr Jameson was “a physician and charismatic patriot who. . . had supported the cause of British imperialism in South Africa” and was jailed “for having led a failed and politically embarrassing raid against the Boers in Transvaal” (44). Apparently, Jameson was viewed as a scapegoat for the situation and later became widely popular, serving “as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony” (44). Although Jameson’s Raid was a failure, Jameson later became a hero and a leader. This shows the contrast of opinions and ideas during the era as well as the superficial image of imperialism. Wars and raiding are bad, but if the ends justify the means, then perhaps funding wars and killing countless numbers of soldiers help England increase its number of colonies as well as its ultimate profit.
  • Second, Sir Edwin Arnold translated Bhavagavad Gita, which discusses religious beliefs as well as traits of the ideal man. Arnold’s translation could have “sunk into [Kipling’s] subconscious and ultimately influenced his choice of words for his own poem” (47). The main virtues written in this poem are “composure, detachment, and equanimity in the face of trial and temptation,” which are “virtues central to Hinduism and Buddhism” (46). Bertman describes these traits in Kipling’s poem as more “humanistically rather than theologically” (46). Although Bertman states he is uncertain of how much this “spiritual message” had as “an effect upon his creative imagination,” he does state that “Kipling’s affinity for the spiritual sensibilities of Hinduism” is prevalent in his other writings (47). Because Kipling never states religious beliefs in “If-,” his writing applies to human nature and man’s potential to succeed. Although Kipling does not specifically state that he was influenced by Arnold’s translation of the religious text, Kipling does have striking similarities in the listed descriptive characteristics a soldier must have in order to survive war.
  • Third, Kipling’s son was thirteen years old when the poem was published. Because of his son’s young age, Kipling apparently wondered if his son would “fully appreciate its meaning” (49). Bertman suggests, “Kipling may have hoped that some day in the future his son would both read and understand its verses, and take them to heart on his journey to manhood” (49). Kipling’s son was later killed in battle when he was only eighteen (49). Perhaps Kipling was inspired to write “If-” because of his own experiences in raising his son, since Kipling wanted his son to be a soldier as well as a man.

Grasso, Joshua. “The Imperial ‘Pitch-and-Toss’ in Kipling’s IF.” Explicator 67.2 (2009): 89–92. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 9 Oct. 2012.

  • When considering the inspiration of Kipling’s writing, Grasso’s “The Imperial ‘Pitch-and-Toss’ in Kipling’s IF” provides another perspective. Grasso states that many believe the overall “tone of ‘stiff upper lip’ poise and respectability” represents “the quintessential embodiment of British imperialism” (89). Grasso suggests that the colonial setting of the poem is revealed in the final stanza (91). The speaker tells the “addressee to be a man who appears thoughtful and introspective,” even though he is “constantly rolling the dice and is willing to use anything- or anyone- to fund the next wager” (91). Grasso explains that “cloak-and-dagger atmosphere of the Great Game” operates by viewing “all men as pawns” to “pitch and toss at will” or to gamble with the men’s lives (91). During this time of colonization, Kipling recognized that the military viewed soldiers as pawns to be gambled with at will. This could easily be viewed as Kipling critiquing imperialism.
  • Kipling was a patriotic man who loved Britain; however, he did recognize its faults, which included imperialism. Grasso concludes by describing the “final, unstated ‘If’” as “a boy might become a man, but only if he is willing to serve an empire that has such contempt for its people as to wager their souls at the gambling table” (91-92). Ultimately, the British Empire risks all by gambling with human lives. Even though Kipling loved the Empire, he was not “blind to its faults, or to the dehumanizing qualities of its greatest exponents” (92). He was not blind because he could recognize the Empire’s faults. Kipling was not completely supportive of imperialism when writing “If-” because he acknowledged how the British military dehumanized the soldiers.

Gray, Donald. “Rudyard Kipling (30 December 1865–18 January 1936).” British Short-Fiction Writers, 1880–1914: The Romantic Tradition. Ed. William F. Naufftus. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 156. Detroit: Gale Research, 1995. 181–199. Dictionary of Literary Biography Complete Online. Web. 9 Oct. 2012.

