Much Virtue in "If"

Much Virtue in "If"

8 Mins
March 17, 2011

July/August 2007 -- In recent columns and articles, I have found it useful to differentiate between bourgeois individualism and Romantic individualism, and considered historically, the distinction seems obvious. We can clearly see one sort of individualism emerging from the Anglo-American Enlightenment and the Victorian era it produced, and another sort emerging from the French Enlightenment and the Romantic era it produced.

More contentious, however, have been my arguments for the superiority of the bourgeois approach. I have said that Victorian individualism (rightly, in my opinion) urges men to focus primarily on the virtues that bring about happiness, while Romantic individualism (dangerously) tends to sell itself by focusing on the expected rewards of virtue, particularly the emotional rewards.

In response to these remarks, I have received fierce rebuttals saying, in effect: How else can people be motivated to pursue life-sustaining virtues except by focusing on the exhilarating payoff? What would such a motivation even look like? Recently, quite by accident, I found an answer to that question, when I happened to re-read a favorite poem by a favorite Victorian author. It was Rudyard Kipling’s “If.”


One hundred years ago, Kipling won the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first English-language author to win the prize and, as he was only forty-two, still the youngest winner in that field. Yet Kipling’s reputation among critics has fallen so low that it is considered camp to praise him with odd encomiums. T.S. Eliot set the style by applauding Kipling as a writer of verse rather than poetry and extolling his attempt “to convey no more to the simple minded than can be taken in on one reading or hearing.”

But if Kipling himself is sneered at by critics, perhaps none of his myriad poems—they run to 832 pages in the definitive edition—is more despised by litterateurs than “If.” And yet several years ago, ordinary Britons voted it their favorite poem of all time. Myself, I would not go that far. But I do think “If” exhibits both great technical skill and profound moral insight.

Perhaps none of Kipling's myriad poems is more despised by litterateurs than “If.”

Rudyard Kipling was born in Bombay in 1865, approximately midway through Queen Victoria’s reign. He attended a military prep school in England, but worked as a journalist in India from 1882 to 1889. Returning to England, he won immediate acclaim, the result of such still-famous poems as “Mandalay” and “Danny Deever.” The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book, two pillars of his continuing fame, were written in 1894 and 1895, respectively. Two years later, Kipling wrote an immortal poem for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee: “Recessional,” a magnificent hymn that both celebrates the British Empire and warns Britons against hubris. In 1901, Kipling produced the picaresque Kim, certainly his most enduring novel. But the new century was not made for Kipling, nor he for it. In 1926, Time magazine opined that Kipling had been passed over for the post of poet laureate in 1913 because he was “already an anachronism.” Yet when Kipling died in 1936, enough people still appreciated his greatness that his ashes were interred at Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner, alongside his nation’s monuments to Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton.

“If—” appeared in 1910, and it was actually a somewhat topical poem, inspired by an incident known to history as the Jameson Raid. Back in 1895, an agent of the British South Africa Company, Dr. Leander Jameson, had led an unsanctioned raid of some five hundred armed men into the Transvaal, hoping to incite an uprising against the Boers by expatriate British workers. Although the raid failed, and Britain sentenced Jameson to prison, British press reports depicted it as a heroic venture and Jameson as a noble leader of men. According to Kipling’s posthumous autobiography, the precepts of “If” were “drawn from Jameson’s character.” In particular, the opening two lines—“If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you”—referred to Jameson’s refusal to implicate higher-ups in his abortive raid, despite his incarceration.

Today, when “If” is approaching its centenary, our familiarity with the work has made a cliché of virtually every line and has made the whole a subject of cheap parody. And yet analysis demonstrates that it is a very great poem. Just to begin with, “If” is a rare example of successful hortatory verse, neither ranting nor saccharine. To appreciate how great an achievement that is, one has only to compare it with these opening lines from a hortatory prose poem written in 1927, not that much later than “If”: “Go placidly amid the noise and haste, / and remember what peace there may be in silence. / As far as possible without surrender / be on good terms with all persons.” That is Max Ehrmann’s dreadful “Desiderata,” which was wildly popular in the late sixties (a telling cultural datum).

Structurally, too, “If” is a marvel. For one thing, Kipling’s use of repeated conditionals is an ingenious device that keeps the poem from becoming tiresome and moralizing. Imagine how flat it would sound had Kipling, like Ehrmann, used simple imperatives: “Contrive to keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you. Attempt to trust yourself when all men doubt you, / But make allowance for their doubting too.” That is as sententious as old Polonius.

Those repeated conditionals also serve a second purpose. They enable Kipling to cast the entire poem—thirty-two lines, 288 words—as a single sentence, but in such a way that people who have no training in declamation can recite the full poem while sustaining both the meaning of the words and their ever-building drama. Try that with another sentence of equal length. Then, too, by casting the poem as one long sentence, beginning with eleven “if” clauses, Kipling is able to release all of the meaning and emotional impact of the poem in the last two lines, and really in the last line. That’s some versifying.

Yet excellent as “If” is when considered technically, it is even more of a standout when considered morally.


“If” is often compared with two other “poems of inspiration”: William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus” and Arthur Hugh Clough’s “Say Not the Struggle Naught Availeth.” Literarily, those two poems are worthy of comparison with “If,” in a way that “Desiderata” is not. But to suggest the three poems are ethically similar is quite mistaken.

