Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936). (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

‘You’ll be a Man, my son!’

Rudyard Kipling’s (in)famous poem “If” reverberates with valuably relevant and humane advice for 2020 Britain

Artillery Row

Even before the UK’s current reckoning over race relations, Rudyard Kipling had become one of the most sexist dead white men among a sizeable roster—perhaps nudged into second by Cecil Rhodes—his views deemed utterly out of touch, with the man scorned as a table thumping, flag waver for the imperial and racist wrongs of the past that are roiling our nation now.

And yet, Kipling appears back on trend with a vengeance (and perhaps he always has been on a host of matters). For throughout the lockdown and now, as we tie ourselves in knots over how to ease it while also protesting and rioting over Black Lives Matter, I’ve been struck by just how much his (in)famous poem “If” reverberates with valuably relevant and humane advice which we could all do well to remember (on YouTube there is a very nice reading of “If” by the actor Michael Caine, who also explains why the poem resonates so much for him):

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

This line alone justifies the price of the ticket. There has been a lot of head losing going on. It was happening well before COVID-19 came to our shores, but with the combustible combination of a pandemic-induced lockdown and images of police brutality from the US also thrown in, the head popping has gone into overdrive. 

Admittedly, keeping your head is challenging when wrestling with complexities such as white privilege and white supremacy, or if you feel someone has said something wrong, deeply offensive, or just plain bonkers, or when you wake up to the morning news that the singing of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” at rugby matches might be banned due to its “historical context.”

The problem for Johnson is that after reflecting on the stirring poetry, you have to actually rise up to match it

Keeping your head is also hard because it is the boring option, along with the behavioural traits associated with it, as Roger Scruton highlights in The Uses of Pessimism and the Danger of False Hope, explaining that “because the way of compromise ‘lacks all conviction’ many people—young men especially—are dissatisfied with it.” 

Far more stimulating, instead, he notes, to “seek commitment that will absorb them and extinguish their individual goals; they yearn for the unified plan that will take away the burden of accountability, and for the zero-sum encounter with the enemy that will summon them to sacrifice.” (Having done the zero-sum encounter with the enemy in Iraq from my tank turret, I can say that neither of us came out of it that well; I’d far rather the two of us had sat down, had a cup of tea and talked it over.) 

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;

The Prime Minister is known for his poetry reciting abilities. Hence, I can see the appeal to him of saying this line to himself while—presumably—ruffling his hair in the mirror for added effect before entering the House of Commons to meet his detractors during Prime Minister’s Questions. After all, his hero Winston Churchill lived this line, trusting himself in the country’s darkest hour when his stance against Nazi Germany was doubted and questioned by many around him. 

The problem for Johnson, though, is that after reflecting on the stirring poetry and following up with fine rhetoric, you have to actually rise up to match it with the corollary actions (and leadership)—as Churchill did, and Johnson still hasn’t done; going off what we have seen so far from the Prime Minister, it would be encouraging just to experience the sort of leadership you’d expect from a second rate commanding officer. 

If you can wait and not be tired of waiting,

Every single one of us can relate to this after the months and strain of lockdown, the ultimate waiting game with its own bite for each generation: those in their late teens and early twenties, meant to be at the launchpad of their lives breaking open but finding everything on hold and plans going down the drain; while oldsters are more acutely aware than anyone that this is time irretrievably lost from a very finite amount remaining.

So while patience is a virtue, there is always a point when it is time to say, enough, we must move on and get back to life. Hence debates over school closures and shops opening before churches (it’s hard for one’s thoughts not to turn toward the Decadent Society when education and religious life appear to come second to retail and gardening centres).

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

Kipling could have been writing this for you, JK Rowling, given the reactions to your Tweet on women menstruating, or for all the other public figures and commentators, such as Laurence Fox and Douglas Murray who dare to ask awkward but important questions on the likes of free speech, transgender issues, and Islamic extremism. 

And yet don’t look too good nor talk too wise:

I expect Kipling had more in mind the sort of behaviour extolled by Pope Francis, who throughout his public life has been noted for his humility and has been credited with having a less formal approach to the papacy than his predecessors, arguing that the Church should be more open and welcoming. The rub is that this approach has also been embraced by Donald Trump and other populist politicians, and, until COVID-19, leveraged to great effect. With recent polls dipping, the lack of wisdom may be finally catching up with President Trump. But there is still a long way till November’s election.

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master; 
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;

We’ve seen it before, and we may well be seeing it again now: the heady rush to tear up the rule book to make the world a better place and right all the unending injustices. It’s a very understandable urge. But too often our utopian dreams have resulted in all too real nightmares, ranging from the Guillotine of the French Revolution to the Russian gulags, and which now, with technology exponentially weaving itself into our lives, risk taking us toward a nightmare with a dystopian hue. 

“There is a kind of addiction to unreality that informs the most destructive forms of optimism: a desire to cross out reality, as the premise from which practical reason begins, and to replace it with a system of compliant illusions,” Scruton wrote in his dissection of what he called the “utopian fallacy” that “serves as an abstract condemnation of everything around us, and it justifies the believer in taking full control.”