  • In “Rudyard Kipling (30 December 1865–18 January 1936),” Donald Gray describes how it is “easy to underestimate the variety, complexity, and subtlety of Rudyard Kipling’s writing” (184). During the 1890s, Kipling was extremely popular; however, in the beginning of the twentieth century, readers and critics labeled Kipling’s “loose colloquial forms and development of his tales” as “obvious and old-fashioned” (184). Modern critics and readers have termed his writing as “simple-minded and even pernicious” (184). Gray refutes these criticisms as “incomplete” because Kipling wrote “of the waste and cost of the work of the empire as he did of its efficiencies” and “was always aware of the impermanence of dominion, the inevitable decline and succession of empires” (184). Evidently, Kipling viewed both Western and masculine perspectives as “inescapably limited” (184). Therefore, Kipling’s “If-” could easily reveal the belief that Britain’s imperialism is limited in perspective.
  • Kipling was born in India to a family that was “affectionate and talented, giving support and encouragement” that Kipling himself called “the family square” (185). His upbringing in a supportive home would later impact how Kipling reared his son, John. When Kipling was six years old, he was sent to England to receive his education. Because Kipling had difficulties with his school, host family, and eyesight, his mother came to England and put him in a new school called the United Services College, which was a military school (186). Kipling did well in this new environment with “discipline that was masculine and institutional” (186). Kipling understood how the military functioned and disciplined, which is evident in “If—.” At this school, Kipling learned to balance his belief “that one day the apparently secure world will collapse into confusion with the satisfaction of freely accepting a set of rules that give hard work its reasons and rewards” (186). During Kipling’s time, the world was in a state of confusion concerning whether of not to support imperialism. Some viewed imperialism as completely wrong. How could a country invade and dominate another country, killing thousands of people in the process? Others fully supported imperialism, focusing on the Empire’s patriotism and stoicism. Some viewed imperialism as a necessary evil. In order to increase the profit, expansion must occur by conquering countries, which occurred through war and loss of life. Kipling’s conflicted feelings of how he viewed the world would impact his writings, including his poem “If—.”

“Imperial Parliament.” The Standard [London] 7 Feb. 1895: 2. 19th Century British Library Newspapers: Part II. Web. 11 Oct. 2012.

  • “Imperial Parliament” from The Standard reports about a House of Commons meeting in which the matter of the Swazis and the Boers is addressed. The debate’s primary focus is deciding whether to abandon “the claims of our Swazi allies to independence and security” (2). Ashmead-Bartlett argues that “the Boers had passed a law which prevented any Uitlander obtaining franchise,” and as a result, “a most disastrous state of feelings amongst our countrymen” occurred by “alienating a large section of the British people” (2). In the debate, Sir Ashmead-Bartlett calls attention to the supposed “injustice with which the British subjects in the Transvaal are treated by the Boer Government” and offers the question to examine “whether South Africa was to be Imperial or Africander” (2).
  • Mr. Buxton argued against Ashmead-Barlett’s claims. Buxton contended that although “the liberty of the subject should have been restricted,” the British government has “no right to interfere” unless there was a “breach of the London Convention” or “an invidious distinction between British and other subjects” (2). The British government hoped to maintain successfully “tribal independence, with security for their laws of inheritance and succession” (2). As a result of Buxton’s argument, the Amendment was withdrawn from the House of Commons.
  • This debate occurred the same year that Kipling wrote “If—.” The argument of how to deal with the people in South Africa could certainly have impacted his perspective because this was a topic that was on the minds of many people. Imperialism impacted soldiers and citizens alike. Soldiers were sent to fight in wars, while politicians back at home bickered about the whether or not it was correct to intervene. In this instance, the House concluded that Britain would not intervene; however, Dr. Jameson would lead his raid anyway, which failed and killed soldiers from the Empire and the Boers from South Africa. When a country is imperialistic, peace cannot last. Some people wanted peace and to spare the lives of soldiers. Others cared about profit and funding war. Hence, the propulsion of England’s imperialism would continue no matter the consensus at home.

