Iffy

It's easy to imagine "If--" as a great modernist title. Terse, mysterious, hesitant, it could have introduced a Williams fragment full of precarious gaps and leaps, or an Auden riff on the As You Like It line about evasive speech: "Much virtue in If." Instead the title belongs to Rudyard Kipling, to the year 1910, and to a didactic poem that remains a classic of righteous certitude.

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:

Meanwhile, Kipling himself remains an icon of obnoxious wrongness. George Orwell's 1942 disclaimer has been widely quoted: "It is no use pretending that Kipling's view of life, as a whole, can be accepted or even forgiven by any civilized person." Imperialist racist, aggressive militarist: Kipling was this and more, and very publicly. Even in his least controversial work, the outlook Orwell called "morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting" bleeds in at the margins. Read "If--" beside Kipling's "The White Man's Burden," and the line "Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it" starts to smell like colonialist arrogance--or "jingoistic nonsense," as one British paper put it in 1995, after Britain had voted "If--" its all-time favorite poem.

And therein lies the reason for issuing disclaimers at all: Kipling has lasted. For decades, Orwell wrote, "every enlightened person has despised him, and at the end of that time nine-tenths of those enlightened persons are forgotten and Kipling is in some sense still there." In his 1939 elegy for W.B. Yeats, Auden judged that time had "Pardoned Kipling" by separating his writing talent from his bigotry. Auden dropped that stanza from later versions of the poem, but global culture has never dropped Kipling.

Disney's Jungle Book remake comes out next year, and "If--" still tops those polls in Britain. The poem adorns coffee mugs and dorm posters; it's been quoted on The Simpsons and in Joni Mitchell lyrics; it ranks among the most-searched-for titles in the Poetry Foundation's online archive. Former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, who says he first heard it recited on an NFL broadcast, defiantly quoted it during his downfall on corruption charges. Onward it swaggers like its own idealized "Man," indifferent to love and loathing, refusing to quit. It's the poetic advice column forwarded around the world, the kind of timeless wisdom everyone thinks someone else should follow.

Kipling himself dryly remarked, in his late memoirs, that the poem offers "counsels of perfection most easy to give." One of its pearls adorns the players' entrance to the Centre Court at Wimbledon: "If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two impostors just the same." No Wimbledon competitor has ever done this.

Still, the poem clearly speaks to an ideal or an aspiration. When thousands of readers search the Web for "If--," what are they hoping to find? Why do its lessons lodge so easily in the memory, even if we're not trying to learn them? To reckon with--maybe even outgrow--this old-school lecture on maturity, it's not enough to heap our enlightened scorn on the poet. We have to examine his character and our own.

Read the full essay on the Poetry Foundation website.