Monday, June 04, 2007

Poetry Minute: "If-"

(Image from Wikipedia)

Yesterday evening, as I was tutoring my 8-year-old son, En-Uk, in English, we read together the famous poem "If-", by Rudyard Kipling.

I confess to rather liking the poem, though T.S. Eliot did use it as an evidence that Kipling was merely a 'versifier' and not a true poet (though he adds that Kipling's verse was "great verse"). I don't recall having read Eliot directly on this point, but I know from a review by George Orwell that Eliot's remark comes from the preface to a selection of Kipling's poems (A Choice of Kipling's Verse, T.S. Eliot, editor). I also seem to recall that somebody once called Kipling "our best bad poet," but perhaps I'm recalling a similar remark made about William McGonagall, except that McGonagall is so execrably bad that Kipling's poems are by contrast truly great. Orwell, at any rate, called Kipling "a good bad poet," one who wrote poetry that was "a graceful monument to the obvious."

As I was reading this poem with my son, I recalled that when I was about 13, my own not-especially-literary father, whom I didn't know very well, sent me a card with Kipling's poem "If-" printed on it, thereby exemplifying a remark made by Kipling himself:
Among the verses in Rewards [and Fairies] was one set called 'If-', which escaped from the book, and for a while ran about the world .... Once started, the mechanisation of the age made them snowball themselves in a way that startled me .... They were printed as cards to hang up in offices and bedrooms; illuminated text-wise and anthologised to weariness. Twenty-seven of the Nations of the Earth translated them into their seven-and-twenty tongues, and printed them on every sort of fabric. (Chapter 7, "The Very-Own House,"Something of Myself)
It seems that everybody read "If-", prompting Orwell to implicitly compare people who only knew this poem to Colonel Blimp:
In the stupid early years of this century, the blimps, having at last discovered someone who could be called a poet and who was on their side, set Kipling on a pedestal, and some of his more sententious poems, such as "If", were given almost biblical status.
I hope that I'm no Colonel Blimp, and I don't think that my father was that, but here's the poem that he and I both liked:
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!
I recall putting the card aside with a bit of distate at the final line -- despite my having previously liked the poem -- because I didn't like being addressed that way by my distant father and didn't want any of his advice (and doubted, anyway, his own qualities as a capitalized "Man").

Yet, I still liked the poem, a 'versification' that perhaps illustrates Orwell's point about bad poetry being "a graceful monument to the obvious" -- except that the following lines are hardly obvious to me:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss...
More obvious is the truism that you shouldn't put all your eggs into one basket, but Kipling was likely adducing here an aristocratic virtue of manliness, whereas I'm rather bourgeois in my virtues.

So, anyway, my father and I have both liked this poem. Yet most of what I know about my father suggests to me that he was an ordinary man. Perhaps Orwell's words are relevant here:
The fact that such a thing as good bad poetry can exist is a sign of the emotional overlap between the intellectual and the ordinary man. The intellectual is different from the ordinary man, but only in certain sections of his personality, and even then not all the time. But what is the peculiarity of a good bad poem? A good bad poem is a graceful monument to the obvious. It records in memorable form -- for verse is a mnemonic device, among other things -- some emotion which very nearly every human being can share. (George Orwell, "Rudyard Kipling: Review of A Choice of Kipling's Verse, T.S. Eliot, editor"; from Critical essays (1946), but originally from Horizon (February 1942))
If Orwell is right, then my father and I shared a certain "emotional overlap," which might be taken as evidence of our special kinship ... except that Orwell speaks of this as a kinship with the entire human race.

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At 10:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A long forgotten poem worth revisiting. How much of the sage poem did your young son understand?

At 4:06 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I don't think that En-Uk understood much, for we only read through it without discussing it, but tonight, I plan to look at it again with him.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:38 AM, Blogger A.H. said...

Alas, poor Orwell: literary criticism wasn't his forte. Pound, for me, got Kipling right. "You can write it by the hour [his verse] as fast as one can scribble." It really is Polonius stuff, sadly, fit for ranting from behind an arras. Kipling for me is inseparable from the dusty assemblies of school days. I can rememember a teacher who readily re-discoverd "If" every time he had to create an assembly quickly and couldn't be bothered to think for himself. Thank god, I never became a "Man". A good post on a bad bad poet.

At 8:58 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Eshuneutics. I hadn't known of Pound's critique. I suppose that one could say:

Pound for Pound,
Eliot outdoes Orwell.

That's my doggerel for the day, and it has the virtue of not even rhyming...

Basically, though, is Orwell saying anything so very different from Eliot? Good bad poet? Great versifier? Where would you locate the difference in their views?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:07 AM, Blogger A.H. said...

I have to agree: Eliot isn't really saying anything that's different. Pound got into this "good bad" way of thinking too with creators who were good good and diluters who were bad good and ... but Eliot, like Pound, was always excellent good and invariably right! :-)

At 7:33 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Eliot and Pound:

When they were good,
they were double plus good;
but when they were bad,
they were double-plus ungood.

George Orgood, too.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:52 AM, Blogger Daniel said...

Hey Jeffery, I've got a question about Milton that I thought you might be able to give me some help with, that I didn't want to post into your Tariq Ramadan comments. Lines 4-5 are:
"...til one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,"
The verbs here seem [perhaps only to the uninitiated] to be in the present tense, whereas the verbs of the rest of the sentence recounting past occurances are in the past tense. I'm not familiar with 17 c. English, nor am I privy to the theology of Milton, so maybe one or both of those facts account for why this clause seems strange to me. Is the present tense used so that WE the reader were saved by "one greater Man"?

At 11:58 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Daniel, I haven't done any research on this particular point:

"...til one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,"

But I'd note that the simple present tense is being used to express the future in this clause introduced by "til."

That being the case, I'd suggest that the restoration occurs through the parousia (return of Christ) at the eschaton (the end times).

Until that time, Christ's victory is only partial (though inevitable).

But perhaps Eshuneutics could provide more insight. You could ask him.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:08 PM, Blogger Daniel said...

Ohh, alright, that makes sense, thanks..

At 1:17 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Glad to have been of some sensible help...

Jeffery Hodges

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