Like Kipling, Scruton cautions against too much irrational exuberance at the cost of a more humane realism and compromise, a type of short-term pessimism that is, in its measured way, actually life affirming and optimistic in the longer term. 

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

Relevant to any English football fan living with the span of events since 1966—while Michael Caine notes how it is relevant to any acting career—this advice also cautions against society’s culture of winning and ceaseless competitiveness that is increasingly leaving people time-starved, burnt out, unfulfilled and depressed. Perhaps a re-evaluation and healthier appreciation closer to Kipling’s philosophy could emerge post COVID-19, after the months of reflection and soul searching it has forced on us. 

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Again, we go back to the likes of Rowling, Fox and Murray hunkering in their foxholes against the flak from the culture wars (or from the press, as Caine notes in discussing the relevance of this line to his life). I’m not saying either are speaking the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I think very few manage that. But they genuinely believe in what they are saying—in their own subjective truth—though, of course, just as much as those who disagree with them believe in their own truth; the difference is in who does the twisting afterwards: it’s usually not coming from the Rowlings, Foxes and Murrays of the debate.

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

Words that unfortunately have particular resonance for those effected by the COVID-related deaths of more than 42,000 people in the UK, and for those who have lost or are about to lose their businesses due to the pandemic’s economic ramifications (or because of riots in the US). 

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;

Perhaps Kipling’s hardest challenge. We’re not saints, Rudyard, and some of us need to write for a living, as well as to warn others not to repeat the same mistakes. But the underlying affirmative point about meeting risk and embracing life hold true for our emerging from lockdown and approach to the future we wish to fashion. 

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!’

Again, as with the above, a timeless message for facing adversity, with most recently the likes of NHS and care home workers having to force their hearts, nerves and sinews, as well as, I imagine, even more recently, those members of the public and police who responded to the stabbing in Reading (the reaction of the latter illustrating the other more noble side to UK policing in contrast to other countries, and of which we shouldn’t lose sight during debates over institutional racism in the police). 

At the same time, one shouldn’t overdo the singling out. As the first-century Hellenized Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria pointed out: “Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a terrible battle.” Implicit in being human are some unavoidably tough conundrums, often making it hard to hold on, no matter what your skin colour or where you come from or how privileged you might appear. 

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,   
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,

Written in 1895 and 111 years before Twitter,  you couldn’t ask for much sounder advice for navigating social media or the realms of celebrity and political power which increasingly bear no resemblance to the outlook regaled by the actor David Niven in his uplifting and good-humoured memoirs on Hollywood life “The Moon’s a Balloon” and “Bring On the Empty Horses”, or to the selfless public service of senator Robert F. Kennedy

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;

Did Kipling have in mind the whining of a privileged snowflake generation? I suspect not and that his point applies equally to all of us who could do with being less sensitive and overreactive (for which maintaining at least a modicum of a sense of humour and perspective, even when it comes to serious matters, might help); in short, being more resilient

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!

A tall order. Twelve weeks of lockdown amounts to 120,960 unforgiving minutes (and 7,257,600 seconds’ worth of distance not run). But the point is to try, or at least sometimes try. I’m presuming it’s pretty obvious to most readers that Kipling is not extolling the patriarchal domination of our fragile environment, though these days, as with Swing Low hullabaloo, the laws of interpretation appear wide open. 

As to the gendered bias, well, try switching the word “Man” to “Woman” and “son” to “daughter” and saying the last line. It doesn’t work, it just sounds odd. The line needs to remain male centric because of poetics and also for a reason I suspect Kipling knew all too well going off his Plain Tales from the Hills, in which strong female characters typically outshine the men who too often prove muddled, shallow and hypocrites. 

In his bestselling 1990 book Iron John: Men and Masculinity, the poet Robert Bly dissects how masculinity and manhood have become increasingly maligned in modern society—especially in academia, the media and popular culture—resulting in younger men turning away from the more positive aspects of their XY chromosome birth right. This has contributed to “the increasing monotony and barrenness in contemporary men’s lives,” Bly notes, a trend worsened by disengaged fathers and the absence of older male role models to look toward for guidance and mentorship, leaving younger men flailing around far more than their female counterparts. 

While being a woman is harder than being a man, becoming a man is harder than becoming a woman. Such nuanced insight is pretty woke stuff from Kipling

“A girl changes into a woman on her own, with the bodily developments marking the change; old women tell her stories and chants, and do celebrations,” Bly writes. “But with boys, no old men, no change.”

The result, he says, is a man “wholeheartedly devoted to infantile grandiosity,” accompanied by a loss of “masculine integrity” that leaves behind the “sanitized, hairless, shallow man” so favoured by the corporate world and engines of bureaucracy. 

Kipling hits at a truth…OK, make that an observation, that resonates importantly for both sexes: while being a woman is harder than being a man, becoming a man is harder than becoming a woman. Such nuanced insight is pretty woke stuff, especially for someone like Kipling.

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