Friday, October 11, 2013

The Biggest Small Word in the English Language: If

Two of my favorite poems begin with the biggest small word in the English language: If. Any dream can be shaped into reality, any goal can be achieved--if a person is focused, determined and relentless.

E.E. Cummings' "if up's the word" opens with this upbeat stanza:

if up's the word;and a world grows greener
minute by second and most by more-
if death is the loser and life is the winner
(and beggars are rich but misers are poor)
-let's touch the sky:
with a to and a fro
(and a here there where)and away we go

Those carefree words exhort the reader to believe that "up's the word," that the world is growing greener (becoming rich with life) and that all of us can "touch the sky" (reach our own personal heaven, either in a spiritual sense or by achieving our secular goals) regardless of our financial status.

Rudyard Kipling's "If" challenges the reader to brace himself against the harshness of a cold, unforgiving world; the first stanza sets the tone:

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

Two lines from Kipling's poem resonate so deeply that they are posted prominently above the players' entrance to Wimbledon's hallowed Centre Court:

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same

Cummings' poem seems to articulate a generalized life philosophy but, though that may also appear to be true of Kipling's "If," a specific incident inspired Kipling's verse. Dr. Leander Starr Jameson, with the full but covert support of the British government, led an 1896 raid into Dutch-controlled Transvaal with the goal of inspiring the British citizens there to overthrow the Boer regime. The raid failed and the British government abandoned Jameson, who was sentenced to 15 months in jail by the British authorities for supposedly acting against the country's wishes (Jameson was pardoned a few months after the trial and thus did not serve the full term). Jameson never publicly discussed how the British government betrayed him, earning Kipling's praise in these memorable lines:

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

That is exactly what Jameson did; after being released from jail, he became Prime Minister of the Cape Colony in South Africa, serving in that role from 1904-1908. He later acted as the leader of the Unionist Party in South Africa from 1910-12.

Kipling's poem concludes with this coda:

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!

Life is filled with challenges and each of our lives are populated by people who disappoint us in word and deed, so it is important to remember that Only Thoughts and Actions Can be Controlled, Not Outcomes: Triumph and Disaster are indeed imposters and all that matters is to follow Kipling's advice to not waste one second of each "unforgiving minute."

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