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The Philosophy of the Middle Path in the “If”


The poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling develops the theme of resilience, manhood, and middle path utilizing devices of rhythm, rhyme, repetition, and symbolism. This didactic poem presents the author’s advice to his son John and consists of one compound sentence. In this sentence, Rudyard Kipling describes paradoxical life situations in which any person – man or woman – needs to maintain control. This paper aims to analyze the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling in terms of visual elements, lyric devices, figurative meaning, tone, mood, and theme.

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Visual Elements and Figurative Meaning

The poem consists of thirty-two lines, divided into eight quatrains. It is didactic since the central theme of the poem is the glorification of moral qualities most important for every person. Interestingly, in each stanza, Rudyard Kipling masterfully describes life situations that unite the whole space of conditions that determine the person’s future path depending on the choice made. Therefore, the poem is advice for all people since it is universal.

The author conveys the figurative meaning of the poem through word choice, imagery, and allusion. The lyrical hero remains as if erased, impersonal throughout the story, while Rudyard Kipling creates images of life, placing participants under challenging conditions. For example, in the first two lines, a lyrical hero stubbornly “keeps his head,” while the rest “are losing theirs” (“If,” para. 1). A little further, lines 13-16 say, “truth… twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools”, and lines 25-28 refer to “crowds” and “kings” (“If,” para. 4). Besides, in 17-20 lines, there is an image of “pitch-and-toss”; in 21-24, “will, heart, nerve, and sinew” are mentioned, and in 29-32 – “the sixty seconds worth of distance run” (“If,” para. 3). Therefore, the author creates a complete story about kings and crowds, about fools and noblemen, about villains and knights.

Thanks to the masterful choice of words and the use of allusion, it seems to the reader that the poem tells about taverns where pirates have a drink, about dreaming poets, about scientists, burned at stake in the name of sixty seconds of truth. Even though Rudyard Kipling does not directly mention some of the characters listed, they are still the personages in the background stories, arising behind the brief and specific moral generalizations. Perhaps the beauty of the poem lies in a combination of dozens of canonical plots not mentioned directly. The entire history of humanity was put here in thirty-two lines. Such depth and clarity of thought make the poem convincing in conveying the basic idea of the need for persistence in the whirlpools of life.

Lyric Devices

Lyric devices, which convey the central message and create the right mood, deserve particular attention. Rudyard Kipling creates a clear and smooth rhythm of verse through the use of repetition and rhyme. His speech is very melodic; besides, he uses assonance and consonance. The tone of the poem is narrative, and the author does not break into a cry or a whisper, remaining somewhat detached from the foreground.

Formally, this is a message from father to son, which is the reason for a somewhat restrained tone. The following lines are an example of assonance: “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” (“If,” para. 1). In the further lines, the consonance is applied: “If you can dream — and not make dreams your master… If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster” (“If,” para. 2). In this way, a calm and solemn mood is created through the harmonious combination of sounds.


Noteworthy, the symbolism of the poem and particular metaphors introduced into the text enhance the main message. In the first two quatrains, the reader sees the metaphor of “head,” which symbolizes the mind, and being kept straight – dignity and sanity (“If,” para. 1). The word “waiting” has a tremendous semantic load, being also a rhythmically stressed word (“If,” para. 1). It symbolizes not only the process of waiting but also such qualities as patience, perseverance, self-confidence (“If,” para. 1). At the same time, the word “hating,” which is also rhythmically stressed, symbolizes not only the expression of hatred, but also all those human passions that cause this feeling (“If,” para. 1). Therefore, in the first lines, the author describes the proper behavior, which in Buddhism is called the ‘middle path.’

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In the following lines, words denoting abstract concepts continue to play the role of metaphors, symbolizing an extensive range of moral qualities. For example, dreams represent illusions that can distract from the goals, and thoughts – the reaction of the mind to trivial events, implying the need for detachment. The same impartiality is necessary when meeting with Triumph, a symbol of big and small victories and achievements, as well as Disaster, which represents the failure and collapse of everything created by man. Further, the crown of success is the ability to get together heart, nerve, and sinew and master them with Will. In the final quatrains, this idea is repeated, only in the context of the relationship between man and humanity.


Thus, the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling was analyzed in terms of visual elements, lyric devices, figurative meaning, tone, mood, and theme. To summarize, the author, in poetic form, advises his son and all people about how to live life with purpose and meaning, subjugating passions and rising above them. The author most fully uses lyric devices of repetition, assonance, consonance, imagery, allusion, and metaphors to convey the figurative meaning.

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“If.”, n.d., 2020. Web.

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