Friday, January 17, 2020

Is Kipling's Advice Good Advice?

I know I'm not supposed to like Kipling. He's a Western imperialist and all that. Plus he's not a real poet, you know. I believe T. S. Eliot is the one who called him a mere "versifier." I know all this, but I can't deny that Kipling strikes a chord with me.

I even like his poem "If-" . . . though it lost some of its luster for me when I received it from my own father as a card for my thirteenth birthday. The poem made me wonder if my father thought himself to have succeeded in meeting the standards set forth by Kipling. Well, my father did send it as advice. I therefore cannot read the poem without a sense of irony. My father? My father offering advice on how to be a man?

But my father aside, is Kipling's advice good advice? Read the poem and consider the question.
By Rudyard Kipling
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!
Well, that all sounds pretty good. Wait a moment. What's this? Make one heap of all your winnings and bet that heap on a single flip of a coin? That doesn't sound like good advice.

Is each piece of Kipling's advice similarly flawed by this all-or-nothing attitude?



At 4:21 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

Perhaps he is attempting to represent good old English "pluck"?

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

He does something similar with The Copybook Gods, if I recall correctly.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:45 AM, Blogger Sugarloaf said...

All memorable advice should be pithy. As it gains in succinctness, there will inevitably be losses in subtlety. The balance - maximum sense with maximum memorability - is the criterion.
By this criterion, I think “If “ passes the test comfortably. I, too, first came across it around the age that you did. It is likely that Kipling wrote it for his son of about that age too. For someone about to begin his or her teenage years with all its challenges, temptations and excitements, it is imho a valuable aide-memoire on many aspects of daily conduct. It is not a guide as to what to do – parents and schools are replete with exhortations about this, making further elaboration tedious to the young. It is about how to deal with “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” which certainly will come the way of all young people, and for which it is useful to be as prepared as possible.
Some of its advice has a slow burn: it was many years before I knew to what “the truth you've spoken Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools” might be referring. But when the moment came, I was able to recognise the thing for what it was, and to act appropriately, I hope. Not Kipling’s fault if I made a mess, of course.
The heap of winnings lines worried me too all those years ago. I did not agree with it. Like a lot of things. Nuff said.


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