Rudyard Kipling is an outstanding poet because his poems go beyond basic anecdotes and narrative, and instead teach fundamental lessons of morality and decency, that humanity, especially recently, has been all too prone to forget. In my opinion, his best poems are "If—", "Hymn of Breaking Strain" and "The Thousandth Man", as they all hold up a sparkling candle against the dark gloom which so often shrouds life when we are exposed to the bitterness of hate, loneliness and failure. These poems are beautiful because they have stood the test of time, remaining as true to life today as they did just over a century ago, providing a powerful, upbeat and positive outlook on life that is so desperately needed by today's society.
Aspirations are the fuel which people use to live their lives, however far too often do people lose sight of reality in pursuing these dreams. In "If—", Kipling reminds us that 'if you can dream - and not .,r~ make dreams your master', you will be free from blindly obsessing over a single and inevitably restrictive desire. This message is incredibly important so as to stop ambition becoming obsession, or else leave humanity running the risk of being trapped by a void in life that may never be fulfilled. Kipling gives this advice without any patronising undertones and with a magically paternal quality supported by the steadiness of the iambic pentameter in which it is written, making it very reassuring. This, however, is made even more powerful by the acknowledgement of failure, as Kipling advises: 'if you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same' you will never have to experience the misfortune of disappointment again. Disasters and triumphs have a paradoxical similarity, in that they can both ruin and give birth to life. To treat a disaster as a triumph is akin to having achieved a triumph itself, whilst a triumph may become a disaster if it is achieved through morally questionable means, or should it give rise to arrogance. As a result, Kipling successfully demonstrates that the outcomes of situations are entirely dependent on their interpretations. The personification of the two events is also effective in encouraging the reader to consider them as friends, to greet and welcome them as either a success or lesson.
The "Hymn of Breaking Strain" is equally as compelling, in its creative take on the concept of 'if at first you n do not succeed, try and try again'. It has a spiritual but not solely religious aspect to it, through a repeated mention of God, which makes it relatable to a much wider audience. In reference to the undeserved blame that so often befalls our lives at some point or another, Kipling's heartening statement 'The Gods have no such feeling, of justice toward mankind', reminds us our moral stance and to 'Stand up and build anew!' is of the utmost significance when it comes to failures. The verb 'build' helps to remind us of that 'in spite of being broken,' piecing together the remaining components of our lives is always possible, and as such, the poem is a wholly uplifting piece to behold. Kipling provides a refreshingly distinct perspective on the overwhelming frustration of failure in these poems, instead welcoming failure as education, whilst maintaining that honour in success is equally as important. This helps to achieve a perfect balance between dreams, reality and fear that contributes heavily to their strong impacts.
Recognising the value in all humanity, especially in oneself, is arguably the most valuable of all traits a person could have. Kipling aptly describes the crucial and beauteous face of friendship in "The Thousandth Man", presenting the rarity of true friends, as only `One man in a thousand, Solomon says, will stick more close than a brother', whilst maintaining the magnificence behind them through the illustration of the fraternal bond with the strikingly familiar and impactful term 'brother'. He successfully manages to capture the stunning beauty behind the concept of a friend, portraying the loyalty in the 'the Thousandth man' who will 'sink or swim with you in any water', where the devotion in friends who will as readily fail with you as progress is illustrated in a brilliantly simplistic metaphor applicable to all aspects of life. Kipling equally, however, counsels against the abuses of enemies in "If—", illuminating to the reader the higher ground of moral standing, where despite denigration or hatred, they should not 'deal in lies' or 'give way to hating'. The bluntness and principles upon which this advice is based gives an almost child-like aura to the poem, reminding us of the innocence humanity has since lost and that it is so crucial we recover. However, expanding upon this is the message of independence, as Kipling explains 'if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,' you will be saved from the petty manipulations of an increasingly Machiavellian society. Whilst respect for friends and enemies is important, pride and self belief are presented as the two key instruments of happiness. Kipling reiterates this throughout his poem, wisely advising that 'If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you', the confidence will give you the strength to see yourself through their bitterness and disbelief. Kipling's advice on the complex matter of human relationships in these poems has a beautiful integrity to it, successfully depicting the morality and decency that is unfortunately so uncommon in modern society. He manages an optimistic outlook in the face of a world being dragged down by mindless loathing and slander, which attributes an inspiring sense of virtue to these already powerful poems, and furthers their effectiveness.
Maturation and the development of 'a man', is however, the central and most emotive theme which lends these poems their significance in meaning. "Hymn of Breaking Strain" emphasises that 'being broken' as a result of 'loads we cannot bear' is vital in the development of faith and manhood. Through repeated mention of material such as 'stone and steel', with connotations of strength and power, Kipling effectively associates the traditionally feminine concept of emotions with the might of men to present the concept that only through struggle in testing commitment and endurance can the status of 'man' successfully be achieved. Similarly, "The Thousandth Man" highlights the beauty and emotion behind comradeship in men 'Because you can show (them) your feelings', which demonstrates the importance of feeling and mental turmoil in the transition from child to man, equating it with friendship, in the end, the horror of death in To the gallows-foot - and after!' If-, however, is the strongest of all the poems under the umbrella term of 'development', as it encompasses all the moral standards behind adulthood and the idea of becoming a man, through a constant stream of relatable circumstances that are emotionally evocative and moving to the point it becomes an entire philosophical thesis by which you could readily live your life. It clearly references the evolution of a child to a man by answering the previous hypothetical scenarios it posed 'You'll be a Man, my son!', where the cross-generational link sums up the transition in an appropriately poignant way. Kipling addresses the theme of maturation in a touching and impressive comparison between human ideals and reality, providing his poems with an undeniably compelling morality that completes their overall effectiveness.
Kipling achieves a standard of excellence in these three poems which few poets I have ever encountered have been able to even nearly emulate. The relevance of aspirations, relationships and maturation to life is overwhelming considering their fundamental importance in our development as human beings, and Kipling presents them in a virtuous and enlightening manner. "If—", "Hymn of Breaking Strain" and "The Thousandth Man" had a profound impact on me because they represent the main conceptual emotions that the majority of humanity, and I personally, have struggled with, and hence they have not only become my favourite poems, but an entire philosophy towards life that I am unlikely to ever forget.
Muhammad Ibrahim Bhatti
©Muhammad Ibrahim Bhatti 2011 All rights reserved