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Tell me what is wrong with Rudyard Kipling’s Man, by Haddon Willmer

19 March 2019

In 1995, Rudyard Kipling’s  If  was voted the most popular poem in England.  Like much of this great writer’s work it is embarrassingly controversial.  There are lines in this poem that make us say, That’s right – it would be good to be like that. There are others where we shake our heads, as a whisper warns us, Not that way.  

As an example, I would be glad if I always achieved what he says right at the beginning: 

            If you can keep your head when all about you   

            Are losing theirs and blaming it on you….

But I am not so sure about:

            If you can make one heap of all your winnings

           And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss….

There is a difference between courage and recklessness. 

When we come to the core of what Kipling thinks will make his son ‘a Man’, we find it both alluring and alarming, truly human and yet dangerously inhuman: 

             If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

             If all men count with you, but none too much…

Is this not a fanciful invitation to be impractical and radically untruthful: human beings cannot put themselves beyond being hurt? The attempt to be invulnerable leads a person to shrivel inside a hard protective shell, whose real message is not, ‘I cannot be hurt’, but ‘I will not let myself be hurt, even if it costs me my soul’. 

The second line here is specially teasing. It is good to say, If all men (viz. ‘all people, everybody) count with you – if you respect everybody and aim to give them their true worth, though you can never do full justice to them. But then this is cut back by the ‘but none too much’. Is it not a goodly characteristic of human being that Others can and do come to count with us boundlessly, beyond our counting, beyond our measured control and protection of ourselves?  Is that not one point where we get closer to our Father in heaven (Matthew 5.43-48, Romans 5.1-11)? Is this line miserly rather than generous? 

And so to Kipling’s climactic promise, for the one who has fulfilled all the ‘Ifs’: 

             Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   

             And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

There is danger here: ‘What shall it profit anyone if he gain the whole world and lose his own life?’ (Mark 8.36). Is Kipling saying what Jesus said? His phrase, ‘which is more’, goes some way to reflect the scale of values Jesus gives us in the Sermon on the Mount: life is more than food, the body is more than clothing (Matthew 6.25). But the ambition to be a self-sufficient person, ‘possessing the earth and everything in it’ is hardly compatible with the Psalmist’s contention that ‘the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it’ (Psalm 24.1) and Jesus’ word and example of the meek inheriting the earth (Matthew 5. 5). Is Kipling’s Man meek? 

Kipling’s ‘Man’ is not peculiarly British, or dated around 1900. Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew the temptation of Kipling’s Man, both as a noble ideal and in its perversion in Hitler’s Nazi culture.  And as a disciple of Jesus, seeking to follow his Lord closely as he lived fully in his time and place, not running away from its complexity and pain, he came to spell out  his own ‘If’ and ‘Then’.  He wrote to Bethge, the day after the bomb plot failed on 20 July 1944, saying simply that he had learned faith through living fully in this world as it was. And key to this learning, was to ‘abandon completely trying to make something out of oneself’. Is that not what Kipling was exhorting his son to do? If he fulfilled the conditions set out in all the ‘Ifs’, the Earth would be his and he would be ‘a Man’. The Man would be the outcome of his self-making. But Bonhoeffer saw it quite differently: 

Living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities… we throw ourselves completely  into the arms of God, taking seriously not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world – watching with Christ in Gethsemane.  That is faith; that is metanoia; and that is how one becomes a human being, a Christian.

Well, that’s my reaction to Kipling’s great poem. What is yours? Tell me if you think I need to be corrected. But above all, think about it for your own sake. 

And don’t let yourself be put off by Kipling’s ‘Man’. It’s easy to think ‘Woman’ all the way through – though it would spoil the rhythm to put the word ‘Woman’ into  the final line. We are all human, and what this poem is getting at is the question of being human.   

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!

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