One Word: Rudyard Kipling’s “If —”

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Could Rudyard Kipling’s “If—” perhaps be the longest English poem ever written about a single one-syllable word?

Before discussing this, let me confess: Yes, I know how strange a question like this must make me seem, to my beloved readers!

Who frets about stuff like this, anyway?


The question isn’t important. But like lots of unimportant questions, it interests me. There are plenty of long poems with long titles, and short poems with short titles. I’ve even seen poems with titles considerably longer than the poem itself. (And many poems don’t have titles.)

Certainly there are long poems with much higher ratios of poem length to title length. Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queene has around 36,000 lines, and I’ve heard nothing to suggest that that’s the longest English poem.

Going beyond English, the Mahabharat (in Sanskrit), with around 220,000 lines, may be the world’s longest poem. It was written in 18 sections, by several authors, from 900 to 500.

All I’m saying about Kipling’s “If—” is that I’m unaware of any other poem that long, with a title that short. That has to count for something! (I’m counting this, by the way, as a two-letter title, disregarding the punctuation dash.)

Kipling wrote the poem in 1895 and published it in 1910, in a collection of his prose and poetry called Rewards and Fairies. He explains that it was inspired by the military exploits of Leander Starr Jameson.

The poem takes the form of advice to the poet’s son, John. It has four verses of eight lines each, for a total of 36 lines – 291 words in all.

You’ve all read and heard the poem. It’s the one that starts out:

“If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you”…

and ends:

“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.”

“If—” has spawned lots of parodies. I’ve chuckled many times at a poster that reads: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs – maybe you don’t understand the seriousness of the situation!”

Kipling’s “If—” isn’t the only poem with that title. There’s also the song “If” by the Sixties soft-rock group Bread. A song is – or can be – a poem. At least the lyrics can.

The Bread song/poem is less than half as long as Kipling’s poem. It has its own features of interest, which I may discuss later.

I haven’t checked to see whether there are any novels or short stories titled “If”. But how could there not be?

At one time, there was a science fiction pulp magazine titled “If”.

It’s an open-ended word, pregnant with possibilities and rife with uncertainty. This makes it extremely versatile.

Can anyone think of a poem with a one-letter title?

(This article is part of my series on words that are #worth1000pictures.)

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