Rudyard Kipling: If—

I’ve already mentioned and repeated it: despite being a lifelong bookworm I’m not much interested in poetry, although I do care about songs’ lyrics. Still, there are a few poems I find to my liking.

I discovered If— in high school: it was one of the texts in our English reader. Being sixteen or seventeen I was less cynical than now, which is possibly why I was also more impressionable when it came to poetry. Anyway, I fell for this one as much as to write it on an A4 sheet of blank paper (with a dip pen to make it look more ancient, if I remember correctly) and stuck it on a wardrobe over the head of my bed. In fact, this was the only decorating of my teenage room I ever did. (The others were done by my mother according to her ideas of how a room should look; I accepted it was she who paid the rent.) I even learned it by heart.

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;

In my second year at the Tech, waiting at the ‘terminal room’ for a file I had done as a school task to be saved by the cetral computer (which was only able to process one terminal at a time, so after giving the command ‘Save’ you usually went for a fag or two and then returned and if you were lucky you only waited another half-hour or so… remember the punched tape times?) time hung heavy on my hands. To kill it I typed the poem, printed it (for some reason this could be done without waiting) and back at the hostel stuck it on the wall above my bed. (I had already put several other items myself there.) And although I was allotted a different room each following year, this sheet of continuous paper was one those things I always hung up again.

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;

In all those digs I lived in after the Tech I usually only decorated my walls, if at all, with a 1:500,000 Ordnance Survey map of Scotland and about as large a Saltire flag. But I didn’t forget the poem. When I was given the task of reciting something as a sort of penalty three years ago, I took my revenge by using this longish (and in the situation foreign-language) text. It amazed me I could still recollect it whole. Reading it again last year in Wikisource I discovered I had a few words wrong and a quatrain or two in a wrong place, but then, I remember Paul McCartney disclosing in one interview that occasionally the audience knows the words of his own old songs better than him.

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!”

Of course, the poem has no longer the same appeal to me as it had in my teens. It’s a wee bit too pompous for today’s cynical me. There are even a few lines I completely disagree with, like “If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you” – the way I see it this can only be true when you have no friends. Even so, more than a half of it still speaks to my heart (like the two lines before or the one after that just quoted); a few lines have even gained new importance with some things which had happened in my thirties. So I guess I won’t forget it for quite a few years yet.

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!

(By the way, the 1968 film is, except perhaps for the boring ‘motorbike’ scene, among of my favourite ones as well.)

 

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