Kipling, Rudyard. “If-.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Julia Reidhead. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. 1882. Print.

“knave, n.” OED Online. September 2012. Oxford University Press. Web. 9 October 2012.

“sinew, n.” OED Online. September 2012. Oxford University Press. Web. 9 October 2012.

“virtue, n.” OED Online. September 2012. Oxford University Press. Web. 9 October 2012.

  • The Oxford English Dictionary defines knave as a term “a boy or lad employed as a servant; hence, a male servant or menial in general; one of low condition. (Freq. opposed to knight.)” It can also be defined as “An unprincipled man, given to dishonourable and deceitful practices; a base and crafty rouge” (“knave”). Kipling could be suggesting that the knaves are the boys who fight in the war and are ignorant of the commands from those of higher ranks. Thus, they become trapped because they do not comprehend all of the orders. However, Kipling could be suggesting that those who are high ranking in the military are knaves because they twist military commands in order to trap and manipulate.
  • The Oxford English Dictionary defines sinew as “Strength, energy, force.” An additional definition of sinew means “The sinews of war, i.e. money” (“sinew”). These different definitions could have two implications in the context of the poem. Kipling could mean that if a soldier has enough sinew or strength, then the soldier could survive the war; however, Kipling could also be suggesting that if there is enough sinew—or funding for the war to continue imperialism of the Empire, then war is more likely to continue, as well.
  • The Oxford English Dictionary defines virtue as “Industry, diligence” or “A particular moral excellence; a special manifestation of the influence of moral principles in life or conduct” (“virtue”). Also, “virtue” can mean “An accomplishment” or “The possession or display of manly qualities; manly excellence, manliness, courage, valour” (“virtue”). Kipling could be arguing that if men keep their virtue (or manliness), then a man could survive in the Victorian society. However, Kipling could also be suggesting that to remain an individual and a solider, a man must continue to be industrious, diligent, and moral. When a man keeps his virtue, he has accomplished something because he has remained an individual instead of conforming to being merely a soldier.

“To The Editor of The Standard.” The Standard [London] 7 Jan. 1896: 3. 19th Century British Library Newspapers: Part II. Web. 11 Oct. 2012.

  • Published in The Standard on January 7, 1896, an anonymous writer wrote “To The Editor of The Standard” in which he described his frustrations with Dr. Jameson’s Raid, which “rekindled racial hates and jealousies that were slowly dying away” (3). The writer believed that “sooner or later” the British and the Boers would “have to join hands in the development of the country” (3). Because of the “illegal and ill-fated filibustering Expedition,” this “long blood feud between the Dutch and English colonists” (3) will continue. He questions the British government’s ignorance about this raid because they were “within a few minutes’ telegraphic communication” (3). The British government could have intervened, but they did not. The writer critiques imperialism and its injustice towards the British soldiers.
  • The writer explains that “extraordinary blunders and miscalculations were made” (3). The Boers’ “peculiar strength” is “always absurdly underestimated” (3). Their advantages include “Constant practice at all kinds of running game, a life spent in the saddle, and an extraordinary knowledge of the country” (3). Apparently, only “ten percent” of the British soldiers “could be classed as really good rifle shots,” and “barely twenty percent… could be compared as rifle shots with the Dutch farmers against whom they pitted themselves” (3). If more men went to fight against the Dutch, they would be “merely as sheep led to the slaughter” (3). This raid, as a result, “has set back the clock of South African unity and progress” (3). Kipling wrote “If—” during this time of anxiety after Jameson’s Raid. The writer’s Biblical allusion of soldiers being sent to fight and die like sheep being slaughtered is striking and powerful. It was a sacrifice; it was a waste of life. Opinions like these could have easily shaped Kipling’s perspective about the war.

One thought on “A Soldier’s Circumstantial Characteristics: A Balanced Perspective of Kipling’s “If—”

  1. Hey, great article–very interesting read! I’m very fond of this poem and it’s exciting to see others talking about it in such a nuanced, balanced way. Glad you found my little article useful as well. Look forward to reading more on your blog!

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