Rudyard Kipling's 'If': Focus on Practical Criticism
Often recognized as one of the most prolific contributions to contemporary British literature, If by Rudyard Kipling was published in his acclaimed historical-fantasy book, Rewards, and Fairies, in 1910. Quintessentially, this poem has been celebrated as Kipling's pioneering British stoicism, thereby establishing a conspicuous power-dynamic of the poem as a product of Kipling’s historical, socio-political, and even personal circumstances. Endeavoring to present a counter-analysis from the aforementioned view, the aim of this essay is to approach If through I. A Richards’ practical-criticism method. This will entail separating the motivating factors, social history, and, inevitably, the author from the poem in order to analytically demonstrate the effects of the poem on the reader, as well as discern its meaning when it is isolated from its determinants. I. A Richards’ Practical Criticism, namely its most salient features, will also be identified, so as to systematically analyze its strengths and weaknesses within the context of this poem’s verbal analysis.
Practical Criticism as a method
With the objective of instilling acute sensitivity to syntax, form, and literary devices in his readers, Richards is remembered for his experimental pedagogy which involved handing his undergraduate-students poetry devoid of contextual and biographical details. By doing so, he sought to note his students’ analytic abilities, and assess their difficulty in understanding the meaning of each respective poem when it was divorced of ideological, sociological, and historical context. His seminal read, Practical Criticism, discusses the results of these findings and seeks to provide the framework for the New Criticism movement. Richards presses readers with fundamental questions which set the tone for the objectives of his method. These questions include: “’What is a meaning?’ ‘What are we doing when we endeavor to make it out?’ ‘What is it we are making out?’”.
Placing language and syntax at the center of his method, Richards places emphasis on four prime functions that language has to perform in a literary work in order to answer the stated questions. These functions include what he identifies as the sense, feeling, tone and intention, with each device contributing towards seeking what Richards states is the “Total Meaning” of the work.
Suggesting a firm adherence to what may be termed a stoical resolve, this poem’s central, thematic resonance appears to be its championing of moral uprightness. By keeping the centrality of the theme in mind, one may observe the sensitivity of the author towards the literary devices employed, in order to draw heightened emphasis on the principal meaning.
Among the most salient devices, repetition appears to be one of the most distinguishing features of this poem. Pronouns, most notably the ‘your,’ and ‘you,’ along with the conditional clause ‘if,’ are the mains objects of repetition in this poem, providing the reader with the effect of being personally addressed by the poet. Perhaps intending to evoke a keen sense of relatability, the poet consciously (or unconsciously) maintains this repetitive consistency throughout the poem, excluding the very last line.
Paradoxes are also evident, with the employment of paradoxical statements found throughout the poem. “If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, But Make allowance for their doubting too,” may be singled out as one of the ample examples from the poem that adopt seemingly contradictory notions to be arranged together to draw out the underlying meaning. Once again keeping the central theme in mind, one may also point to the use of paradoxes as an appropriate technique here that illuminates the notion of daily uncertainties, as well as daily extremities encountered in an individual’s daily life. Contradictions found in daily life may be argued to be an inherent component of the human condition, and the choice of employing a consecutive string of seemingly contradictory statements in order to instruct the reader on how to handle extremities in daily life may facilitate viewing this poem through a more empathetic perspective.
Personification, aptly embodied in the line, “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, And treat those two imposters just the same,” effectively allows ‘Triumph and Disaster’ to possess human attributes, with the poet capitalizing on them to showcase them as proper-nouns. This device is consistently utilized, as observed in the third stanza: “And so hold on when there is nothing in you, Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’”. A combination of paradox with personification, the coupling of this technique allows readers’ sensitivity to be heightened, as well as their desire towards instilling these guidelines for developing stoicism, as prescribed by the poet.
The use of alliteration is also effectively incorporated in the poem, as the reader notices the subtle lyricism from the initial lines, onwards to the conclusion. From the first line, the “all about”, to the sixth, which states, “don’t deal in lies,” then proceeding towards the second stanza’s final line carrying the image “with worn-out tools,” and finally, in the last stanza, “sixty-seconds worth of distance run”, one may observe the familiar lyricism adopted by the poet. In addition to adding lyricism and cohesion, however, if one were to read this poem a second time after acknowledging that it was written to address his son (as stated in the last line, “And - which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!”), it is discernible that the poet uses an earnest, patient tone in order to get these moral guidelines through to his son. The alliteration proves to be a device that facilitates this intention of the poet.
Form and structure
This poem may be described as following the iambic pentameter – allowing the poem to be characterized by a consistent lyricism and rhyming scheme. Argued to closely resemble the human heartbeat, the utilization of this metric line may let the reader unconsciously believe in the sincerity of the words, as well as the overall message.
In addition to the iambic pentameter metric-line, this poem is characterized by possessing four eight-line stanzas. The rhyming pattern adopted, however, is particularly interesting as the first stanza strictly follows an AAAABCBC rhyming scheme, whereas the next three stanzas follow an ABABCDCD pattern. One may contemplate that the change in rhyming schemes with regard to the first and following three stanzas closely follow in line with the uncertainty and discrepancies encountered in an individual’s daily life as well.
Endurance, tenacity, and might
Considering the centrality of the theme of stoicism observed in this poem, the reader observes that the format, structure, and effects of each respective literary-device combine to encapsulate the explicit didacticism that this poem revolves around. By giving the reader ample paradoxical scenarios throughout the poem, the poet seeks to instruct or guide his son, as well as the reader, about how to tackle those seemingly ambivalent situations whilst maintaining an implacable resolve and utmost humility during the positives and negatives. Offering a sincere code of conduct, this poem extols virtues that define a man’s character, particularly one’s tenacity, endurance, humility, and honesty.
Perhaps the most seminal resonances that the reader may take away from using Richards’ practical criticism on Rudyard Kipling’s If, is observing the almost systematic complexity and subtle mathematical qualities of this poem. Paying acute attention to the syntax through understanding the effect of each literary device incorporated in the poem allows the reader to keenly appreciate Richards’ psychological and scientific approach. However, this formalist method of practical criticism also possesses some limitations, namely with regard to its focus on the text as opposed to the context.
It may be noted that in Kipling’s autobiography, he explicitly mentions this poem being dedicated to a British colonial officer, Sir Leander Starr Jameson, and the latter’s unsuccessful attempts to initiate a coup d’état in Transvaal Republic (South Africa) in 1895. Acknowledging this historical context may cause the reader to question their analysis, especially with regard to Richards’ four functions of language. Just as Richards states that one function may subjugate the other, the historical and biographical context may almost certainly impose over other functions. The colonial undertones, coupled with a subtle gender bias, may also usher in a differing analysis from the one envisioned by Richards and the New Critics. Once the historical and socio-political contexts are acknowledged, it is often a challenge for the reader to divorce them from the text altogether.
Seen as narrow, limiting, and perhaps bordering on dogmatic, the New Critics, namely the practical criticism, approach harbors contestation. However, the prospect of fostering increased analytical skills in readers, coupled with appreciating the aesthetic appeal and structure of the poem may be argued to, indeed, be the most defining and distinguishing features of practical criticism.
- Richards, I. (1929). Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgement. 1st ed. London: Routledge.