The Humble I

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The Imortal “If”

Kipling_If_(Doubleday_1910)The Prophet, peace be upon him, said: ‘There is wisdom in poetry.’ [Bukhari, no.6145] He also said: ‘Poetry has the same status as prose – good poetry is like good prose, bad poetry is like bad prose.’ [Al-Daraqutni, no.495] That being said, the Sunnah cautions against over indulging in poetry, as per the following hadith: ‘It is better for one of you to fill their stomach with pus than to fill it with poetry.’ [Bukhari, no.6155]

Good poetry is, in a sense, timeless and immortal. This is not only because it is read by generation after generation of readers, but also because poems – unlike novels, essays or articles – tend to be felt, experienced, absorbed; and not merely read for the sake of reading or finishing. It has been said that a poem can deliver to the sensitive reader an ‘immortal wound’ that one may never quite get over.

Rudyard Kipling’s poem, simply entitled If, ranks amongst the most popular pieces of poetry in Britain and enjoys widespread recognition. Written in 1895, and published first  in 1910, the poem speaks of virtue, stoicism and personal integrity, and contains profound mottos and maxims for life.

Muslims, as with peoples of other faiths, will be quick to point out how these maxims and ideals closely contour their own religious teachings. In fact, the Victorian ethics If evokes has much in common with the conservative ethos that tempers Islam’s moral code: its moderation and modesty; its stoicism; its insistence upon a certain sense of reserve; and its insistence on common sense and pragmatism.

Much has been written about Kipling’s attitude towards imperialism, or the apparent racism found in his prose and poetry: was Kipling merely critiquing racist attitudes or exhibiting them himself? That aside, no such controversy exists about the didactic If. In our times, it is regarded as a popular classic of English literature; lines from it even appear over the player’s entrance to Wimbledon’s center court – a telling reminder of its abiding inspiration.

As traditional canons of beauty give way to a culture of shallowness, mediocrity and crass consumption, the poem distills the loftier human virtues. It presupposes that true manhood (or womanhood) is rooted, not in material advancement, but in moral behaviour and ethical living. So, with these few introductory passages, there is little else left to be said save: read, enjoy, be inspired, and suffer the immortal wound that is If.

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 all on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath 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!

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