You’ll Be a Man, My Son: Rudyard Kipling on Manhood

September 14, 2020 Updated: September 14, 2020

On a hot Virginia afternoon in early September, I stepped outside the Happy Creek Coffee Shop to take a break from writing and my computer.

From where I stood, I could see a crew of workmen repairing a pothole on High Street, the driver of a Sysco truck delivering foodstuffs to a local restaurant, the bearded postman making his rounds, a policeman carrying coffee to his patrol car, and a young man on a moped delivering packages.

And Rudyard Kipling came to mind.

He would have made the perfect bard for men such as these.

As I write these words, I have at hand the 1921 edition of “Rudyard Kipling’s Verse: Inclusive Edition, 1885–1918.” As I thumb through these pages, I am struck by how many of his poems deal with men and what they do: soldiers, sailors, day laborers, and barkeeps, priests and kings, and regular guys. Of all our poets of the last 150 years, Kipling—OK, I’ll give a nod to Robert Service—was surely the strongest voice of the common man.

Kipling (1865–1936) is little taught in our schools today. Though his novels “Kim” and “The Jungle Book” remain popular, and though he was the first writer in English to win the Nobel Prize in Literature and the youngest ever to receive that honor, critics generally label him an imperialist, which he was for most of his life, and a racist, which is debatable.

Hence, in many of our schools Kipling is verboten. 

Too bad.

For we men, particularly the young among us, could learn a few things from Kipling about manhood. Stories like “The Man Who Would Be King” and dozens of his poems elevate the ideals of manliness of his time. 

His well-known poem “If—” might best capture these lessons. Let’s look at the poem, examine some of its points, and see what Kipling has to say about becoming a man. 

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 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!

The Old Way

For 2,500 years, men celebrated the virtue of stoicism, even when they’d never heard the word. Whether you were a chief of the Cheyenne, a Roman general, or an ordinary man confronted with some horrible disaster, the ability to “meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two imposters just the same” marked you as a man. 

“If—” is a hymn to such stoic ideals as patience, a certain indifference to pain and pleasure, the courage to tackle trials and tribulations. Such fortitude and forbearance allow a man to absorb life’s hard blows—and as all adults know, life can throw some hard punches—and keep moving forward.

In the film “Rocky Balboa,” Rocky gives that same advice to his son:

“Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!”

Good men keep moving forward.

Squelch the Egotism

Though Kipling never says so directly, “If—” also advocates for humility. By telling readers how to handle failure, he’s also warning against the dangers of pride: “If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, /Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch.” 

We live in the Age of the Celebrity, the quarterback paid tens of millions of dollars a year to throw a ball, the movie star whose films have earned him millions and four mansions, the politician who leaves Congress after 20 years with millions in his bank account.

Many of these men become puffed up with pride. Because of their status and their money, they feel free to lecture the rest of us on our politics, our eating habits, our system of free enterprise, and our general take on life, and in doing so often make fools of themselves.

“It was pride,” Saint Augustine once wrote, “that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels.”

Kipling is on the side of humility.

rudyard kipling
English writer Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936) on Jan. 16, 1928. (Evening Standard/Getty Images)

Guts and Grit

When we say a man has “guts,” we mean he has the courage that comes from the inside. Whether he has remained behind to cover the retreat of his comrades from a battlefield or stood for an unpopular cause knowing ahead of time the savage acrimony he must endure, we look at such men and are awed by their bravery. That man who bets his all on “one turn of pitch-and-toss” and never says a word about his loss has guts.

Grit implies both courage and perseverance. These four lines of “If—” might serve as a textbook definition of this word: 

“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!’”

We all admire grit in a man, from the explorer trudging into the Arctic wastelands to the young father working two jobs to bring food to the table for his wife and three small children. 

Nobility

Some friends my age complain about today’s young men, accusing them of being “snowflakes”: easily offended, too fragile to endure adversity, too weak to grapple with hard times.

Probably some such males exist.

But I know plenty of young men who don’t fit this category. Let me close by introducing you to one of them.

Sam, his wife, and two daughters, ages 4 and 2, recently moved into the house across the street. We have some friends in common, and they’ve twice invited me to their home for a meal. As a result, I have gotten to know Sam reasonably well.

Sam is in his early 30s, and works as an independent contractor and builder. He’s out of the house before dawn and returns around suppertime. Often in the evenings, I hear him hammering and sawing in the garage that serves as his workshop. On both of my visits, he looked exhausted, red-eyed, his fatigue audible in his voice. Yet never once have I heard him complain about the work he has chosen.

He’s the perfect example of a man who has filled “the unforgiving minute/With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run.”

So there are noble men among us. And if we want more of them, we should not only have our young men digest poems like Kipling’s “If—,” we must also show them by our own words and deeds how to live out those virtues.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.