I was first introduced to the words of Rudyard Kipling when I was around twelve years old. The location was Camp Parsons, a Boy Scout summer camp on the shores of Hood Canal in Washington State. An excerpt from Kipling's poem "The Explorer" is carved in a large, wooden plaque, which has remained prominently displayed in the Dining Hall for nearly as long as the camp has been in existence. The words are as follows:
Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges—
Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!
I have mentioned in previous blog entries that I worked at Camp Parsons for six summers, but I have yet to mention Kipling's poem. On the lighter side, we used to joke that the "something lost behind the Ranges" referred to a stranded oven-mitt stuck behind the stove in the kitchen...but in all seriousness we knew the words meant something more. And the more time we spent on staff, the deeper the words became. To me, the words spoke of self reflection and soul searching—to find oneself and pursue a confident and successful future, whatever that may be. There were a few times that I memorized and recited the poem in its entirety (all seventy-two lines) in front of the camp for Campfire. Each time it felt amazing, but I'll be the first to admit that some performances went better than others.
"The Explorer" was not the only popular Kipling poem amongst the staff. Kipling also wrote "If—". And the words of "If—" still resonate with me today just as the day I first heard them.
The poem reads as follows:
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!
Kipling's "If—" was written from the perspective of a parent talking with their child, giving them advice on how to behave and become a mature and outstanding person. The words bounce between contradictory examples, which strive to describe the ideal being. The poem was written for Kipling's son, John, but inspired by a friend of Kipling's, Leander Starr Jameson.
Jameson's story is a complicated one and I really cannot do it justice in only a few lines. It has to do with South Africa when it was still only colonies and all the political struggle and battles that came with it. Jameson essentially lost everything, yet found a way to pick up the pieces of his life, put them back together, and move forward. Feel free to click here to learn more.
Every once in a while you hear the words of "If—" mentioned in pop culture. Recently my wife and I heard the line, "If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same..." in a miniseries we were watching. Hearing the poem referenced, I was reminded of the late Dennis Hopper, who in the 1979 film Apocalypse Now said that if is the word in the middle of life. And then with that memory I was reminded of the time he said something similar on the Johnny Cash show years earlier before reciting Kipling's poem (see below).
If—you want to be moved, click on the embedded video. It is my favorite recited version of Kipling's poem. Mr. Hopper goes a bit freestyle with the words and actually drops one of the lines, but regardless, it pulls me in the most of all the renditions I have ever heard.
Mr. Hopper takes me back to the first time "If—" was spoken to me. I can think of so many examples in my life where I have tried to follow the guidance laid out in this poem. I would like to believe I have done pretty well. But in everything, there is always room to grow.