Consider Henley’s “Invictus,” and particularly these lines: “In the fell clutch of circumstance / I have not winced nor cried aloud. / Under the bludgeonings of chance / my head is bloody, but unbowed.” That is Stoicism combined with black pessimism, and it bears no resemblance to Kipling’s poem. The only lines in “If” remotely comparable are these: “If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew / To serve your turn long after they have gone, / And so hold on when there is nothing in you / Except the Will which says to them ‘Hold on’.” The subject here is endurance, yes, that much is the same. But the situation is completely different. “If” does not speak of endurance in the face of persecution, but of endurance in the practice of virtues and the pursuit of values. One can understand why a Timothy McVeigh, in his megalomania, copied out “Invictus” as his final statement. He could have no use for the message of “If.”

A better comparison with “If,” though still mistaken, is these far healthier lines by Arthur Hugh Clough: “Say not the struggle naught availeth, / The labour and the wounds are vain, / The enemy faints not, nor faileth, / And as things have been they remain.” Again, the injunction is to endure, and, this time, as in “If,” the orientation is toward values, not resistance to persecution. But metaphysically, the reasons for endurance are quite different: Clough’s poem does not say that your efforts may succeed, but that you may get lucky. “If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars; / It may be, in yon smoke concealed, / Your comrades chase e'en now the fliers, / And, but for you, possess the field.” Where “Invictus” offers bleak pessimism, “Say Not” offers bland optimism—the optimism of Mr. Micawber’s “something may turn up.”


“If’ is not based on either pessimism or optimism, but on a Victorian approach to morality that might be called “virtue-centered value-seeking.” By that I mean, the poem offers a prescription for achieving the good life (hence, value-seeking), but the prescription is to adhere strictly to a set of practical virtues (hence, virtue-centered).

Happiness (well-being) is man’s moral purpose, the poem declares—“Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.” But the pursuit of happiness is not like a Romantic naturalist chasing butterflies; it is like a bourgeois gentleman fishing. It does not involve running hither and yon across the countryside in pursuit of one’s goal. It involves perfecting skills and then practicing them patiently, usually (but not always) with successful results. As a matter of philosophy, I believe that is sound, as I have often argued. Well-being is man’s moral goal, virtues are the means to well-being. We must pursue values by means of steady virtue, rather than by ad hoc action, because our rational means of knowledge operates only through general principles.

I will admit, however, that that is a difficult truth for artists of a bourgeois temperament to make inspiring. Ordinarily, a poet will celebrate a virtue in good Romantic fashion by extolling its results: the courage of Macaulay’s Horatius saves Rome, the foresight of Longfellow’s Paul Revere saves America. But here exactly is the artistic genius of the bourgeois Kipling. He has written an inspiring poem in which fifteen-sixteenths of the focus is on virtue alone. Thus, if people sometimes read “If” as a call to duty, it is an understandable mistake. It is a mistake because the poem clearly is not a list of “Thou shalts.” Its very title insists that virtue is ultimately a matter of choosing. But the mistake is understandable, because so much of the poem does emphasize morality’s virtuous means and not its reward.

Happiness (well-being) is man’s moral purpose, the poem declares.

But that, as I say, is part and parcel of the Victorian moral message, and not merely an incidental feature of the poem. Kipling’s emphasis on the virtuous means of morality is the essence of bourgeois individualism. “If” acknowledges that the practice of virtue is an arduous struggle against inner temptations (“If you can dream—and not make dreams your master”) and outer attacks (“If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you”). It admits that complete success in pursuing well-being is far from certain, even for the wholly virtuous (“If you can … watch the things you gave your life to broken”). It reminds us that all we truly have in our control is the ability to be a person of good character. But it consoles us that, if we become such a person, then at some deep level all shall be well. Virtue is for the sake of well-being, but one must not make success and failure the measure of our life, for those things depend too much on contingencies.

That last point is sharpened by two lines that are sometimes wrongly read as preaching unworldliness: “If you can meet with triumph and disaster / And treat those two imposters just the same.” Is the poet saying that triumph and disaster are not real? Surely not. One has only to consider the beginning of the third octet: “If you can make one heap of all your winnings / And risk it on one turn of pitch and toss, And lose.…” As disasters go, that certainly seems to qualify. And if disaster is real, so too must triumph be. In what sense, then, are they “imposters”? In the sense that they may seem at the time to be a final judgment on one’s life, but they are not. “If” is saying: “Pursue your happiness by means of virtue, but whether things go well or ill don’t let the outcome distract you from that project.”


“Those only are happy,” wrote John Stuart Mill, “who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness.” True, but not as Mill meant it. For Mill was thinking of focusing on some external project: “on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end.” Bourgeois individualists assert that the proper “object other than their own happiness” is their virtue, which is to say their pursuit of happiness. By contrast, a Romantic individualist, contra Mill, tends to fix his mind on whether his pursuit of happiness is succeeding, that is, on whether he is happy. Which is why he cannot “meet with triumph and disaster / And treat those two imposters just the same.” Failure sends him spiraling into depression.

Thus it may happen, in the tenebrous hours, that a Romantic individualist will wander, for solace, into the bright shop of bourgeois individualism, where he can find authors proclaiming that the pursuit of happiness, even when it does not bring wealth and pleasure, does bring a sense of noble well-being. He may, perhaps, pick up Joseph Addison’s Cato, the most popular play of the Anglo-American Enlightenment, and turn to the page where Portius declares: “’Tis not in mortals to command success, but we’ll do more, Sempronius, we’ll deserve it.” Or he may perhaps open a volume of Rudyard Kipling’s poetry and read: “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.”

How can he help being inspired by that?